Jen Pack and Philippe Jestin at Ampersand
Not so long ago, virtually all American girls grew up learning how to sew. We took a class in junior high called ‘Home Economics,’ which vaguely implied that we’d be learning how to take charge of the financial responsibilities of running a home. In practice, we learned how to make things like tuna casseroles and sew an A-line
skirt and a hideous garment called a ‘jumper.’ More significant than the actual clothes or the making of them was a sense of our place in the world which the whole culture of ‘Home Economics’ implied – sewing not as craft form but as duty. Our memories of time spent at the machine may also bring back all the emotional turmoil of adolescence: a heady dose of ambivalent nostalgia for what was certainly a different era.
As with any activity which involves hours of repetition, as well as requiring intense concentration, one must enter into an altered state to facilitate the process of sewing – similar to the trance-like state one enters while drawing. In her recent exhibition, Threadworks, Jen Pack displays playful and intriguing work with fiber that includes some virtuoso feats of stitching. Pack comes from a generation for whom sewing carries far less emotional baggage. She states her intention to "reinterpret formal minimalism in the context of a feminine convention."
Pack has chosen her tools both for their technical potential, the stitching becoming ‘a means of creating a graphic line and making a piece sculptural and textured,’ and because of their allusion to traditional feminine pursuits. As a bonus, she engages in the contemporary dialogue of what constitutes ‘fine art,’ further stating her preference for organic form which "marries the imperfect quality of the handmade with the sameness and regularity of machine stitching. I strive to integrate hybrid ideas: straddling the fence between craft and art, color theory and the rawness of an emotional response to intense color."
Threadworks presents us with nine sculptural, wall-mounted pieces using silk and thread. Pack’s primary focus is on an exploration of color, but her formal, largely minimal, compositions also evoke organic references, including hair and the human body. Hanging on the wall is a light-colored wooden frame about a foot square, stretched with translucent silk: Green Dimension presents fabric stitched with parallel lines of bright hues, varying from deeply saturated – viridian, kelly, mint, yellow green – then fading to paler tints. This pattern then reverses as the strands sweep around to the other side. The threads continue down and out from the stitched silk, extending about five feet to where they form a semicircular arc along the floor defined by a curving metal rod to which they are tied; their ends lie in a jumble. The conical shape suggests a bodice and hoop skirt, or the figure of a woman.
Related in their use of layered fabric, we find a triangular division in Golden Triangle, horizontal bands in Pink Sun. These pieces also involve the luxurious extension of the threads off the stretchers, in Pink Sun carefully arranged in straight lines that are pinned meticulously to the wall, before being allowed to trail off haphazardly. The pink ranges from magenta at the top, red, coral, peach and violet, to a faint rosy pale hue.
Red Mess displays a long tangle of bright red skeins, departing from the overall emphasis on order and clean lines. Once again, Pack works from deeper hues in the outer edges to a lighter hue in the center. The ratty strands fall six feet to the floor, tapering in the center, suggesting perhaps a beard, or pubic hair. Three small works hanging close together function as a triptych: Thread Box, Orange Threads and Pink Part. Thread Box uses black and gray thread on pale pink silk stitched in a pattern leaving a square negative space, the effect unmistakably suggesting an abstraction of female genitalia. Pack’s constructions offer a strong sense of presence, each suggesting a distinct personality.
In Ampersand’s other room, Philippe Jestin presents Expressing Relief, fifteen wall-mounted pieces of mixed media including wood, paint and resin. Jestin intends to suggest the idea of the body as a ‘flexible container.’ Sharing with Pack a focus on color, his work presents us with glowing images of human silhouettes. An acrobatic red male figure, stretching upward in a ‘bow’ pose, is housed inside a lozenge-shaped, oval shape. Adjacent, a portly figure stands, arms akimbo, his bald green figure displaying a hefty beer belly.
Other pieces are more abstracted, apparently viewed from above or from other extreme angles. The use of a photographic process as a step in execution of this work asserts a strong presence. Two pieces, substrate, numbers 11 and 12, use aluminum baking sheets, with the figure a negative space which has been cut and removed. The glittering resin shines beneath in red and green. In addition to the flipped over baking sheets, Jestin uses lazy susans as the foundation for several pieces. A San Francisco artist relocated from France, Jestin not only studied science at the Sorbonne, but also worked for a time as a sous-chef; his familiarity with food and the tools of cooking give this work an additional layer of meaning and interest.
Jestin states "One objective in treating the carved drawing with pigmented resin is to bring to the foreground the idea of fluidity within the material and the human body. How we choose to recognize or not this ability can be a matter of physical experience...in any case something to reflect on." Considering that we are, after all, some 90 percent water, we might suspect that Jestin is on to something here, and we may think about the activities and functions of our various bodily fluids – giving the title of the exhibition a new meaning. Still, just how effectively the hardened resin, which assumes a brittle, glass-like appearance, conveys the suggestion of fluidity is another matter.
Overall, the two artists present a predominantly optimistic vision of our current human condition. Both use domestic objects, Pack’s taken from the vocabulary of sewing, Jestin’s from cooking, to create colorful, formal objects which reference – obliquely or more directly – the human body. While emotional content informs the work, Jestin’s contorted figures beginning to suggest a kind of fundamental angst, and Pack’s obsessive fiber pieces are, of course, bound to a tradition firmly interwoven in the texture of feminist fabric, neither artist engages us too deeply in overt political agendas. We ultimately find the implied content receding to the back of our minds, and enjoy the work primarily for its aesthetic appeal.
- Barbara Morris is a contributing editor to Artweek.