Thread is among the most important materials in the universe. Chances are, unless you’re a nudist, thread is touching you right now. It holds our clothing together, makes our bed sheets soft, heals wounds, binds furniture coverings and car upholstery, and makes our window shades go up and down. It is likely that not a day goes by that thread doesn’t touch your life, and in the second show at her new Oakland gallery, curator Kim Johansson chose it as the medium of focus. Eight divergent artists are represented in the group show entitled Thread, and are unified by a common medium.
Alex Case exhibits canvases of patched fabric, paint, and various industrial parts. Influenced by life in Martinez, Case grew up surrounded by oil refineries and a family in the textile industry. He globs dark acrylic, soot-like paint onto the surface, surrounding industrial-looking forms made of dirty sewn canvas scraps. One abstract piece was titled Dinosaur but looked nothing like a prehistoric lizard unless, of course, you have some imagination. Fossil fuel doesn’t look like a dinosaur either.
Perhaps the most amazing piece in the show is internationally-renowned artist, Devorah Sperber’s installation of 500 spools of thread in muted shades stacked symmetrically and suspended from silver ball chains. The amazing part is the “viewing sphere” centered strategically on the piece, a few feet away. The sphere is a simple clear acrylic ball placed atop a black metal stand. When you peer through it, the spools hanging from the wall shrink and invert, and before you know it, you’re looking at a tiny blurred image of Grant Wood’s famous American Gothic painting of a farm couple from 1930. Utterly surprising, Sperber’s work has created an unimaginable illusion. At first glance, you would’ve never known that simple technology could turn several hundred spools of thread into such a recognizable image.
San Francisco’s Steve MacDonald was an obvious choice for the exhibit, as he is quickly becoming one of the most recognized male embroidery artists in the Bay Area arts scene. MacDonald — who recently designed the new Modest Mouse tour t-shirt — was showing large-scale golden landscapes stitched with his signature red thread. Two smaller pieces titled Ramblin Worker Cargo Ship and Embroidered Op Art were delightful and inviting. The latter was made up of blocks of rectangular stitched stripes but it made my eyeballs jiggle, causing an optical freak-out due to the juxtaposition of color, line, and threadwork. The image was reminiscent of stacked shipping containers, maybe because a picture of a ship hung just above it. With a friendly white puff drifting out of its smoke stack, the ship worked together with the op art piece to create a feeling of nostalgic shipyard imagery, reminding me of those colorful K Line cargo containers stacked near the East side of the Bay Bridge.
Another favorite series of works was Tucker Schwarz’s sweetly stitched line drawings of buildings, trees and power lines. Inspired by her own photographs of local neighborhoods, Shwarz sews on raw muslin, leaving colorful thread ends hanging, lightly veiling the images. At the front of the gallery, Christy Matson’s interactive Gradient Noise appears to be a basic woven length of patterned fabric, until you notice a speaker and a box with a switch that says “pitch” and “thresh” hanging next to it. When the switch is flipped, the piece (woven with thread and copper wire) will make different noises depending on how close you bring your hand to the wall, creating art that talks back.
The Johansson Projects gallery is a perfect addition to Oakland’s art strip at 23rd and Telegraph. It has a ceiling of dried green moss and holds a promising future as Thread was an impressive and memorable exhibit. An often-unsung genre, fiber art is one that can feel most mysterious, yet closest to home. Its tactility and familiar qualities add to fiber’s allure, and it has a transcendental way of reminding a viewer of old memories, such as time spent in your granny’s sewing room or a favorite old teddy bear. So get dressed in your best threads, floss your teeth and lace up your shoes — it’s time to discover a new art space in Oakland.
Thread runs through August 25, 2007 at Johansson Projects.