Familiar Faces

January 18-March 2, 2008
Curated by Sonya Y.S. Clark

Lia Cook, Kim Kamens, Devorah Sperber, Na-Jung Kim, and Xiang Yang

Portrait artists use a discerning eye and skilled hand to deconstruct and represent the face. The slightest distinction in the spacing of the eyes or the curve of the jaw line distinguishes stranger from friend.

Recognition is at the heart of Familiar Faces.  The exhibit brings together the work of five national and international artists who capitalize on two truths: 1) we are innately wired to identify faces and 2) we are constantly in contact with cloth. As you are reading these words, it is almost certain that you are touching cloth.  Maybe you are not holding it in your hands, but cloth is touching you.  Our haptic relationship with textiles constitutes a sensory language in which we are so fluent, its underlying structure is invisible.  These five artists, by contrast, see the structure of cloth in the same way that a linguist perceives language. Lia Cook, Kim Kamens, Na-Jung Kim, Devorah Sperber, and Xian Yang construct, deconstruct, and embellish cloth with variations of common textile techniques. The work is as familiar as two eyes a nose and a mouth, the techniques as subtle as the differences between identical twins.

Just how much information does it take to recognize a face?  Two dots on a shape and the shape is anthropomorphized. A small cluster of nerve cells, the fusiform gyrus, helps us discern differences between faces, yet it is almost impossible to assign words to those differences.  Here’s where the artists step in. Sperber bases her work on “Leon Harmon of Bell Labs in 1973. His early pixilated image was included in an article for Scientific American in November 1973, titled ‘The Recognition of Faces’ as a demonstration of the minimum conditions needed to recognize a face.”[1] Drawing from the most recognizable portraits in Western Art history, Sperber explores our ability to process facial recognition.  Xian’s work uses the famous faces with which we are bombarded in the media, those we may never have seen in person but instantly recognize. While Cook uses images of her own friends and family, the intimacy of her photorealist weavings makes them seem reminiscent of our loved ones.

Cloth, loosely defined, is a structure made from an organization of fibers. Cook, Kamens, and Sperber construct cloth in their portraits.  Cook creates her weavings, Big Tera and In the Maze, by using the intersection of black and white threads at right angles as pixels—a natural link, given the historical connection between contemporary computer technology and the jacquard loom. Unspooled miles of black sewing thread become the drawing material for Kamens. She builds her structure with a thread and nail technique reminiscent of string ship drawings of the 1970s with resonant connections to the intricacies of European bobbin lace. Unlike Kamens and Cook, whose monochromatic threads are removed from their bobbins to create structure, Sperber uses a vast array of colors and keeps her threads and spools intact.  In After Rembrandt and After The Mona Lisa 1, Sperber threads the spools like a beaded curtain.  Pixilation is evoked again but with blocks of color rather than Cook’s intersecting strands.  Simultaneously, the work recalls the grid-like structure of woven cloth and Chuck Close’s portraits.

Na-Jung Kim’s Physiognomy and Xian Yang’s Newsreel employ deconstruction of cloth. In Newsreel, instead of using multiple fibers to create cloth and image, Xian compiles multiple facial images on each strand. Xian uses the thread as a metaphor for the connection in Red Desire.  Any critic of fine embroidery will look closely at the face of an embellished cloth and instinctively turn the cloth over to assess the skill of the maker by investigating the underside.  Here, there is no underside. Red Desire stretches the space between the top stitch and the understitch to create meaning. Kim is a deconstructionist-embroiderer in her work, Physiognomy.  Usually embroidery enriches the structure of a cloth. Here, Kim uses a lit incense stick to lance diaphanous silk organza with burn holes. The result is a fragile, stippled surface. It is the piercing action of the needle, not the trail of thread, that becomes meaningful in her revisioned embroidery.  Physiognomy evokes more than process. The lingering essence of incense mingled with the charred scent of burned silk makes it the most sensorial of the works in Familiar Faces. The piece’s mystic quality is further informed by the ghostlike diaphanous white silk.

Sonya Y. S. Clark, 2007

Image: Kim Kamens, Ken; nails and string, 5 x 7 feet. Courtesy of the artist and Snyderman Gallery.