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More than just dyed in the wool

Spray foam. Stainless steel. A towing rope? That's just a few of today's knit pickings.

February 04, 2007|David Ng | Special to The Times

New York — TO knit a simple sweater or scarf, you'll need the following: a ball of yarn, a pair of knitting needles and a pattern. To knit a work of art, you'll probably want to make room in your knitting bag for some new materials: industrial lead, say, or stainless steel, or cans of spray foam, or maybe enough nautical towing rope to pull a barge.

The world of knitting is looking a lot less warm and fuzzy these days as artists take the domestic pastime in unexpected directions. If Martha Stewart opened a poncho shop with Salvador Dali, they might produce something like the knitted peculiarities popping up in galleries and museums across the country and beyond.

"Artists are taking knitting out of its traditional context and exploding people's conceptions of what they're going to be seeing," says David Revere McFadden, chief curator of the Museum of Arts & Design in New York, where a new exhibition, "Radical Lace and Subversive Knitting," just opened. The show, which continues through June 17, features more than 40 works by 27 artists from around the world and spotlights innovations in fiber art, which has seen a significant resurgence in the last 10 years, according to McFadden.

Chief among the innovations, and a source of inspiration for many artists, are the materials: Traditional wool is out, anything offbeat is in, so long as it can be knitted, stitched, crocheted, knotted or otherwise twisted together. The weirder and more uncooperative, the better.

Artist Dave Cole of Providence, R.I., is showing a teddy bear he knitted out of industrial lead strips using custom-made steel knitting needles. (The lead kept breaking his regular aluminum needles.) "Big Lead Teddy Bear" is stuffed with lead wool, sits 8 inches high and weighs 25 pounds. Cole is also exhibiting an evening gown made of 1,000 $1 bills that he cut into strips the width of dental floss and then knitted into a nine-piece dress.

"It's not that I work with obscure materials," says Cole. "These are common materials within their normal context. But I'm asking them to do something that they never, ever do."

Sharon Kagan, an L.A.-based artist, makes a point echoed by many who work in fiber: "Artists who knit don't want to be defined as just craftsmen. I think that's why more of us are seeking out the unconventional."

Kagan is using polyester tying ribbon, the type normally used to bundle newspapers, to knit an abstract 19th century-style ball gown that she will exhibit in May at a group show at LAAA / Gallery 825 in West Hollywood. The gown will incorporate knitted and crocheted elements as well as steel armature to give the whole work a voluminous bell shape. Last summer, Kagan, along with five other L.A.-area artists working under the direction of sculptor Tim Hawkinson, created a giant project called "Sweater" at Gallery 825. The team used beige spray foam, the kind used for insulation, to construct a series of 4-by-8-foot grids arranged to suggest the inside of a sweater magnified 10 times.

Nicola Vruwink of L.A. crochets ribbon from audiocassette tapes. Her latest work, "The Nothingness of Nothingness," is on view through March 11 in a group show titled "Darkness & Light" at Armory Northwest in Pasadena. The piece stands nearly 12 feet tall and emulates the overgrown foliage typically seen on the sides of buildings and freeway structures. Vruwink plans a similar installation July 21 through Aug. 25 at d.e.n. contemporary art in Culver City. In the past, she has crocheted wall-size lyrics of '80s pop songs by Wham! and Bonnie Tyler.

"Part of it is my nostalgia for my youth, when we listened to music on cassettes," Vruwink says. "But I'm also fascinated with the material. It has a sparkle to it. It's physically light, but it has a visual weight."

Breaking the mold

EXPERIMENTAL knitting has a multithreaded history. It garnered attention in the '50s, when such artists as Lenore Tawney, Magdalena Abakanowicz and Ed Rossbach abandoned two-dimensional fiber art and embraced free-standing shapes with sculptural elements.

About the same time, unconventional material began appearing in knitted art. Ruth Asawa drew notice for her knitted and crocheted wire sculptures. (A retrospective of her work opens March 10 at the Japanese American National Museum in L.A.) In the '60s, Eva Hesse changed the art of weaving by incorporating plastics, latex and other synthetics.

Marcel Duchamp, the early 20th century Dada pioneer, wasn't a knitter, but his ideas influenced many contemporary textile artists.

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