Art Versus Craft: Selvage at TSU

Jovencio de la Paz

Selvage brings together artists from across the country who push the boundaries of textile-based work. The exhibition opened last Thursday night at Tennessee State University’s Hiram Von Gordon Gallery, and was curated by two notable movers and shakers in the Nashville art scene, Jodi Hays and Laura Hutson. Hays is an artist and former faculty and head curator of TSU’s art galleries. Hutson is the arts editor of the Nashville Scene and oversees Country Life, its arts and culture blog. Selvage features work by Alex Blau, Brandon Donahue, Maggie Haas, Courtney Adair Johnson, Shannon Lucy, Aimee Miller, Jovencio de la Paz, Gabriel Pionkowski, Louis Schmidt and Hays.

Selvage is a fascinating intersection of material, concept, and abstraction. The title is a term referring to the discarded edge of an object – anything from fabric to stamps – and is a curious alteration of two much more familiar words: self and edge. The show varies from manipulations and reappropriations of fabrics and material — as in Courtney Adair Johnson’s and Brandon Donahue’s work — to images that feature no fabric at all, and instead focus on textile and quilting-based concepts like stitching, geometry, and pattern, which we see in the drawings by Louis Schmidt and paintings by Alex Blau and Shannon Lucy.

The show has high points and low points. Aimee Miller’s mixed media pieces and Jovencio de la Paz’s expansive indigo batik are visual candylands, while Maggie Haas’s small birch constructions seem quick-handed and conceptually flat. Another highlight of the show is Gabriel Pionkowski’s deconstructed canvases. In these four untitled works, Pionkowski unweaves, hand-paints, and re-weaves his canvases to create subtle, stunning compositions that bear stretchers and frayed edges. Each work digs deeper into the symbiotic relationship of canvas and paint.

Pionkowski’s work, and the exhibition in general, got me thinking about canvas as a material. Canvas is often misunderstood, taken for granted, or entirely unconsidered. In art school, painting students are hardly informed about the mechanics of their canvases. Terms like warp, weft, thread count, and tacking edge are rarely introduced — the material becomes an invisible foundation upon which their visual world sits.

For the last three years, I’ve worked in an art conservation lab and have come to learn how important and complex the relationship between paint and canvas is. We tend to forget that canvas is an organic, active thing: it dries and rots over time. Centuries old canvas crumbles in your hand. From the moment paint is applied, a slow but sure entropy begins. Pionkowski’s work acknowledges that precarious relationship in a beautiful and innovative way, while stretching the notion of what a painting on canvas can look like.

As a whole, Selvage subverts the notion that textile-based artwork is forever relegated to the world of domestic arts and crafts, folk art or whatever else isn’t considered high art (a term that makes me shudder). Here, Hays and Hutson are pointing out that textile art and works based on the formal qualities of pattern or material have the potential to carry important conceptual and metaphorical weight. And with Selvage it’s a point that’s very well made.

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About Sara Estes

Sara Estes is a writer and curator based in Nashville, Tennessee. She is the gallery coordinator for the Carl Van Vechten and Aaron Douglas Galleries at Fisk University, working closely with The Alfred Stieglitz Collection of European and American Modern Art. She is also the assistant and apprentice to renowned paintings conservator Cynthia Stow of Cumberland Art Conservation. Estes is the co-founder and curator of the Nashville-based contemporary exhibition space, Threesquared. Her writing and art criticism has been featured in numerous local and national publications including BURNAWAY, Number, The Nashville Scene, Nashville Arts Magazine, and ArtNow.

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