SITE131 opens Winter, January 11 ~ March 21, 2020, with WHOLE CLOTH and its artists: Wu Jian’an from China surprises us with his water buffalo hides; New York duo Material Lust combines wood, resin and latex; and new to Texas, Brian Scott Campbell uses flashe vinyl paint to create idyllic scenes. The three artists address the concept of a solid piece of fabric, telling the story of hard work and a kind heart that will engage the new-year audience. Slide Slide Slide Essay2 Ben Lima, editor of Athenaeum Review (athenaeumreview.org), UTD journal of arts and ideas, and a Dallas-based art historian WHOLE CLOTH So much of modern and contemporary art has been characterized by the challenge of how to respond to ever more sophisticated and automated methods of mechanical, and now electronic, production. Should an artist hold fast to venerable artisanal and craft traditions of handmade work, valuing the unique skills of a highly trained hand? Or conversely, should one embrace the automatic and machine-made, relying on conceptual and aesthetic judgments to define the specificity of one’s production? Although the artists in WHOLE CLOTH all employ traditional media in their work (i.e. canvas, wood, or cotton), they each take a different strategy in negotiating the boundary between the natural and the artificial. Each of the three artists sheds light on a different aspect of the idea of ‘whole cloth’: the solid piece of fabric that tells the story of hard work, dedication, and a compassionate heart.

Wu Jian’an’s enormous Masks are made from buffalo hide, painted with baking varnish and acrylic. In using the whole animal hide, the artist is creating a work out of whole cloth. Although these works originate in a different cultural context, seen here in the context of the American Southwest, they perhaps recall the legendary herds of buffalo that roamed the Great Plains, stretching across the horizon, and even more so, the use of buffalo hides as a medium of craft and exchange, first by Native Americans and then by U.S. settlers moving westward. Similarly, Wu Jian’an’s artwork may suggest something of the mythic and totemic qualities of the buffalo as a great prize for big game hunters, in common with those of great animals across all cultures (lions, tigers, bears). Formed into masks, the hides suggest the way that hunters have always revered such animals for their strength and courage.

However, Wu Jian’an’s use of baking varnish and his color palette, sharply distinguish these artworks from the traditional and mythic contexts described above. The bright and artificial colors in Mask — Purple Jade, Mask — Wisteria Yellow, and Mask — Violet Red (all from 2018) are more closely associated with modern urban pop culture, while the torn, ragged edges of the material suggests rock-and-roll or biker fashion, a powerful, raw intensity. The artist duo, Material Lust, employ the ‘whole cloth,’ stretching their material across frames and turning their raw material into designed sculptures. The familiar, yet unsettling, quality of Material Lust’s work is aptly captured by Sigmund Freud’s concept of the unheimlich (literally “unhomely”), usually translated
WHOLE CLOTH as uncanny. One source of this quality is the artists’ use of latex, in ML 19007 and ML 19008 (2019). Stretched tightly across the frame with the excess hanging limply around the margins, the latex stangely recalls human skin (as the same material famously did in the first Post-Minimalist works of Eva Hesse) — organic yet inert, smooth yet cadaverous. Pressing up against the taut surfaces of both these works, are unidentifiable protuberances that give a sense of something trapped or restrained underneath.

Brian Scott Campbell’s use of the flashe vinyl paint medium, essentially drawing with paint, addresses the surface as a ‘whole cloth.’ In Campbell’s works, there is a constructive contrast between the idyllic, natural settings depicted and the schematic, geometrical style of drawing. In some of the works, such as Wheel and Breakfast (both 2019), the trees are defined by thick black outlines, painted with an ingenuous spontaneity that recalls Keith Haring’s adaptations of comic style; and the landscape itself is rendered in a simplified, schematic form that gives the scenes a fictional or imaginary quality. Other paintings, such as Turning In and Two Horses (2019), have tall trees, close in front on both the left and the right, tightly framing the center of the picture, which recedes into the distance. The resulting effect is like looking out a window. Meanwhile, Turning In and For Robert (also 2019) both center a broad, concentrated expanse of dark gray-blue water in a geometrically simplified and regular composition and an almost a hieroglyphic sense of flatness and order.

The diverse works in WHOLE CLOTH explore an astounding range of themes and references. Yet, whether in the form of landscape painting, buffalo hide masks, or hybrid art-design objects, the heart and soul of the artists come through in each piece. The mastery and dedication of the artists is communicated in their individual works and in the exhibition as a whole: the integrity and authenticity of the ‘whole cloth.’