Fiber Art Comes Off the Wall

Raechel Cook

Enter into Cynthia Schira’s latest work, titled EYTEMON, and you will find yourself surrounded with monumental Jacquard weavings and other textile-related goodness. This is Schira’s first venture in into exhibiting her weavings in space and creating a site-specific installation.  Several long white and black woven panels hang vertically from the ceiling and nearly touch the floor. Sheer printed fabric are intersperse with the woven forms. Large weavings line the gallery walls featuring written text about cloth and abstracted imagery of objects from the Spencer Museum of Art’s permanent collection. The room is divided in to three sections, making, showing, and saving, revealing the life cycle of an art objects destined for the museum.

Fiber artists began to move works off of the wall and into space by the 1950s, at the same time that artists working in other traditionally two-dimensional forms like photography and painting were exploring the role of literal space in the exhibition of their mediums. This investigation of the third dimension became necessary as artists saw the demarcations between art and everyday life disappearing in the second half of the 20th century. Assemblage and the use of non-traditional materials in artwork became prevalent. There was a departure from artwork depicting a single fixed view point to an emphasis on multiple perspectives.  The viewer came to play a more active role in the art work itself.

The idea of an amplified art experience in museum and gallery spaces was formally introduced by exhibition designer Herbert Bayer in 1937 and in a sense foreshadows what we now call “installation art.”  In his book Fundamentals of Exhibition Design, Bayer proposed that displaying an object in a museum in a “symmetrical and axial” fashion was no longer enough.  Exhibition design needed to account for the viewer’s entire field of vision, which includes the ceiling and floor.  Furthermore, an exhibition should create an overall experience for the viewer. The result would be an assemblage that included the artwork itself, plus lighting, architecture of the gallery, diagrams, text and proper font, advertisement, educational programming, etc. Bayer writes: “ the theme [of the exhibition] should not retain its distance from the spectator, it should be brought close to him, penetrate and leave an impression on him, should explain, demonstrate, and even pursued and lead him to a planned and direct reaction.”  Radical at the time of its inception, Bayer’s philosophy is an early signal indicating the shifting relationship between the viewer, the work of art, space, and the “outside world.”

Raechel Cook studies art at the University of Kansas

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