By RACHEL ROSENFIELD LAFO
In the 1970s and 1980s, fiber arts—weaving, textiles, tapestry, embroidery, knitting, crocheting, sewing, quilting, etc.—along with other “craft” media such as ceramics, glass, and wood—were usually classified as a separate category of art and were shown primarily in craft and design museums. As a result, artists who worked exclusively in fiber, such as Lenore Tawney, Claire Zeisler, and Sheila Hicks were often excluded from the critical discourse within the “mainstream” contemporary art world.
There were notable exceptions to this exclusion. Artists such as Faith Ringgold, Magdalena Abakanowicz, and Alan Shields, among others, despite their embrace of fiber as an artistic material, achieved critical attention and inclusion in “fine art” exhibitions during those decades. By the 1990s, however, the wall that separated “art” from “craft” had begun to crumble. By the time the Whitney Museum of American Art exhibited The Quilts of Gee’s Bend in 2002, the show’s critical success and popularity further erased any remaining boundaries. Today there has been a dramatic increase in the number of artists working either exclusively in fiber or incorporating it into their work in other media.
One such artist is Seattle-based Ko Kirk Yamahira whose exhibition Fractions is on view at Russo Lee Gallery through February 1. A self-taught artist who moved to Seattle from New York City in 2015, he is a founder of the artist collective Art Beasties and a member of the Seattle collective SOIL. His elegant, reductive, and tactile artworks hover somewhere between paintings, fiber art, and sculptural installation and reflect modernist principles in their emphasis on materials, techniques, and processes.
During a recent gallery talk the artist described his works as paintings while acknowledging that they could also be considered drawings or sculptures. Yet they also present as fiber art, due to the artist’s unusual technique of deconstructing the canvas support into individual strands of fiber. Ultimately what is important is not how we categorize Yamahira’s artworks but how we perceive them. As the artist Alan Shields once said in an interview about his own hybrid artworks, “It doesn’t really matter what you call them. It’s the experience you’re looking for.”
Yamahira begins by applying a coat of acrylic paint, graphite or transferring a silkscreen image to the surface of the canvas. Then, with a process that is the obverse of weaving, he deconstructs all or part of the canvas, meticulously and painstakingly removing individual threads from the weave of the canvas using an X-Acto knife, unweaving and exposing the warp (vertical) and weft (horizontal) components, so that the strands of cotton fiber drape loosely or stretch tautly across the wood stretcher bars. He then progressively disrupts the rectangularity of the grid by dividing the canvas into sections, deconstructing all or part of the canvas, hanging panels off kilter on a diagonal, allowing loose fibers to drape towards the floor, projecting part of an artwork off the wall, or suspending one piece from the ceiling.
The artworks are all untitled, distinguished by their formal properties of shape, color, and surface treatment. The viewers are left to deduce their own interpretations. The exhibition title, Fractions, refers to the relational measurements of one part of each painting to another. With the exception of one work that has an image silkscreened on the canvas, the paintings are non-referential and elude specific meaning, focusing attention instead on material and process.
The varied permutations of these conceptually based artworks range from formal, geometrically centered compositions to those with skewed edges and draping fibers. For an off-white square painting hanging over the gallery desk Yamahira unwove the fibers of the canvas, tightly stretching them horizontally and vertically to form a cross with arms of equal length. In another square painting the geometry is relaxed so that the unraveled cotton threads sag organically across the surface, resembling a belly with a slight bulge. There are many variations on this theme, as each artwork assumes a different shape, color, relationship to the wall, and level of surface deconstruction. Motion is both implied and actual – implied by the hanging fibers, tilted panels, and resulting shadows cast on the wall, actual when air currents activate the loosened threads. This sense of motion is notable in a large black-gray painting in which approximately three-quarters of the middle section has been unwoven resulting in a sweeping swoosh of fibers that move from left to right.
The most sculptural piece in the exhibition hangs suspended from the ceiling. Originally a triangular canvas painted pink, it has been completely deconstructed and then folded so that the fibers descend in straight vertical lines from the wood support, causing them to sway gently as visitors pass.
Yamahira poetically alludes to the characteristics of the unwoven fibers in an accompanying wall text:
Vibrations.Ko Kirk Yamahira
They are just purely captivating.
Wavering and trembling.
Continuous, sustained, and momentary.
Sensual and Sensory.
Ripples that are static or dynamic.
Sound and voice.
For Yamahira the meaning of his art comes from the process of making: “There is no specific aim to find a meaning,” he writes on his website, “neither in the creative act itself, nor through the creative process. The totality of the meaning can be found in the continuation of the process.”
The artist begins with small geometric drawings made in his sketchbook. Since the process is more important to him than the final outcome, he is not fixed on a specific configuration for each work. Instead he is open to working with art installers to arrive at the appropriate hanging arrangement for each piece depending on the exhibition space. He also encourages collectors who purchase his artworks to find an installation arrangement that is most to their liking. Adhering to the premise from conceptual art that the artwork isn’t finished until the viewer completes it, he writes: “The moment of Now that exists as the Artist creates their work looks toward the future when it will be encountered by the viewer, at which point that future becomes the Past, producing a sort of index of time in the work.”
Ko Kirk Yamahira’s intriguing painting/sculptural/fiber hybrids defy easy categorization and interpretation. One progresses from wondering how they are made to realizing that for the artist the canvas is not only a support, but a material that can be manipulated like any other. Through a process of deconstruction and reconstruction he transforms flat monochromatic surfaces into areas that are organic and textured. Intellectually and formally satisfying, Yamahira’s artworks retain a sense of mystery and a meditative quality that is deeply engaging.
Fractions by Ko Kirk Yamahira is at Russo Lee Gallery until February 1, 2020. The gallery is located at 805 NW 21st Ave in Portland is open Tuesday through Friday from 11-5:30, Saturday 11-5:00 and by appointment.
Rachel Rosenfield Lafo is an independent curator and arts writer.