Project Series 47: Krysten Cunningham: Ret, Scutch, Heckle
The 47th installment of the Pomona College Museum of Art’s Project Series will present sculpture and drawings by Los Angeles-based artist Krysten Cunningham, whose practice entails an open-minded interrogation of physical realities. Using materials as diverse as hand-dyed yarn and machined metal parts, Cunningham explores three—and even four—dimensional space. Threads of thought from diverse disciplines and intellectual perspectives are woven together through her work, with theoretical physics, traditions of craft, formal sculptural considerations, and notions of cultural hybridity all playing a part. Cunningham also maintains an intimate connection to the process of making artwork by hand, as well as to notions of spirituality and community. Recently, the process of weaving has become integral to her sculpture. By boldly inserting two-dimensional textiles into the three-dimensional realm of sculpture Cunningham subverts the expected functionality of this craft.
This exhibition, co-curated by Rebecca McGrew and Hannah Pivo, is accompanied by a publication with an essay by Pivo and an introduction by McGrew. The Project Series, an ongoing program of focused exhibitions designed to introduce experimental art with new forms, techniques, or concepts to the Pomona College campus, is supported in part by the Pasadena Art Alliance.
Ret, Scutch, Heckle: Materials and Words in Krysten Cunningham’s Sculpture
The exhibition “Project Series 47: Krysten Cunningham Ret, Scutch, Heckle” represents the first solo museum exhibition of the Los Angeles-based artist. For “Ret, Scutch, Heckle,” the artist presents new abstract sculptures and drawings that continue to develop her wide-ranging investigations into art, craft, metaphysics, perception, and social justice. Using hand-dyed yarn, fabric, steel, plaster, rope, wood, and plastics, Cunningham combines formal concerns of color, line, scale, and space with specific art-historical allusions to hard-edge Minimalism, Russian Constructivism, craft-oriented Feminist art, socially-engaged Conceptual art, and Native American textile patterns. In addition, her practice is marked by a scrupulous focus on craft and the hand-made, an intellectual exploration of the principles of physics, and an awareness of the body’s connections to space and architecture. Cunningham’s work resonates with artistic, political and social issues, and the psychologically charged relationship between emotion and the intellect.
The title, “Ret, Scutch, Heckle,” reflects Cunningham’s multi-layered interests in the interconnected origins of materials, processes, and language. These now obscure words come from Northern European textile processing in the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries. They describe the treatment of flax plant fibers into linen suitable for domestic use and the textile trade. Once the flax plant is mature, it is ready for the first step: “retting,” the process of rotting away the inner stalk, leaving the outer fibers intact. To remove the remaining coarse fibers, the flax is broken into small pieces and then, in the second step, “scutching,” the straw is scraped and beaten away from the fiber. In the third step, “hecklers” tease out the fiber through “heckles”—a bed of nails driven into wooden blocks—which pull the straw out of the fiber, creating a yarn-like material that can then be spun into linen.
The use of these terms suggests Cunningham’s complex understanding of materials and their histories. The words also allude to the respect she grants to material things of all kinds, the multitude of processes involved in labor and craft, and, perhaps most importantly, an acknowledgment of labor and craft through a respect for “working, making, doing.”
Cunningham appreciates how words like these vividly describe activities and represent how material and labor processes co-evolve with language, in some cases gaining meanings. For example, a “heckler” was originally a person involved in the final process of refining flax. However, in the early nineteenth century, it acquired the additional meaning of interrupting—heckling—speakers with awkward or embarrassing comments. The usage developed in Dundee, Scotland, in the heckling factories, where, one heckler would read out the daily news while others worked. The news often incited furious debate and comment from the listeners. Heckling thus became intertwined with radicalizing elements in the textile trade.
The twinned idea of a heckler as flax factory laborer and as belligerent advocate of radical social change connects to Cunningham’s acute consciousness of the social and ethical implications of society’s careless consumption of the products of trade labor. Her socially engaged and formally aesthetic work stems from multiple sources, including her liberal upbringing on a commune, her undergraduate studies at the Institute of American Indian Arts in New Mexico, her graduate studies in the dynamic studio art department at the University of California, Los Angeles, and her work as a research engineer in the physics department at UCLA. In addition, Cunningham’s practice fits into a broader context of artists who question traditional notions of art’s role in society by creating works that require the participation of the viewer. By coaxing our interaction, artists like Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticia, and Rirkrit Tiravanija encourage us to become emotionally, psychologically, and physically absorbed in their work. The merging of art and life as exemplified by “situations to be lived” in the work of these artists connects to Cunningham’s interest in collective effort, craft-making communities, and an intimacy between maker and the object that often expands into social action. The themes their work shares— active engagement rather than passive meditation, the impact of an architecturally determined space, and the transformative, emancipatory potential of the creative act—are addressed in Cunningham’s work.
Brazilian artist Lygia Clark particularly resonates for Cunningham as a female artist who redefined the relationship between art and society. Dealing with the inner life and emotion, Clark experimented during the 1960s and 1970s with a psychological and physical engagement with the body, explored art as a therapeutic tool, and advocated for unpredictability in the work’s final form. For her interactive art pieces, Clark used everyday objects that only acquired significance if they came into direct contact with a participant’s body. This broad and democratic approach to art making and audience continues to inspire Cunningham.
Underlying all these interconnected layers of Cunningham’s work, in particular her interest in a democratic approach to art, is an exploration and engagement with abstraction. For the artist, abstract art has the potential to generate new conversations through time and changing contexts. Abstraction allows one to explore the psychic conditions of human experience, and thus provides each individual their own access to and interpretation of the unique object. Cunningham’s work ultimately succeeds because it combines a personal vision of the contemporary world and human experience with formal and creative innovations.
Senior Curator, Pomona College Museum of Art
Essay by Hannah Pivo PO '14
Working with Reality
By Hannah Pivo
Krysten Cunningham understands that there is no single path to comprehending reality. Neither science, history, spirituality, anthropology, art, nor art history alone can offer an all-encompassing explanation of our world. Yet, by embracing elements from each of these disciplines, Cunningham’s practice engages in an open-minded exploration of both physical and conceptual challenges. She uses drawing, video, and sculpture as mediums though which to probe a range of conceptual interests. Her work is disarming and intriguing, familiar and foreign, cerebral and home-spun. It generates a seemingly endless stream of challenges to existing conceptions of reality, challenges that are spurred by a relentless curiosity which itself acts as a source of consistency throughout her varied practice. Familiar concepts—from geometry to gravity to gender roles—are defamiliarized and thereby questioned. At the same time, a connection to the tactile object endures, and thus Cunningham’s explorations remain tangible, relevant, and compelling.
Her recent sculptures are varied in material and form, but all place emphasis on the handmade. Fiber, metal, plaster, and wood are all used, often in combination. Brightly colored, hand-dyed yarn is woven into fabrics that hang from hooks, drape over metal frames, and lean against the wall. Precisely arranged metal chains cascade from simple geometric forms, collapsing into tangled chaos as the chains puddle on the ground. Large, white plaster shapes are elevated by poles that seem too thin to support their bulky mass. Slender pieces of painted wood dangle from hoops which in turn hang from metal hooks on the wall: earrings for a giantess.
The amalgam of interests and inspirations that drives Cunningham’s practice is also evident in her God’s Eye sculptures, an ongoing series that began in the mid-2000s. These works are based on the simple and familiar Ojo de Dios form of yarn wrapped around arrangements of perpendicular sticks. Originating in the spiritual craft traditions of the Huichol Indians of central Mexico, God’s Eyes now hold nostalgic associations for anyone who remembers making them out of Popsicle sticks and yarn as a childhood craft project. Expanding this familiar form in scale, Cunningham shifts the two-dimensional planes into three-dimensional forms. The resulting works are complex, interwoven objects, with yarn wrapping and intersecting around thin poles, generally made of metal or wood. Some pieces are muted in color, such as New Sputnik II (2008) with black, gray, and dark purple yarn. Others, such as 4DB (2006), are quite the opposite, with successive bands of bright colors—blues, reds, oranges, yellows, blacks—expanding from the work’s center like polychromatic tree rings. The sculptures rest gingerly on the ends of the poles that function at once as their frames, supports, and pedestals. Although their presence commands the space in which they reside, the nature of the materials also allows space to seep in. One becomes aware not only of the yarn itself but also of the fine gaps between strands, and even more of the interior hollows that the yarn frames.
The God’s Eyes are multi-layered explorations of the scientific representation of physical and geometric space. They function as models of hypercubes, hypothetical four-dimensional forms that transcend the standard x, y, and z axes of Euclidean geometry. They are shapes that exist within the theoretical framework of four-dimensional space that emerged from early twentieth-century debates on non-Euclidean geometries. The complex theoretical and visual qualities of the concept make it an apt subject for artists; among those who have addressed four-dimensional space are Marcel Duchamp, Theo van Doesburg, and Salvador Dalí.
Concerning Cunningham’s work, it is notable that the complex extra-dimensionality of the God’s Eyes does not obscure their underlying flatness. The tenacious—if counter intuitive—presence of two-dimensional, flat planes is a cornerstone of Cunningham’s approach to space. Again and again one finds flatness concealed within the apparent three-dimensionality of her work: individual elements of the God’s Eyes, wooden cut-outs, metal grids, woven fabrics. She is mindful of Donald Judd’s words, “the flat plane is too useful a shape to discard,” a nod to the omnipresence of flatness within three-dimensional space. More specifically, flatness is the foundation upon which our society’s particular conception of space is built. Cunningham is quick to point out that “flatness is actually just a concept…there is nothing really flat, everything has depth.”1 Thus, her planes do not seek to approximate an impossible flatness. Instead, they illustrate a particular way of comprehending space—through height, length, and width.
Cunningham’s two-dimensional planes exist in conversation with one another. Many of her sculptures hang from or lean against the wall. They are in dialogue with the wall, the floor, the surrounding space, and neighboring artworks; it could be argued that the planes of the walls and floor function as external elements of the artwork itself. Taken as a whole, these individual two-dimensional planes make visible the underlying structure of our three-dimensional reality. It is at the points where object-meets-wall or object-meets-floor that one becomes aware of the complex physical geometries in which we exist.
Cunningham’s participation in the field of physics began fortuitously. Without any formal education in the discipline, she sought advice on a project from a scientist in a physics laboratory while getting her Master of Fine Arts at the University of California, Los Angeles. She was fascinated and engaged by the environment of the lab, and ultimately ended up working in the Demonstration Laboratory as a Research Engineer, where she makes films demonstrating physical properties and theories. The fluidity that exists between her various artistic and scientific interests becomes evident upon consideration of her 2006 video, Hypercube. Animations of four-dimensional hypercubes are accompanied by eerie harmonica notes and Cunningham’s narration, which includes excerpts from Russian physicist P. D. Ouspensky’s 1922 writings on the fourth dimension. This video, presented by Cunningham as an artwork, is undeniably influenced by her more strictly scientific endeavors.
A physics lab in Southern California is a world away from Cunningham’s childhood home on a commune in Virginia. This rural, idealistic community was her home until age 17. She attended Smith College in Massachusetts for a time but felt constrained by the secluded atmosphere, so she left to attend the Institute of American Indian Arts in New Mexico. There, she studied ceramics with a Hopi potter in a more holistic environment that fostered an understanding of one’s spiritual relationship to materials. Her education continued with a Bachelors of Fine Arts from the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, where she majored in sculpture. Afterwards, she moved to Los Angeles to pursue an MFA at UCLA, where she studied with Chris Burden, Charles Ray, and Nancy Rubins, among others. Amid the conceptual formalism that prevailed at the time, her work was unique for its ingenuity and materiality.
Cunningham continued to explore the intersections of materials and spirituality, and identifies the legacy of such concepts in her current work. Speaking specifically of Circle and Chains (2012) and Triangle and Chains (2012), in which precisely spaced metal chains hang from a simple geometric shape on the wall, becoming more and more tangled as they reach the ground, she notes that spirituality “is a way of reckoning with the disorder of life.”2 It offers a structure for control in otherwise uncontrollable situations. Spirituality emerges from an intimate connection to one’s materials, as does an understanding of the concrete mechanical challenges that arise when creating a physical object. The problem of how to get a sculpture to “work” is a material reality that cannot be resolved by abstract thought alone. Cunningham describes how “when you work with materials, when you work with your hands, the material talks to you. I look at something and I notice if I bend it here, it adjusts over there. I do it three times and I see how the material moves, so just by working with it I understand the physics of it.”3
The same process extends to her work with fiber, which has been an integral material to her practice since the God’s Eyes. She dyes her own yarn (mostly in her kitchen) to achieve a precise color, whether it be acidic pink, dusty orange, or deep black. Perfecting the color can be a slow, laborious process, yet it is one that brings her into intimate contact with her materials and ultimately allows for greater artistic control.
A major transition occurred in her work when she began utilizing the process of weaving. In 2010, upon completion of the video project 3 to 4—which explores human interaction as a pathway into extra-dimensionality—Cunningham cut the leftover costumes (red, green, and blue sweatpants and sweatshirts) into strips and wove them together over white peg-boards. The resulting sculptures, RGB Bottoms and RGB Tops, were displayed on the wall alongside the related video. This first rudimentary foray into weaving made her realize that there is a “technology” to the craft of weaving with which she was unfamiliar.4 So, she began taking weaving classes and has been experimenting with the process ever since.
Recently, this has resulted in Untitled (Standing Weave) (2013), in which a colorful striped rug-like weaving leans against the wall. Supported by dozens of delicate tassel “feet,” it slouches like a wallflower at a party. The object appears lopsided and off-balance to the point where we half-expect it to collapse at any moment. So unnaturally extended is this moment of levitation that it becomes mildly unsettling to view. The question ‘how is it standing?’ is troublesome but easily answered: Cunningham discovered that by dipping the weaving in urethane she could harden it enough to allow it to lean against the wall. The question ‘why is it standing?’ is not so easily resolved.
In other works, weavings drape over standing metal grids, dangle from thin, sleek metal frames, and are pinned to the wall. By literally upending and elevating objects that would ordinarily lie flat—as rugs on the floor, as blankets on the bed—Cunningham defies both gravity and social constructs. The works disobey the laws of physics, and come to life as playful, enchanted objects. These whimsical qualities also emerge in works that do not defy physics, such as Filigree (2012-13), in which a sherbet-colored pink and orange weaving sways enticingly from a frame and hook.
Other transgressions also emerge. For one, Cunningham’s weavings both continue and disregard the long history of textile craft. Cunningham imagines that some weavers would claim she is destroying the craft by hardening the fabrics with urethane.5 While ‘destruction’ may be a dramatic turn of phrase, it is true that Cunningham employs textiles for purposes other than domestic utility. In a gallery setting, her weavings do not function as bearers of warmth, comfort, and decoration. Instead, they become artistic signifiers of meaning.
The artist’s focus on the handmade and process is by no means in opposition to valuing conceptual art practices. Rather, emphasizing process can function as a conceptual position in and of itself. Craft scholar Betty Bright asserts that “craft need not deny its essential base in process, its sensual core, in order to also engage conceptual concerns.”6 In fact, working intently with process often stimulates overlooked conceptual concerns. Artist, curator, and critic Paula Owen has discussed contemporary craft in relation to the term process art that emerged in the 1960s. She describes how “process art often advances concepts attendant to the body and senses, poses questions about the properties or origins of its materials or methods, and emphasizes change and transience in works that are not meant to endure.”7 To examine craft objects within this framework confronts questions of body, material, method, and duration, rather than examining the final product in isolation from its making.
Cunningham’s turn to weaving and her focus on the handmade object links her to a long history of textile craft and the discourse that surrounds it. In particular, Cunningham is profoundly influenced by the legacy of the Bauhaus school and its textile workshop. Textiles, and the applied arts as a whole, have historically been categorized as inferior to the fine arts of painting and sculpture. Despite the continued dominance of this hierarchy, the lines between art, craft, and design have been significantly questioned, blurred, or rejected, most significantly for the first time at the Bauhaus school. Founded on the heels of WWI by German architect Walter Gropius in Weimar, Germany, the school radically redefined the relationships among art, design, and daily life. In his 1919 “Bauhaus Manifesto and Program” Gropius declared, “So let us therefore create a new guild of craftsmen, free of the divisive class pretentions that endeavored to raise a prideful barrier between craftsmen and artists!”8 Guided by the belief that art and industry could together optimize production, the Bauhaus sought not only unity but also equality between all elements of visual culture, thus rejecting the historical hierarchy of fine and applied arts.9
The Bauhaus textile workshop applied modernist principles to traditional weaving techniques. Critical to its development was German textile artist Gunta Stözl, the only female Bauhaus master. Stözl, who was largely self-taught, created strikingly polychromatic, abstract weavings in which curvilinear forms alternate and mix with straight-edged shapes. Her patterns appear to flow freely, often evoking organic forms. Her work demonstrates the influence of modernist principles of composition and color theory, while capitalizing on the tactile qualities that are unique to fiber arts.10
One of Cunningham’s primary influences is famed German textile artist Anni Albers. Albers studied at the Bauhaus under Stözl before immigrating to the United States in 1933 with her husband, fellow-artist Josef Albers, to teach at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, a progressive art school with a lasting influence on post-war American art. Like Stözl, Albers applied modernist principles to textile design, but also turned to Mexican textile patterns for inspiration. Her work is often more muted in palette than that of Stözl, and her patterns appear more regulated. Squares, rectangles, and straight lines dominate her weavings, with curves only making a rare appearance. Most importantly, Albers advocated for experimentation and investigation of materials, thus paving the way for the next generation of artists who radically expanded the notion of what materials might be used to create art. Cunningham responds to the rich cultural-interplay that occurs when one artist looks to the art of another for inspiration. She is keenly aware that when she looks to Albers’s weavings, she is not only building upon the work of the German artist, but also the countless unnamed Mexican and Peruvian weavers whose work Albers studied.
Cunningham’s practice bridges art and craft, aesthetic inquiry and scientific study, two-dimensionality and sculptural forms, the feminine and the masculine. She brazenly inserts the traditionally feminine craft of weaving into the traditionally masculine realm of sculpture, while at the same time incorporating aspects of the history of sculpture that are closely linked to historically male-dominated movements, such as 1960s minimalist sculpture. Simplified geometric forms and sleek metal frames are reminiscent of Donald Judd’s early minimalist sculptures, and may at first seem out of place alongside the natural fibers of Cunningham’s weavings. Yet there are parallels to be drawn between minimalism’s repetition of simplified forms and traditional craft’s use of repetition—both in the physical motions used to create craft objects as well as in the visual patterns of such objects.
Nevertheless, the minimalist elements of Cunningham’s work more often than not serve as background and support for her far-from-minimalist tangled chains and pliant fabrics, which are more reminiscent of the 1970s post-minimalists. Artists including Lee Bontecou, Eva Hesse, Sheila Hicks, and Aurelia Muñoz created radical textiles and sculptures that often incorporated unconventional materials, both “soft” and “hard”—canvas, rope, fabric, latex, wire, steel, fiberglass—into pieces that bore the mark of the hand. They, as does Cunningham, allow material properties to dictate form. This divergent use of materials finds origins in Anni Albers’ material exploration developed at the Bauhaus. It is notable that both Hesse and Hicks became close with Albers while studying with her husband, Josef Albers, at Yale.
Material-determined forms emerge when Cunningham allows chains to spill from order to disorder, or chemically freezes weavings into objects. This is similar to Hesse’s practice that “staged situations in which material is partly held in form and partly takes a form of its own volition.”11 The contrast to minimalism’s rigidity encourages a feminist reading of the work, albeit one that is distinct from the capital-F “Feminist art” emerging concurrently on the opposite coast. While Feminist art often re-appropriated and inverted traditionally female crafts, like quilting and embroidery, to directly confront themes of female oppression, Hesse and Bontecou took a different approach. Whether intentionally or not, their work assumed the task of female empowerment by existing in the male realm of sculpture without adhering to male-generated definitions of what sculpture should be.
Likewise, Cunningham is aware of the significance and importance of positioning the handmade and textiles within the realm of sculpture. By making an object that could technically function as a rug into a vertical sculpture, the roles of the mediums are challenged. Such work demands a reassessment of the established hierarchy between craft and art, and furthermore proclaims women’s agency to assign artistic value to objects that follow traditionally female methods of labor.
Cunningham admits that art, unlike science, offers no conclusive explanations, no concrete answers. Artistic innovation need not disprove the past to move forward. Yet it is just this flexibility and sense of possibility that allows Cunningham to incorporate seemingly-disparate intellectual perspectives into a powerfully unified artistic practice. Art requires no limiting logic to prevent the fusion of geometry and domestic labor, or spirituality and formalism within a single work. Objects can at once be valued for their sensory appeal, their semantic subtexts, and their technical craftsmanship. Furthermore, Cunningham’s sculptures need not exist in isolation from one another, nor from the walls and floors that support them. Thus, they do not exist in insulated autonomy, but rather are in constant conversation with one another, their surroundings, and the intellectual perspectives that motivate them. As such, science, spirituality, and society are presented as interwoven elements of a unified reality.
Hannah Pivo is a curatorial intern at the Pomona College Museum of Art.
1 Krysten Cunningham, studio interview with the artist, Los Angeles, April 5, 2013.
6 Betty Bright, “Handwork and Hybrids: Recasting the Craft of Letterpress Printing,” Extra/Ordinary: Craft and Contemporary Art, ed. Maria Elena Buszek (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011), 149.
7 Paula Owen, “Fabrication and Encounter: When Content is a Verb,” Extra/Ordinary: Craft and Contemporary Art, ed. Maria Elena Buszek (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011), 88.
8 Walter Gropius, “Manifesto of the Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar” (April 1919), (ARGE Modell Bauhaus, 2009) Bauhaus—Online.de, 13 June 2013.
9 Alexandra Griffith Winton, “The Bauhaus, 1919–1933,” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, August 2007), metmuseum.org, 13 June 2013.
10 Lesley Jackson, “Gunta Stölzl,” Selvedge Magazine (Issue 11, 2006), guntastozl.org, 13 June 2013.
11 Glenn Adamson, Thinking Through Craft (Oxford: Berg, in association with the Victoria & Albert Museum, 2007), 63.