by Jaimie Baron
The 13 wall-mounted sculptures displayed along the side walls in Michelle Yi Martin’s new solo exhibition In Medias Res immediately recall emptied chrysalises – or should that be cocoons? The difference between the two is more than simply butterfly versus moth. Butterfly larvae produce a chrysalis, a hard exoskeleton that protects the molting caterpillar as it transforms. Moth larvae, by contrast, spin silk – that strange, organic substance that defines our sensation of smooth softness – to produce its sheltering cocoon. Despite their common conflation, the two kinds of casing are distinct in both chemical makeup and texture. Martin’s abstract sculptures interweave the haptic qualities of both chrysalis and cocoon into hybrid forms made of rigid materials like synthetic monofilament and copper wire along with softer stuff like cotton, wool, horsehair and nettle fiber.
For each sculpture, the artist wove together hundreds of natural and manufactured filaments by hand, often against sticky tape to keep the tiny strands from tangling. Martin works primarily by feel, partly to spare her eyes but also to allow the materials to lead her fingers. (She is not a trained weaver, but coming from a family talented in textiles, she took to it so easily six years ago that she was awarded a 2019 residency at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation.) Martin scours salvage and thrift shops for used fishing line and orders nettle through Fibershed, an organization dedicated to supporting sustainable textile production. She is committed to an ecological, ethical practice of making art but also appreciates the histories carried by used threads, even if they remain unknown.
Some of the pieces are roughly cylindrical; others seem to emerge from the wall; some are open at the bottom, while still others are tied together. None are tightly woven, though the gaps between the strands of weft vary to create many types of layered patterns, not only in the weavings themselves but also in the shadows cast onto the walls. Each sculpture can be read as a veil or shroud, a sign of hopeful transformation or the emptiness of a vacated skin.
Many of the pieces have specific stories. Xray, in spectral blacks and whites, combines horsehair from discarded violin bows with fishing line, two histories intertwined. Poppy, perhaps the most representational of these abstractions, is a blast of orange reminiscent of its Californian namesake. Underland, a reference to Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert MacFarlane, displays serpentine strands of descending yarn that remind me of the many layers of earth beneath us, the deep strata on which we stand but rarely consider. The Swiftlet’s Nest, a wild swirl of paper on monofilament, refers to avian homes stolen from birds by humans for delicacies. Anni was spun on Anni Albers’ loom while Martin was at the Albers residency. For Halmoni, made in honor of the artist’s grandmother who first taught her Korean patchwork stitching, references a traditional hat called a paeraengi that Korean men once wore. Despite the individual qualities of each piece, they cohere as a group, like a set of ghosts gathered in mourning – or celebration.
While drawing inspiration from nature, her materials, and her Korean heritage, Martin also works in conversation with other women who have transformed weaving and other textile work from (devalued) craft into art and made everyday materials into objects of beauty and contemplation: Lenore G. Tawney, Eva Hesse, and Kay Sekimachi, among others. Yet, what distinguishes Martin’s pieces is how they resist resolution. Martin uses the exhibition’s title — Latin for “in the middle” — to emphasize how her sculptures appear to be still forming, amorphous, in transition. The designation, Martin notes, also applies to her own art practice: As a mother with a full-time teaching job, she makes work in the midst of the mundanities and crises of everyday existence.
The Hold On series on the gallery’s back wall, though it lacks the existential ethereality of what’s on view elsewhere, also fascinates. It is the product of what Martin was able to create during lockdown when she was forced to make do with the materials she had on hand: paper, cardboard, pastels, ink and self-made yarn. These she interlaced into meshes that look like giant swatches of fabric under a microscope whose magnification reveals both the density and openness of cloth. Amid another virus surge, I read them as, in part, tally marks of a prisoner trapped inside too long, tracking time. In this sense, the series serves as a tactile record of what those first days of the pandemic felt like to those of us who, trapped suddenly at home, needed to do something when our world seemed like it really might be ending.
On her website, Martin writes, “When I weave, I’m writing a letter to the universe, and I know I’m being heard.” Grappling strand-by-strand with the manifold textures that make up our tangible experience of the universe, Martin is leaving traces of humanity’s resemblance to both the butterfly, which hardens itself against the harshness of the world, and the moth, which spins a supple yet resilient garment of lovely, soft silk. However fragile and temporary these works may first appear, they are far stronger than they look.
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Michelle Yi Martin: “In Medias Res” @ Municipal Bonds through January 29, 2022.
About the author:
Jaimie Baron is a professor of media studies at the University of Alberta and a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley. She is the author of The Archive Effect: Found Footage and the Audiovisual Experience of History and Reuse, Misuse, Abuse: The Ethics of Audiovisual Appropriation in the Digital Era. She is the director of the Festival of (In)appropriation and co-editor of Docalogue.