Searching for Equality: Jessica Pinsky at BAYarts
“Weaving represents the inherent geometry of life and by stressing, cutting and manipulating this geometry, I constantly challenge and question this reality.” – Jessica Pinsky
As I looked at Jessica Pinsky’s stunning weavings in the Sullivan Family gallery at BAYArts, I kept thinking about Greek mythology. Several stories from antiquity include weaving as a motif, but today I’m thinking about Philomela – a woman who was raped by her brother-in-law, who then cut out her tongue so she couldn’t tell anyone what happened. But the courageous Philomela would not be silenced – she wove a tapestry telling the tale and sent it to her sister. Oblivious to what was considered “womens’ work”, the fabric went unnoticed. This story illustrates the power that weaving gave women. Weaving was their voice in a society where womens’ voices were silenced.
I’m not going to suggest that Pinsky’s weavings display some sort narrative, but there is definitely a strong “voice” here.
I’m not surprised to learn that Pinsky started out as a painter, as her grasp of formal elements such as composition and color are readily apparent – but her weavings can do so much more than a static flat painting. They are dimensional, and as they move gently in the breeze of the air conditioning, they seem to take on a life of their own.
The key to truly appreciating this show might be missed by some, but if you read the labels carefully, you can deduce what she means by “Equal” (the exhibition’s title). The label for the piece above reads: Pythagorean, Hand Spun and Commercial Silk with Polyester. I will admit, it wasn’t until I went home and started editing my photos that I “got it” – these are made with part hand-spun high-end silk, and part less expensive store-bought commercial silk. The two are woven together, a balancing act with connotations beyond their formal elements.
Pinsky actively manipulates her materials, pulling and stretching it in places, which results in objects like the one above, titled Nebulous. Hundreds of loops of silk hang limply across the center, flimsily supporting the bottom half. In addition to the literal tension of the threads being tested, there’s a figurative tension created as well, conveyed through the precariousness of her compositions – barely holding together, their components insecurely cling to each other, and while beautiful, I can’t help but feel slightly dubious about their stability (I’m trying very hard not to use the phrase “hanging by a thread”).
As Pinsky explained in a recent article, she is always pushing the boundaries of her materials: “With lots of experimentation I discovered I could make cloth behave very differently with the same basic materials, but changing just a few things about those materials. For example, I can hand spin yarn to be very tight and twist upon itself, or very loose so it hangs without body. This body of work is a simple metaphor about how human beings are made of the same material, but can behave very differently.”
Works like Shadow (above) seem to be actually unraveling before my eyes. The left corner droops limply, as though someone tugged it a little too hard. I’m not sure why, but I can’t help but feel like I’m looking at fragments of fabric from an ancient civilization – survivors.
While the pieces are new, the technology used to create them is certainly not. Pinsky used a 16-harness loom with double backbeams – this and many other looms can be found at the non-profit fabric studio, Praxis, on Waterloo. Pinsky is the executive director of Praxis Fiber Worskhop; she also teaches classes there for Cleveland Institute of Art students (the looms were originally from the CIA Fabric Department, with additions such as the dobby loom donated by Kent State).
The piece in the show that I think best conveys the artist’s intentions is Union (above). First of all, she is able to hang her work around a curved wall, a location rarely utilized in a gallery that primarily shows two-dimensional art. Pinned to this dramatic curve, the material is split in the middle and stretched to its limits – still connected by long strings, but separated in two.
Here one can see the idea of equality being toyed with – two parts, but not equal. The right-hand half has been stitched up – ruched – making it smaller, tighter, and well, just different. This visually makes the piece feel unbalanced, and forces the viewer to ask some tough questions.
Why would the artist do this? Wouldn’t the piece look nicer and more pleasant if both sides lined up nicely? Why do I want them to line up perfectly? While united, they are hardly equal.
In an article for Cool Cleveland, Pinsky explains: “I had been thinking a lot about equality in my own life. I don’t really make a lot of conceptual work. My work is really very formal and very much about color. I thought it would be a nice way to kind of mix the things that were happening in my personal life with the things I make in my studio.” She goes on to explain: “I’m engaged to my partner, who is also a female. So it’s paying attention to how we’re treated as a couple versus how I’ve always been treated with male partners. And then just kind of talking about even though all of the yarn is natural material, like all of the people, just because it’s been treated a little bit differently, it just behaves very differently. I’m trying to make the comparison between the way people are treated and the way the yarn is treated.”
Pinsky’s voice comes across loud and clear in her weavings, like countless women before her from antiquity to the present. Her message is an anxious one, perhaps reflecting the current state of affairs in our nation – a nation ripped in two, barely holding together by a few strings.