By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
When does a common object become a piece of art? When an artist picks it up and decides its purpose is not merely practical but worthy as a medium to create art. Such is the case with the fiber yarn and paper yarn used by textile artist Christy Matson.
Matson’s work is currently on display at the Milwaukee Art Museum, 700 N. Art Museum Dr., as part of the museum’s “Current” series. The exhibition, “Currents 38: Christy Matson” can be found in the Bradley Family Gallery and will be on display from Friday, Feb. 25 through Sunday, July 17.
The “Currents” series began in 1982 as a way to showcase contemporary art and artists. Past exhibitions have included Rachel Harrison, Gord Peteran, Felix Gonzalez-Torres and more. Matson is the series’ first fiber artist.
Matson’s specialty is weaving, and she uses a digital Jacquard loom to complete her pieces. The loom helps her capture the color gradient while also challenging the geometric shapes often associated with weaving. The end results are intricately woven pieces that combine textures and colors.
Many of her pieces depict geometric and organic shapes. The works are both structured and fluid.
“Weaving is kind of thought more as a skill or a craft and Christy is really elevating this form into contemporary art,” Monica Obinski said during a tour of the gallery. “Which is really the point of the exhibition. Showing how this is just another form of contemporary art.”
Obinski is the organizing curator from High Museum of Art in Atlanta. From 2015 to 2020, she served as the design curator at the Milwaukee Art Museum.
Matson’s pieces often begin as watercolor paintings or sketches. The Jacquard loom helps her capture the color gradient. Weaving allows her to build the image and the support of said image.
“Before it becomes weaving it’s a pile of threads,” Matson said during the tour. “With weaving there’s two sets of threads. The ones on the loom and ones you move back and forth with. And it’s all about the interaction of those two things.”
Those interactions, under Matson’s hands, go from piles of threads to works of art. While her pieces are contemporary, many of them pay an homage to historical patterns and weaving techniques.
In some pieces, there is a direct reference to the optical art that was popular in the 60s. Other works are styled after the overshot coverlets popularized in the 19th century. While coverlets were often used as a type of décor for a bed, Matson’s work is meant to be viewed.
“Overshot is an exciting weave structure for me,” she said. “It’s kind of optical and spectacular.”
It’s a multilayered process, she said, and it allows her to incorporate more information in each piece.
While some of Matson’s pieces are relatively small, others take up more wall space.
“I tend to bounce between scale,” Matson said. “If I make a bunch of really large pieces then I end up making some small things as a type of antidote. In general, my practice tends to reverberate between different polls.”
The same notion applies to her use of color. Some are minimalistic while others depict bold and bright colors.
Although the pieces may appear flat, there’s a dimensional quality to them. They’re textured, Matson said, adding that there’s a tactility to them. In one piece, Matson includes a waffle weave – a functional technique that is often used to create thermal shirts or diapers. In this case, the technique elevates the piece.
“These pieces sort of function as paintings in many ways,” Matson said. “But because I’m able to create the canvas or the surface, I’m able to make things that sometimes have very literal 3D elements in them.”
In addition to the more than 40 pieces on display, visitors can also see a video of Matson at work in her studio located in Los Angeles. Filmmaker Sam Macon captured the film, which includes overlayed shots of Los Angeles.
The exhibition also includes the piece “Magical Thinking,” a work that recently joined that Milwaukee Art Museum’s collection.
“It said museum piece to me,” Margaret Andera, the interim chief curator for Milwaukee Art Museum, who helped acquire the piece for the museum, said. “This was a really different direction and it related strongly to a number of works in our collection.”
“Magical Thinking” depicts both geometric and organic shapes. Matson created the work during the pandemic, as she, like many, waded through the confusion of the past two years.
All of Matson’s pieces invite the viewer to take a closer look. From the technique to the layers and everything in between, Matson’s work lends itself to inspection and introspection.
The Milwaukee Art Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursdays and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday through Sunday. For more information, visit mam.org.