Playing subversively with fabric Susie Brandt "Rummages" around at Design Center.

Posted: February 15, 2008

Susie Brandt, whose adventurous, pop culture-inspired textile pieces make up her mini-retrospective "Rummage," at the Design Center at Philadelphia University, has to be one of Baltimore's most fabulous 20th-century exports since John Waters.

Brandt and the filmmaker share similar sensibilities: She creates her quilts of found fabrics with an affection for, and humorous view of, the periods she evokes, which cover the late '50s through the early '80s. Her work is as subversive as any textile art I've ever seen, but playfully so. And she celebrates those lowbrow artifacts that the rest of us would rather sweep under the carpet.

One Brandt quilt, titled simply Barb (which took seven years, 1993 to 2000, to complete), is composed entirely of original Barbie-doll outfits, all stuffed and hand-stitched together by the artist.

Remember Working Girl? There are enough shoulder pads in Brandt's quilt Pad (1998-99) to have filled every one of Melanie Griffith's outfits. As hand-stitched together by Brandt into swooping patterns reminiscent of Eero Saarinen's TWA terminal, these exposed fashion dinosaurs have been given a fresh, entirely unexpected identity. You realize, immediately, that shoulder pads and great architecture have something in common.

Brandt's most recent works, Dam (2008) and Knees (2008), are the first of her works to reference the contemporary-art installation. The former, an obsessively made arrangement of folded pieces of found fabric that runs vertically from the ceiling down through a fireplace (the Design Center, which is in Goldie Paley's former home, has a few of these), is an installation on the order of David Hammons, Tony Feher or Mike Kelley. The latter, a creepy multitude of Kleenex-stuffed flesh-colored nylon stockings that Brandt has jammed inside another fireplace, brings Louise Bourgeois to mind.

The exhibition is also an opportunity to see Brandt's selections of artifacts from the Design Center's extensive collection, which underscore her own interests and sources as a textile designer and are displayed in close proximity to her own related artworks. These parallels include, among others, an entire rack of Arnold Scaasi cocktail dresses from the '80s across from Barb, and early silk and nylon stockings, a silk brassiere from the 1920s, and vintage hosiery color cards within close range of Pad and Knees.

Waters would get a chuckle.

Design Center at Philadelphia University, 4200 Henry Ave., 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, weekends by appointment. 215-951-2860 or www.PhilaU.edu/designcenter. Through April 6.

Two, too different

After three visits to Wexler Gallery, I'm still not persuaded that the artists in its current two-person show, painter Chuck Close and furniture designer Wendell Castle (whom this preeminent glass, ceramics and furniture art gallery represents), have a whit in common besides being household names. But the idea of pairing artists of different disciplines is always an appealing one, and this particular show is interesting because it brings together strong, highly individual work by two artists of approximately the same age (Castle, born in 1932, has eight years on Close) who have reached the peaks of their respective fields.

Close is represented by a selection of his prints from 1986 to 2004, among them color silkscreens, relief etchings, direct-gravure etchings, and color woodcuts. They depict large-scale portraits of artists and of his wife, Leslie, based on photographs and composed of many small markings (including his own fingertip impressions), a style of working he explored in prints before his devastating paralysis in 1988, and then later proceeded to emulate in his paintings during his partial recovery.

Familiar as it is now, Close's technique, and his range of diversity within it, is still astonishing.

Castle's art furniture contributions are more recent than Close's prints, dating from 2006 and 2007. They veer from his tasteful stained walnut, almost African-looking works of 2006 to funky, surrealist-influenced fiberglass pieces with sprayed iridescent car paint or gilded finishes. Castle, who worked with plastic and fiberglass in the '60s and early '70s, has returned to his roots - and probably with good reason, since his early, cartoony lights and furniture pieces apparently are so sought after these days that they were recently reissued in limited editions.

As a friend reminded me, Castle and Close are both showing limited-edition works in this show. OK. But I think that this Castle revival would go better with the cartoon-influenced paintings of the late Elizabeth Murray, and that Close would make a more logical connection with Dale Chihuly's Macchia series.

Wexler Gallery, 201 N. Third St., 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. 215-923-7030 or www.wexlergallery.com. Through March 1.

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