“Context: Language, Media and Meaning,” a juried exhibition at the Fuller Craft Museum, showcases 30 works predominantly of fiber, handmade paper and textile from members of the Surface Design Association’s southern New England chapters. Each material work incorporates or refers to language. The phrase “Surface Design” refers to a self-selected group of artists sharing certain materials and practices, who borrow and challenge craft traditions while transcending disciplinary boundaries. Their engagement with language reflects curiosity and willingness to critique signifying structures, concern for contemporary politics and consciousness of feminist issues in changing times, often all in a single piece.
The works are multivalent: their words alone don’t impart the full blast but add urgency, agency and irony to contemporary iterations of traditional forms and methods. We hear words addressed outwardly or revealing an inner monologue. They may be used to pinpoint one’s fears, ground an identity or expand a community. We hear them commanding, beseeching, even hurling accusation and insult. The language may nestle naturally in the work or stand outside and label it. It may offer to teach or comfort us. Without words, we would be hard put to critique, preserve or transmit our cultural values. All these purposes and justifications are present.
Liz Alpert Fay’s “Tell the Truth!,” a distinctive target of red and white rings encircling a dark blue splat, recalls Jasper Johns’ well-known encaustic Flags and Targets. Alpert’s homey target is a nubby micro-looped rug, set off from the wall in its square, white canvas backing. A single word at the bulls-eye protests the degradation of language in the current political climate. The tiny word “Truth” emerges like a Phoenix, golden and glowing, as if having barely survived the implied narrative of deliberate attack.
Antoinette Winters’ wall installation, “Either And Or,” is a roiling archipelago of crocheted doilies dyed deep-pink and interspersed with white medallions of the same size. The panels are painted with lacy abstractions and decorative warnings: “If you see something say something;” “Watch the skies;” “It’s come undone.” The catchy repetition of typical 21st century anxieties creeps slyly under our skin. At the same time, the florid and extravagant patterns create a powerful dynamic of compression and impingement, further burdened with associations of domestic space, interiority and intimacy. Possibly an exploration of feminine ambivalence, the work’s inner power is somewhat brushed aside by the sizzle of a royal blue wall against the hot serrated edges of Winters’ doilies. Other works may withstand this pressure, but Winters’ claims deserve a neutral ground.