Any exhibition featuring more than one artist challenges its audience to redraw connections that made the grouping attractive to the organizer. Those threads may be aesthetic, conceptual, geographical, process-oriented, topical; and this fabric may be loose or tight.
Interwoven: Sarah Kolar and Brian Wetjen, the current exhibition at the Michael Phipps Gallery at the downtown public library, offers a particularly complimentary coupling of artists. Interwoven is noticeably connected through the artists’ repurposing natural materials and forms into abstracted, repetitive structures that both reflect and transcend their original states. In other words, their work intersects along many lines.
Kolar is essentially a textile artist, known in recent years for her site-responsive installations of large knitted and crocheted forms. Of late, her medium of choice is the ultimate consumer staple: the all-purpose white cotton t-shirt.
Truly the fabric of our lives, the cotton t-shirt embodies a wealth of embedded meaning. Composed of a natural fiber, it references its source in nature. Today its life cycle encompasses of an international chain of commerce and labor as the cotton is grown, processed, spun, woven, constructed, packaged, distributed, and sold. Its narrative then extends to the buyer whose story becomes part of every crease, stain and fray.
Kolar is interested in this fragmentary existence and the way one might construct a new whole from it. She sources old white cotton t-shirts, usually from second-hand stores as well as those donated by followers, as it’s important to the artist that the materials hold a kind of history.
She then “deconstructs” the shirts, shredding them into fabric strips that she fashions into new shapes through the hand-labor of weaving, knitting, crocheting or knotting. Subtle shifts in color become evident as the hues of screened graphics peek through some strands, while others result from differences created by use, laundering, staining and fading.
Three of Kolar’s wall hangings are part of this exhibition. Although she is known for her more immersive sculptural works, the artist responded to the needs of the space for more contained work and found that the dark wall background served to highlight the lacy holes in her textiles.
“Accumulation” is a large, densely layered crocheted piece. The artist explains that its structure echoes that of the original process of knitting a t-shirt, but the effect is more than literal. In fact, the central oval shape takes on the feeling of a face, as if we are seeing a portrait or some sort of framed vignette.
In this work, Kolar does not strive for perfection or regularity, as her technique highlights the variability of the color and condition of the fabric strips as well as an intentionally casual stitch formation.
In contrast are Kolar’s other two wall hangings, “Veil” and “Untitled.” These are made using a braiding technique to create an undulating ripple effect. They relate more closely to traditional textile aesthetics with their even and hypnotic pattern repeats.
“Untitled,” the smaller of the two, benefits from enlivening hints of pink and red from her source t-shirts. Built through the same technique, “Veil” is larger and more complex, as a second layer of waves adds subtle densities to the netlike structure.
Naturally-derived materials and formal repetition are also the foundations for the paintings and sculpture of Wetjen.
His central piece in the exhibition is “Those Who Came Before Us,” an installation of cylindrical peeled wood columns. Their bottoms are cast in concrete, their tops composed of charred rings. They sit in a mound of earth, encircling a tall metal pole embedded in a tree trunk.
At the exhibition opening, Wetjen stacked pieces of ice on this post, allowing the melt to bring life to seeds he selected randomly from the Common Soil Seed Library at OPL. The resulting sprouts, nurtured through part of the show, will be allowed to wither and die, echoing the life cycle of the trees that make up the emblematic forest of his sculpture. It also encapsulates the idea of repetition without permanence that underlies the artist’s conceptual pursuits.
Three suites of charcoal paintings on watercolor paper round out Wetjen’s contributions to the show. Each offers a theme and variations of a sort. “Shell No’s 1-3” feature vertical stacks of overlapping trapezoidal forms. Executed as a kind of formal play with shapes both regular and acute, they also parallel the long-ago melted blocks of ice that kicked off his installation here.
“Substance No’s 1-3” contain octaves of regular oval shapes. Differences between them are subtle, having to do with the density of his medium and the presence or absence of a vertical band at the center of each. Again, they exist independently as exercises in abstract composition as well as reflections of the charred wood rings of the installation. Similarly the last suite, “Soul No’s 1-3”, features concentric rings of circular shapes.
Though these watercolor trios involve compositional explorations specifically related to the show’s sculpture, they are also typical of Wetjen’s work. Charcoal is a preferred medium, which he makes by charring wood and pulverizing it into a powdery pigment.
Each batch is mixed individually and the charcoal particles behave differently in the water suspension, resulting the subtle variations that occur when painted on paper. The works are alternately delicate and bold, and the forms seem to float on the paper’s surface.
Interestingly, they are also reminiscent of aquatints, a type of etching process in which the printing plate is treated with beads of resin, allowing an artist to create the washy manner of watercolor. With Wetjen’s own expertise in printmaking but without a press in his studio, he was able to translate this aesthetic effectively into his painting.
As a whole, Interwoven pleases with Kolar’s and Wetjen’s paralleled approach to naturally derived media, with their inherent implications of time and change, growth and decay, natural state and adapted function. The preference for each toward quiet measure and repetition is balanced, nuanced and playful.
Interwoven: Sarah Kolar and Brian Wetjen runs through June 27 in the Michael Phipps Gallery. It is located on the main floor of the W. Dale Clark Library in downtown Omaha at 215 S. 15th Street. It is free to the public and open during regular library hours.