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Galleries: A map based on touch and care

Marissa Cote’s art at Distillery Gallery offers an easy route into a charged territory

Marissa Cote, “KNEE 2 KNEE,” cotton yarn, 2023Marissa Cote

Mixed-media textile artist Marissa Cote’s first solo exhibition at the Distillery Gallery is at once piercing and embracing. In her artist’s statement, she identifies herself as a white woman, and she makes explicit her privileged place in societal power structures. She writes, “I am interested in the ways proximity to whiteness shapes one’s ability to love, and love well.”

As the veil of social privilege lifts and tears (and is violently yanked into place again), it’s crucial to make central the stories of racism, othering, and oppression told by BIPOC people. This show could speak to any viewer, but it also offers a template for white people who might feel defensive or guilty: Listen with care. Ask questions of yourself. Be uncomfortable. Witness.

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Marissa Cote, “split/seam,” cotton yarn, hook, chain, 2022. Marissa Cote

Cote uses touch as a metaphor. The tactility of hand-weaving conveys the comfort and discomfort brought on by forthright communication. Her works, made with cotton or acrylic yarn in radiant tones unlike any skin color, sing out for stroking. “KNEE 2 KNEE” at first looks like a bowtie, but the title reorients us: We’re looking down at two thighs contacting at the knee, one violet and the other lavender. Touching, they turn a bright red that could signal hurt, warmth, or passion.

Metal hooks, chains, and anchors tear at or stretch several weavings. Works such as “bear/borne,” in which an anchor tugs at the center of a Josef Albers-like rendering of concentric squares suspended from the ceiling, or “split/seam,” in which a metal hook rips a hole down the middle of a textile mounted on the wall, evoke Lucio Fontana’s slashed and punctured paintings, which shocked mid-20th-century modernists.

But Cote’s pieces go beyond modernism’s hermetic discourse. She personalizes the experience. The textile is more intimate than a canvas, which could not pull the way this woven fabric does. This is more like skin. The chained metal recalls shackles.

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Marissa Cote, “bear/borne,” cotton yarn, hook, chain, anchor, paracord, 2022. Marissa Cote

She does not make light of abuse or power imbalances — fabric will always yield to metal. But using abstraction, Cote creates art that doesn’t have to be about race at all, which makes it an easy route into that charged territory, with a map based on touch and care rather than fear or guilt.

MARISSA COTE: I promise to stay in touch

At Distillery Gallery, 516 East 2nd Street, South Boston, through March 18. https://distillerygallery.squarespace.com/exhibitions/2023/ipromisetostayintouch


Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Instagram @cate.mcquaid.