WATERTOWN — There’s a solace in the familiar designs of household textiles. Painter Michelle Grabner finds fresh edges in their timeworn imagery and honors the history and labor behind them. Patterns in upholstery and tea towels, after all, reflect the rhythms, structures, and repetitions of our ordinary days.
“The Glory of Handiwork,” at Drive-By Projects, featuring works by Grabner and ceramic artist Andrea Marquis, was inspired by Grabner’s show “Unremarkable Handiwork: Translations and Collections” at Alice Austen House on Staten Island. Austen (1866-1952) was a pioneering photographer of New York street scenes. A lesbian artist, she also documented relationships between women.
Austen’s domestic lace captivated Grabner, and it became fodder for her art. In a photograph and digital prints of doilies, she simultaneously spotlights their mundanity and their intricate artfulness. A grid of them reads like a chart of snowflakes — each one different, each a spectacular, spinning fractal pattern, but made imperfectly by hand and weathered by time.
While decorative art can be comforting in its permanence, Grabner brings a painter’s sensibility of “how can I make this fresh and new?” to her subjects. Two magical paintings, impossible to reproduce effectively in a photograph (go see them in person!), are white fields of tatting and crochet patterns. To make them, she used old handmade textiles as stencils, painting over them to reproduce their wheeling patterns, and then adding breaths of yellow and gray. The canvases are at once domestic, microbial, and snowy — endless, humble, yet shot with light. Like our ordinary days.
Marquis, too, works with fractal patterns, although hers originate in her yard. She traces shadows of fig branches onto slabs of clay, then cuts them and constructs Gothic-looking structures. Because she carved the elements of “Candlestick Holder (Syrup of Figs)” and “Supersymmetry” from slabs, they retain their flat faces, but she builds them into ornate volumetric forms. The angelic “Supersymmetry” has a skirted center and lifting wings. The delicate glazes, drifting with subtle tones, nod to Grabner’s paintings.
Fractals make up the architecture of microcosms and macrocosms. Grabner and Marquis remind us that handiwork’s rhythmic gestures and labor over time is of similar design. Our lives are formed by such patterns. To see them anew in this art is to reawaken.
THE GLORY OF HANDIWORK
At Drive-By Projects, 81 Spring St., Watertown, through Jan 14. 617-835-8255, https://drive-byprojects.com/