Galleries: At Art Alliance Lithuanians show sophisticated uses of fibers

Vita Geluniene's "Hunt of the Unicorn" (2010-11) is classic Gobelin weaving that depicts a pregnant woman, a man with a grocery bag, a dog, and babies against an ornate floral background.
Vita Geluniene's "Hunt of the Unicorn" (2010-11) is classic Gobelin weaving that depicts a pregnant woman, a man with a grocery bag, a dog, and babies against an ornate floral background.
Posted: July 29, 2013

Under the Soviets, the work of Lithuania's textile makers was considered strictly decorative, traditional tapestries with limited, if any, narrative content. At home and in the studio, however, those same textile and fiber artists were often as experimental as any other artists.

Now, 22 years after independence, they are working at an astonishing level of sophistication, a phenomenon made immediately clear by the Philadelphia Art Alliance's "LTextile: Contemporary Textiles From Lithuania." The exhibition provides a stellar introduction to the works of 13 admired contemporary artists who use fiber as a canvas for digital photographs, in tapestries with contemporary narratives, and as the material for sculptures suggesting ancient bowls and totems. In other words, in every imaginable way, while also clearly mindful of trends in international contemporary art.

Lithuania's traditional craft practices are referenced, and, of course, subverted, to make a point, political or otherwise.

This happens most obviously in Egle Ganda Bogdaniene's ambitious installation Red Tape (2012), in which, among other embroidered objects, she has sewn images of red lipstick imprints, flowers, and other rebellious doodlelike images on letters to and from officials in Lithuania's university system. (Bogdaniene organized the exhibition with Art Alliance curator Sarah Archer).

It also occurs in the show's most unabashedly beautiful piece, Hunt of the Unicorn (2010-11), a brilliantly colored hanging tapestry in classic Gobelin weaving by Vita Geluniene (with Birute Letukaite and Evaldas Jansas), that depicts a pregnant woman, a man with a grocery bag, a dog, and a babies against an ornate floral background into which tiny cartoon characters are woven. Geluniene and her partners also have made a video of the same name that uses the imagery of the tapestry as a backdrop for various imaginative scenarios.

Several artists in this show print digital photographs on textiles. The works from Laima Orzekauskiene's series "Daily Rituals," each one capturing archetypal still-life images of bowls of water, cups of water, and wrinkled fabric on stretched textile, made the most interesting connection between image and support, looking rather like holograms of paintings.

Humor is not abundant in this exhibition, nor is the look of imperfection, a circumstance that allows the works of one artist to stand out in sharp relief. Jurga Sarapova's woven versions of real objects are lovably lumpen, especially her 2012 Yellow Green Red set of three mugs, two of which look more like Mayan antiquities than coffee mugs.

Philadelphia Art Alliance, 251 S. 18th St., 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. 215-545-4302, $5; seniors and students $3. Through Aug. 18.

Science in disguise

Those who go to the Chemical Heritage Foundation Museum expecting to see art in "Sensing Change" may be disappointed - the majority of works in this show are earnest, science-bound investigations of climate change. That's not to say they aren't absorbing in their own way - many are. They're just not art, and I wouldn't even put several of them in the category of ecological art.

One of my favorites, and possibly the show's least artlike piece, is Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenberg's Wind Map, a digital map that allows viewers to see wind speeds and currents throughout the United States. It is fascinating to watch - even humbling and a bit scary, given the weather events of the last few years - and the air-current patterns created by geography are quite beautiful.

I also enjoyed Roderick Coover's Estuary/Toxi.City, which combines videos made on kayaking trips along the Thames, the Delaware, and shorelines in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, with poignant interviews with people affected by pollution. But again, not art. While it's an intelligent, beautifully shot documentary, it isn't the sort of romantic kayaking art pioneered by Bob Braine in the mid-1990s.

To me, the works that offer the most direct evidence of climate change and are, at the same time, obviously part of an ongoing contemporary art practice are Stacy Levy's Calendar of Rain, a wall of shelves holding clear bottles of rainwater collected each day from a funnel outside the CHF building (the bottles from June are a mute but powerful testament to climate change), and Diane Burko's eerily beautiful color photographs of the receding glacier in Glacier National Park, Montana, and of areas near her Bucks County property that have only recently become prone to flooding.

"Sensing Change" also includes works by Katie Holten, Eve Mosher, and Vaughn Bell.

Chemical Heritage Foundation Museum, 315 Chestnut St., 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. 215-925-2222, Free admission. Through May 2.

"Galleries" by Edith Newhall and "Art" by Edward J. Sozanski appear on alternating Sundays.

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