The sizable Sheila Hicks exhibition at Sikkema Jenkins assembles pieces from throughout her long and successful career, but is not a retrospective. The bulk of the show is given over to what Ms. Hicks does best and is best known for, the letter-sized, wall-mounted tapestries she calls minimes; and these, not only because of their astonishing formal consistency over more than five decades, but also by the very nature of their construction, preempt any progressive, linear view of her work.
The show’s earliest minime is Zapallar, from 1957-8. A rectangle just under five inches wide by ten long, thickly hand-woven of wool yarn, it begins functionally, as if to make a potholder or scarf, in evenly alternating boxes of orange and pink. But then it veers off sharply, about ten lines down, when the weft drifts out of the horizontal. Other colors are run in; the vertical lines of the warp are pulled out to skip over four or five rows at a time, or wrapped singly like lanyard bracelets and then twisted a half or full or double turn before being joined into ribbon-like flat panels again; and the piece only returns to monochromatic, scarf-like order for its last five or six rows. This method produces an intriguing, paradoxical opacity. Each minime is a transparent grid of discrete decisions, but the foregrounding of that transparency pushes the possibility of any conceptual synthesis into the back, just out of reach.
The commercially-produced colors and found objects of the minime Quills Rising, to take a more recent example, are juxtaposed with both a collector’s care and a kind of cold reserve, ensuring that all its elements work productively not so much together as side by side. Cotton and wool yarn in blue, bright rusty orange, dark bluish gray, deep olive, metallic lavender, light olive, vernal green, ultramarine, dark blue, two more greens, another orange, and scarlet—not to mention the more than a dozen dark brown and white quills slipped in like horizontal strokes of ink—move across a warp of sky blue to create a piece whose most singular impression is of the distinct autonomy of its separate parts. It looks like writing—whatever its total esthetic, and despite its being in an undeciphered alphabet, a sense hovers around it that the information it encodes is on a smaller, more particular scale.
The power of the grid, meanwhile, is that so long as it remains tight enough to be recognizable—so long as the artist continues to abide by the premises she sets for herself at the outset—you can hang almost anything within it. So long as the lines keep crossing, you can even push them out of the square. In Ardoise, Ms. Hicks showcases black fragments of slate in a net of white linen and monofilament; Torah Tablet and Cluny II, both divided into more perpendicular blocks of color, are woven from stainless steel thread produced as a byproduct by a commercial tire manufacturer; in Hastings, a handful of corn husks struggle with a network of red silk lines over which material is the foreground and which the background; Ptera II explodes the minime‘s flat front with a bouquet of feathers; Déménageur breaks its edges with a futuristic sideways mutation; Quipi Study—speaking of undeciphered alphabets—divides it into a host of separate braids; Fallen Tree, Floating (green, gold) divides its colors straight down the middle; and the white linen Isadora and Loosely Speaking hold nothing in their woven grids but themselves.
At Zieher-Smith, Chuck Webster’s suite of new paintings uses a similar trick to very different, though equally appealing, effect. Seven oils on panel, all in the same stolidly proportioned rectangle but ranging in size from letter paper to billboard, combine striking, graffiti-bright colors, a bold, Haring-like line, and unvarnished surfaces sanded down flatter than a slate sidewalk to portray variations on a kind of toothy step-pyramid figure. The figure’s interior is broken up or decorated with little lines, crossed like sutures, extending like diagrams of electric current or bucking like schematic deer on a Plains teepee. The backgrounds, in most cases, are painted in multiple distinct layers and then deeply worn away, to produce chaotic flurries of color. A black-outlined, solid yellow form like a pueblo; or a white tooth marked with sideways gray brackets; or a red-outlined cartoon cake; or a red-outlined blue double pyramid marked with pixelated white clouds all leap out dramatically from these background flurries. One yellow form, shaped like a destroyer with white outlines, sits against a flat black plain; one rough white shape like an anime fist rises against a plain divided into orange and red; in one case, the chaos is instead in the figure’s brown and red interior. To find a formal premise so stable and fertile is no small achievement, but what’s most exciting about these paintings is that Mr. Webster has found a way to paint a thing—that is, nothing so specific as a kiva, a ziggurat, a fortress viewed from above, the Tower of Babel, a living cell, a tooth, a window, an eye, or the subjective self surrounded by the external world—although it may look like any or all of these more particular things—but simply a thing, tout court.
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