I got to Charm & Vinegar at the Bronx Arts Space just before it closed last week. Featuring works of various styles – soft sculptures, embroidery, knit textiles and dolls – by four artists, this exhibit wore it’s title well. Two of the artists were at the gallery, and I was able to talk with them about their work.
Ruth Marshall hails from the state of Victoria in Australia, and even though she’s been living in the Bronx since the 1990’s, the broad vowels of her homeland still pepper her speech. She came to New York to study art at Pratt Institute, after which she made sculptures in steel and resin. But it was her work at the Bronx Zoo that impelled her change to fibre art – as a means of raising awareness of endangered species, and raising knitting from a craft to a fine art. At the Zoo, she worked by the snow leopards, and fell in love with them. Through her job, she had access to the storage areas of the Museum of Natural History, where she could see animal pelts up close. And that’s where she realized she wanted to talk about the animals in her art. Ruth’s mother and aunt taught her how to knit as a child, but she put it aside for a number of years. It was on a trip back to Australia that she took it up again, knitting socks for her family members in an Estonian style, with lots of color and patterns.
Which, in many ways, gave her the skills to make the intricate, detailed stitches needed to render endangered animals in knitted textiles. Starting around 2005, in the back rooms of the Museum, she would make drawings from the specimens, which she used to create a chart she could knit from. Ruth spends about three months on the larger animals. Her attention to detail is striking, and is easy to see in animals with distinct markings or contrasting colors, such as the siberian tiger, or the possum, or the numbat. It really hits you with the animals that are seemingly one color; for example, when you look at the black jaguar from far away, he appears to be made from one shade of black yarn; get closer, and you’ll see she’s used two shades of black, and recreated the rosette patterns found in the jaguar’s fur in nature. Each of her pieces are unique, even though she may do a series of one animal (i.e., 4 ocelots). Ruth has also knit a series of 70 species of coral snakes, whose images she found in a reference book on reptiles.
Cinnamon Willis peopled the room with Melandollies – art dolls that are sad, melancholic… As an only child, Cinnamon would often get dolls, which she noted, were all smiley, happy … not always the way she felt. So Cinnamon decided to create dolls that expressed our other, darker feelings – she also likes horror movies – and around 2010 started making them from paper clay, with wire armature, wild hairdos and hand-made costumes. Some of the dolls are based on actual people – one is based on an Instagram musician. Her emphasis is on the face of her dolls (and busts) – you can really feel their individual personalities.
Also in the show is a larger sculptural piece that Cinnamon created in response to the loss of neighborhood identity which often accompanies gentrification – in an attempt to create a new “identity” for neighborhoods that have seemingly negative connotations, realtors and developers will
propose new names (i.e., the “Piano District” for part of the South Bronx, “Bedwick” where Bushwick and Bedford Stuyvesant meet) or attempt to have cultural markers erased (apparently there was an attempt to have “Ave. of Puerto Rico” removed from some of the “Graham Avenue” street signs in Williamsburg.) I’ll be interested to see how her art develops in this vein.
The show also featured embroideries by Edith Isaac Rose, whose images revolving around war and power are not easy to decipher, but her masterful stitching – wolves and weapons juxtaposed with delicate flowers – creates haunting works.
The Peruvian artist Liliana Avalos Mendoza had several soft sculptures, some incorporating indigenous Peruvian imagery on original silk-screened fabric. Her household appliances were enhanced by her beautiful embroidery.
Even though this show has closed, take a look at the work these artists are doing. I’d also recommend that you get up to see the new work at the Bronx Art Space which showcases emerging and underrepresented artists, and often hosts talks with the artists. Every Saturday through August 13th, they are having spoken word workshops, led by Bobby Gonzalez, that are free and open to the public – ages 14 through senior!