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Traces and Pull of the Moon demonstrate the flexibility of textiles and their vitality within the larger contemporary art scene.

Two illuminating textile exhibitions at N.C. State's Gregg Museum 

Detail of "Palimpsest 1" (2007) by Marian Bijlenga

Photo by David Ramsey

Detail of "Palimpsest 1" (2007) by Marian Bijlenga

Textiles have always been important at N.C. State University, both in the College of Textiles and the College of Design. They also form a large portion of the collections of the Gregg Museum there, where the current shows once again demonstrate the flexibility of the art form and its vitality within the larger contemporary art scene.

The everlasting questions about the relations of art and craft are addressed by the work, and will be discussed, along with many other matters, in this weekend's expansive Trace Evidence Symposium. In attendance will be the diverse group of artists whose work makes up Traces: Mapping a Journey in Textiles, which is the subject of major events this weekend.

Barbara Lee Smith, a well-known West Coast artist and art textile curator, curated Traces, while the Gregg's Lynn Jones Ennis curated Pull of the Moon, a complementary small show of Smith's own work. Smith is interested in surface, stitch and imagery—concerns that are evident in both exhibitions. The textile sensibility permeates all these works, whether they also include non-textile techniques or not.

But Traces is particularly fascinating viewed as a current slice of the great spiral of art history. Looking at these works, one's first thoughts are for Eva Hesse, Robert Rauschenberg, Elizabeth Murray and others who are not generally associated with "the craft arts," and for the importance of feminist art and theory in widening art's palette of possibility. (These things are discussed brilliantly in Elissa Auther's String, Felt, Thread: The Hierarchy of Art and Craft in American Art, published last year by University of Minnesota Press.)

Would Gail Rieke's Blaze of Glory/ Japan and Korea 2007–2009, for instance, have been possible without Miriam Shapiro's handkerchief confections? This work, which is included in the show, is meant to be a visual travel journal. But could its soft bits and swirls of pretty cloth—collected, arranged, stitched and tied—its unabashed sensuality and femininity; its celebration of delicacy and preciousness: Could they exist without Shapiro's brave example in the macho art world of the 1970s? Likewise, Clare Verstegen's series of small wood blocks partially topped with wool felt, with their tile-like arrangements of patterns, call to mind the pioneering feminist Pattern and Decoration movement from the same period, especially the work of Joyce Kozloff. Verstegen's squares, which are both silk-screened and drawn into with a wood-burning tool, quietly revel in one of a textile's most magical qualities: It is both surface and object. Like light, cloth and its simulacra have a dual nature.

Devorah Sperber also makes image from increment. N.C. Museum of Art visitors will immediately recognize her piece in Traces, "After Grant Wood, American Gothic 2" (2006), which uses the same materials and technology as Sperber's image of the Mona Lisa in the NCMA collection. Arranging spools of commercial sewing thread in carefully chosen gradations of color, Sperber replicates famous paintings—upside down—in a mosaic grid of spools. Viewed from a distance, the weave-like grid is most apparent, emphasized by the white edges of the spools. When examined through the viewing sphere placed at a certain distance in front of the work, the image inverts and coalesces. These pieces are wonderful meditations on seeing and perceiving, the role of material in that process and the evolving relationship between art and technologies.

Dorothy Caldwell's large, subtle, collaged, stitched and marked cloth hangings are descended from the string works of Eva Hesse, and perhaps collaterally from Rauschenberg's defaced quilts, and from the countless anonymous women crouched over their embroidery across the centuries, couching lovely lines onto the surface of a rich cloth, and from their equally anonymous poorer sisters with their piecing and patching and darning. Drawing with her couched lines, Caldwell creates maps of expansive space full of breathing room.

The exhibition's most beautiful works use surprising materials and methods, resulting in rather astonishing visuals. Dutch artist Marian Bijlenga uses fish scales (some of them are huge!), horsehair and nearly invisible monofilament to make wall "drawings" of great weirdness and delicacy. On the wall the bits float, seemingly fastened by their shadows. Only on close inspection at the proper angles can you see that the bits mark intersections of any airy web. Susan Lordi Marker, from Kansas City, uses her art to express her experience on the land where she is restoring a remnant of tall-grass prairie. She builds up her imagery rhythmically with dots and lines, a little like a Terry Winters drawing, but she uses a litany of textile techniques to do so. On mixed fiber cloth, she uses dévoré (chemical burn-out) to open lines; she uses lye for cloqué treatments that shrink and push the fabric into bumps like stones rising above the surface. And with dye, silk and its filaments, she traces the beauty of the land with an art that owes its all to craft.

This weekend's events include the exhibition reception on Thursday evening and the keynote address Friday night by Glenn Adamson of London's Victoria and Albert Museum. Both of these events are free.

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