By Rebecca McGrew
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.