Adventures in Embroidery: ‘Thread Hijack’ at the Hunterdon Art Museum showcases constant creativity

‘Earth/Ground/Terrain’ by Natasha Das is part of the ‘Thread Hijack’ exhibition at the Hunterdon Art Museum.

If you were forced into a fight with a visual artist, you would do well to avoid embroiderers. Of the many ways to draw a straight line on a blank surface, wire is perhaps the most physical. Piercing a needle through canvas, paper, or fabric requires strong hand muscles. To tighten the wire, you need a flexible wrist. Doing it hundreds of times demonstrates tenacity and determination – and, perhaps, a wasp-like will to break through.

Yet a thread never makes you forget its mutability. Catch it on a button and it will hook; pull it too hard and it may fray. Bundle the yarns together and they get a fluffy, fluffy, squeezable texture that engenders protective feelings. Leave just one and it can look like a wisp. Compared to paintings, statues, or textile pieces made of thicker fibers, art made of yarn is fragile. It’s hard work to create something so sweet.

“Thread Hijack” embraces these contradictions with such ardor that a visitor would be forgiven for blushing. This exhibition, which will be on view at the Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton until January 8, is a passionate love letter to colorful string and a playful, pointed investigation into its creative possibilities.

All six performers experiment with yarn, but the pieces don’t feel clinical at all. Instead, this show is as warm and cozy as a winter scarf – a weird scarf, mind you, with an intriguing pattern. Mary Birmingham’s curation doesn’t seem bold, even though it is. It’s also quietly provocative. Even in the still marginalized realm of textile art, embroidery is rarely celebrated. The clever and subtly muscular “Thread Hijack” might help change that.

Some of the pieces in the show seem explicitly designed to prove just how well yarn and paint can play together. The lower half of “Earth/Ground/Terrain” by Assam-born artist Natasha Das consists of thick, square brushstrokes of turbulent oil paint. The top half contains stitched rectangles in bright colors, many with the top right corner knocked out, like interlocking Utah tens, each approximately the size of the pigment spots on the bottom.

Both parts of the piece are like reflections, each commenting on the particular qualities of its neighboring medium. Harmonizing India’s needle and thread tradition with brutal American abstract expressionism, Das proves that thread can crackle with the same chaos as oil paint. Because the colors in the top half of the piece reproduce in the bottom, it looks like the yarn is unraveling and maybe even liquefying. Or is it the paint that achieves the quality of a worn-in fabric, supple and faded, machine-washed and stretchy like worn-out cotton?

“Rose” by Natasha Das.

“Pink” takes the dialogue further: here, she has stitched overlapping shapes directly onto a painted background. Thread patches are beautiful extrusions – shiny hits of pigment that mimic the look of freshly applied paint. They even seem to run together.

Other artists in the exhibition negotiate a different settlement between fiber and paint. Holly Miller tickles the surface of her acrylic pieces with pale threads that hang like guitar strings. In “Punch”, a protuberance of blue paint echoes a murmur of thread which traces its outline. This is an add-on string – an instant warm-up, a handcrafted improvement on what otherwise would have been a cold game of color fields. It also generates a strange optical illusion: its clever placement somehow imparts the blurry quality of an image on an old CRT TV.

Raymond Saá’s delightful series of untitled works consists of loosely overlapping gouache paintings of patches affixed to a paper background. He bound the edges of his pleasingly colored pebble-like shapes with yarn, giving them the look of jeans pockets. Many textured artworks entice viewers to touch them; here are a few you might want to hide something in.

The most telling works of “Thread Hijack”, however, are those in which the string is the star. Iranian artist Abdolreza Aminlari pulls his thread so hard that it barely seems to rise above the paper surface of his pieces. He is also meticulous in his measurements: he arranged his stitched lines to form perfect squares and placed the squares to intersect at precise angles, hypnotic in their consistency. It’s a geometry teacher’s golden dream. What really makes Aminlari’s thread shine and sing is the material it’s made of – 24-karat gold machined in Japan. On a blue background, Aminlari’s arrangement of metal shapes resembles an enlarged schematic for the world’s most luxurious computer chip.

Jesse Henson’s seductive work on handmade paper looks equally opulent. She too uses golden thread; his, however, is synthetic, made of polyester and rayon. This allows her to pour it, grouping the dots of color (she sews in Valentine red, clover green and other hues) until the weight of the thread bends the backdrop. Henson protects against yarn vulnerability by allowing each fiber to thicken and strengthen the next. She framed six of her meditations and placed them side by side on a gallery wall; they’re beautifully balanced and surprisingly sturdy considering the modest materials they’re made of.

caroline burton canopy

“Canopy (Breuer Incarnation)” by Caroline Burton.

“Thread Hijack” fills the museum’s second floor special exhibition gallery. But there is a side room on the floor and it contains a little marvel not unrelated to “Thread Hijack”: “Moving Lines” by Amie Adelman, a twisted rainbow bridge of an installation that connects one corner of the space to another with stretched ropes. It’s an exercise in tension, a hammock for fairies, and it contrasts with “Canopy (Breuer Incarnation),” a wraparound “Thread Hijack” piece by Jersey City artist Caroline Burton. Its loose stacking of dark rectangles, the larger ones wobbling above the smaller ones, evoke (among other things) the exterior of the Breuer Building, the New York landmark that has housed several museums.

Playfully, she means notice to the establishment. The artists who work with wire may not be the most famous, institutional, or loudest voices in the gallery. But they are well worth getting tangled up in.

“Thread Hijack” runs at the Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton until January 8. Visit hunterdonartmuseum.org.

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