Fiber Arts Shine as Public Art

12/17/2012 03:36 pm ET | Updated Feb 16, 2013

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Making things out of yarn used to be the realm of grannies, but fiber arts have evolved in the past few decades into a cutting-edge discipline. Before I dedicated myself to painting in the mid-90s, I fancied myself a fiber artist and spent my evenings making ribald embroidery. Fiber arts had feminist edge and folksy homespun potential that suited my drive to make intensely personal art, but ultimately I found it too easy to slide into a realm of sentimental irony, especially when making small-scale works.

Fast forward to 2008, and I'm painting on deadline for a show. It's a portrait of disgruntled housewife par-exellence Alice B. Toklas, and I'm adding the perfect home accessory to the table top beneath her elbow -- a lacy doily. If you haven't tried it, painting any form of lace closely from life is mind bending. Your eye follows twisting threads as they create intricate geometries while your paintbrush makes tangles of paint. The creator of my doily, my great grandmother, had the innate math skills to make it without using a pattern, but I could hardly match her precision while looking straight at it. This is how I learned what mathematicians already knew: crochet is smart art.

Crochet and knitting are at their strongest when they eschew their feminine wiles, divorce themselves from their domestic past, and get Ph.D's in Science. In 1997, mathematician Daina Taimina astonished skeptics of non-Euclidean geometry by creating the first visual model of the hyperbolic plane using crochet. Hyperbolic space, known in theory only for two centuries, is an aberrant kind of geometry in which lines can cavort wildly and still remain parallel, and crochet is the best -- and only -- way to model it perfectly.

Ironically, the generations of male mathematicians who failed to comprehend the hyperbolic plane visually were missing nearly perfect hyperbolic surfaces right in front of them on their dinner plates in the form of crenellated lettuces. If they had played with their food to physically think through their mathematical ideas, they would have been better at high-level abstract thinking. The crocheted hyperbolic plane is science married equally with art, even perhaps a case of science taking from art (it's usually the other way around). Crochet, queen of feminine arts, might one day consent to visit the domestic realm again -- if her husband promises to do his share of the chores.

This breakthrough in the understanding of hyperbolic space inspired sisters Margaret and Christine Wertheim of the non-profit Institute For Figuring to instigate one of the most beloved ongoing community art projects of all time, the hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef. Thousands of activist knitters around the world fashion wooly kelps, sponges, nudibranch mollusks and corals, all of which manifest frilly hyperbolic anatomy. These yarn sculptures are brought together to make entire reefs in various states of health or decay, engaging the public in the science of the ecological crisis caused by global warming. Some people have yet to learn about the fragility of reefs -- you can spot eco-tourists walking on them in Hawaii.

Fiber arts may have sprung from the domestic realm, but their success at the cutting edge of public art depends in part on removing overt sentimentality and obscure personal references. One artist at the forefront is Janet Echelman, who began as a painter and then later turned to making sculptures from local fishing nets as a Fulbright Scholar in India. Her first attempt at large-format net sculpture was an abstract self-portrait called "Wide Hips," a jarring concept in that it was made in a touted collaboration with somewhat slender local fishermen. She moved on to work with lace makers in Lithuania to design net sculptures based on lace patterns that referenced her love of feminine handicraft traditions, though this work also barely foreshadowed her art's high tech destiny.

When Echelman was commissioned to make her first permanent public sculpture for the waterfront of Porto, Portugal, she found it discomfiting that her art's billowing, nurturing quality might be lost when made of more durable fibers. No computer software existed to model something porous and moving, and no language yet existed to translate the ancient technology of net-making into something machines could reproduce. Echelman wanted her net to move voluptuously in ordinary breezes while being hurricane-proof and UV-resistant. An aeronautical engineer came to her aid, helping her to create the first monumental sculpture to incorporate fluid movement. She Changes (2005) is a colorful 160-ft high net fixed to a metal ring spanning 300 feet over a three-lane highway.

It feels trivial to parse the title of a work of art, but it's a relevant clue to the artist's intentions and it affects how a work of art functions within a given context. She Changes, with its gender-specific pronoun, is too narrow and pointed for a colossal abstract sculpture ostensibly made to intimately engage all comers, including those who just happen to be driving by. The title is too literal in its simplistic-seeming feminism, and it pushes my eye to interpret the sculpture as a pair of overgrown fishnet stockings strung up to look like a contraceptive diaphragm. She Changes is a ravishing work of public art, and it's heartening that perhaps no title can do it justice: the physics and chemistry of this sculpture are its ultimate meaning. Echelman could step back into the same anonymity as the fisherman who made her first nets- and you could strip this work of its status as art- and you would still have a profound idea-object moving with the wind.

Public art, at its very best, gives you a participant experience that pulls your attention both inward and outward, engaging you personally while connecting you to the great wonder of the universe. More than beautiful, public art should be sublime, dizzying you like the vast reaches of intergalactic space or the microscopically vertiginous spirals of our DNA. Scientists, engineers and techies of every stripe might be our next great artists as the definitions of art expand beyond personal self-expression and historical-cultural context to include the highest level of abstract concepts. Fibers, manmade and natural, are useful tools and the kitsch now endemic in fiber art will become optional.

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