Woman Of The Cloth
Textile artist Mary Balzer Buskirk weaves the sublime into the everyday fabric of life.
Thursday, July 12, 2001
Innovators and children both know that any material can be manipulated to express an idea. Yet too often, people are taught to resist the notion that art might possibly reside in everyday places and things: a garden, a tapestry, a basket, a cake. Perhaps it is the element of functionality in these creations that has led our culture to prize sculptures and paintings above forms of art that are rooted in usefulness. It''s as if "real" art needed to exist in some kind of rarefied artistic space, far from the grubby give-and-take of life that a rug or a teapot might recall.
An elegant retrospective of the woven art of Mary Balzer Buskirk at the Monterey Museum of Art shows the error in this kind of thinking. Buskirk, who moved to Monterey from the Midwest in 1960, is a pioneering fiber artist whose wide-ranging body of work testifies to an abiding passion for the world of shape, color and texture. This exhibit also offers a chance to see the evolution of a unique art form during a highly creative period in its development.
An early untitled work from 1957 made of wool and linen sets the tone for many of Buskirk''s later weavings. Dark brown spidery cracks lace across a lighter, almost transparent background; the patterns are abstract yet also reveal a truth about natural processes, about the way things in nature break apart and come together with the seasons.
There are several larger landscape weavings, but perhaps the gem of them all is "Study #1 for Prairie Sketchbook (Immortal Prairie)" (1988-97). A dark brown weave, evocative of the rich loamy earth of the Midwest, fills the small study. Thin bands of cultivated green and sky hover from above, while below ground the vertical movement of the fabric depicts an earth that is forever both pushing life up and pulling it back down.
In the 1960s and ''70s artists working with fabrics, like those using other media, experimented with new techniques and styles that were often looser and more expansive than what came before. Some of Buskirk''s more sculptural work, such as "Water Falling Peace" (1975), is from this period. Yet in spite of the innovative form of the work, a keen awareness of movement--here, the stops and flows of water and stone--still prevails.
During this period of experimentation, fabric art moved away from the dense textures of traditional tapestries and shawls. An untitled work from 1960 from the collection of the Oakland Museum of California features colored circles looped together to form bands, which are connected to each other by slender fibrous strands. The mood of delicate fragility in this piece is almost melancholy, as if to express the tenuousness of things and the ease of breaking away and being separate and alone.
One of the most compelling pieces is Buskirk''s "Roots...Ridges... Riverbank" (1969), a fascinating three- dimensional work that evokes with wool, silk and horsehair the common shapes that thread throughout our perception of nature. In bas-relief format, a riverbank exposes roots that twist down to the knotty core of the warp, its shape suggestive of the horsetail with which the artist constructed her vision. With its vast storytelling potential, this piece from the collection of the San Diego Museum of Art would be an excellent starting point for children visiting the exhibit.
In the exhibition''s attractive catalogue (softcover, $25), Martha Buskirk, Mary Buskirk''s art historian daughter, discusses how her mother''s art has been influenced by her exposure to various types of art and artistry. Yet what has remained constant is a commitment to the art of weaving at a loom, drawing from all the forms and colors that nature and Buskirk''s own imagination provide. A signature work, entitled, appropriately enough, "Signature" (1984), offers full evidence of Buskirk''s mastery. The images of snow, mountain and field alternate shades of purple, black, white, grey and tan, but what is most striking is the woven sky, which somehow borrows from all these colors to create its own color, elusive and yet somehow true. The sure hand of the artist allows us to witness unseen currents in the sky, revealing the dimensionality of air. Neither painting nor sculpture, this weaving enacts a scene from nature with both clarity and a nod to the otherworldly quality of dreams.
Throughout the history of cultures, weaving has often been linked to storytelling; we speak of following the thread of a plot. Buskirk turns to this heritage in several new works, such as "Mnemonic Knots" (1994), in which words and letters are painted onto fabric, not so much to be read as to recall the experience of reading--and listening--to the ever-changing flow of human language.
The exhibit''s most recent works, the tautly handsome "Hidden in Plain Sight" and "Le Cirque," are almost minimalist, as if to affirm, as simply and directly as possible, that the beauty of fabric art lies in the weave itself--in life''s eternal interlace of shape, color and texture.
"The Fabric of Experience: The Woven Art of Mary Balzer Buskirk" shows at the Monterey Museum of Art, 559 Pacific, through Sept. 2. Admission to the museum is free to members and $5 to non-members. Children under 12 are free when accompanied by an adult. Hours: Wed-Sat 11am-5pm, Sun 1-4pm. Open to 8pm the third Thursday of each month. Call 372-5477 or visit www.montereyart.org for more information.