If you tend to find fiber art sleep-inducing, Sheila Hicks: 50 Years may hit you like a jolt of caffeine. Combining large-scale sculptural work with small diaristic pieces, this exhibition at the Mint Museum Uptown explores the work of a groundbreaking artist who has spent her career erasing the boundaries that separate contemporary art, craft, and design.
Hicks received her BFA ('57) and MFA ('59) from Yale University, studying under painter Josef Albers, but a number of occurrences — including an undergraduate independent study with weaver Anni Albers and a Fulbright to Chile in '57 — started her on another path. Formally trained as a painter, Hicks acquired most of her knowledge of textiles and fiber outside academia. A breaker of rules and flouter of convention, she was not only a pioneer in making textiles more sculptural, but she has also long incorporated contemporary trends into this most traditional medium. As she says, she started with Albers "and kept going in a disorderly way."
This exhaustive show of 100 works, organized by the Addison Gallery of American Art, is divided into five sections: Early Years and Latin America, Architecture and Industry, Small Weavings and Drawings, Freestanding Sculptures, and Conceptual Art and Found Objects.
The exhibition is dominated by a number of large works — major commissions, installations, conceptual pieces. Familiar techniques take on unfamiliar power and meaning when executed at this scale, e.g., the wall-sized wrapped wool "Bamina (Banyan)." Although not as large, "Prophecy from Constantinople," another wrapped wool piece, is disarming because of its presentation; at the Mint, it's draped casually over a railing and greets you as you step off the escalator.
"Bas-relief for interior of Air France Boeing 747" is notable for both its scale and the glimpse it affords of another milieu. Hicks produced 18 of these huge, subtly colored, crescent-shaped forms for Air France's first-class lounges — certainly a different sort of first class than most of us will likely experience, no matter how often we're bumped up.
The deceptively simple "Color Alphabet II/VI" consists of a grid of 49 blocks that look as if they could be part of a color theory exercise. But rendered as a large tapestry, this arrangement of blocks has a spiritual, meditative quality.
Hicks' small weavings, which she calls minimes (pronounced "mee-neems"), are made on simple looms that she fashions from stretcher bars and nails and carries around with her. She likens them to journal pages or daily meditations. Many of these weavings, as well as other small pieces, are finished works in their own right, but some are exercises and studies. Although many are exquisite in color and engaging in their unpredictability, I frankly drifted through a lot of them, but for those who are knowledgeable about textiles and weaving, I would assume they're revelatory. My loss.
The exhibition's final section, Conceptual Art and Found Objects, is perhaps my favorite. It's filled with works that incorporate disparate materials such as shirt collars, price tags, slate and human hair. Works here range from the intimate "Dimanche," made from bundled leather shoelaces; "Tresors et Secrets," a collection of balls of yarn encasing objects unknown to the viewer; and "Baby Time Again" and "Raining Baby Bands," which are imposing, but ethereal, floor to ceiling works made entirely of Swedish baby linens.
However, the most dazzling Sheila Hicks work at the Mint is not to be found in the exhibition. The museum is now home to "Mega Footprint Near the Hutch (May I Have This Dance?)," a monumental work of linen and cork that was formerly part of the Target Corporation's collection. This major gift to the museum, which spans the entire height of the Mint's four-story atrium, can be viewed from any level. But I recommend the vertigo-inducing one that comes from standing right in front of it on the first floor and looking straight up, where you can experience being overwhelmed and engulfed by a beautiful work of art.
(The exhibit Sheila Hicks: 50 Years runs through Jan. 29, 2012, at the Mint Museum Uptown, 500 S. Tryon St. Details: 704-337-2000 or www.mintmuseum.org.)