2014 Essay | Comfort Me

2014 Essay | Comfort Me

Comfort Me

Presented by the Fiber Department, Cranbrook Academy of Art


 
  View of Orpheus Foundation
photo by James Haefner
courtesy of The SmithGroup JJR

Comfort Me is an exhibition of work done by students from the Fiber Department of the Cranbrook Academy of Art that explores the topic of comfort. Some of the pieces do this through the tactile material connection we have with domestic objects - think of the warmth of a favorite garment, the weight of a quilt as you settle into bed, and holding your pet. Other works are based in fond memories triggered by a favorite photograph, organizing a group of beautiful objects, the telephone conversation with a loved one, and the peace and balance resulting from a spiritual practice. Jenny Walker’s commemorative plates (Canoe) use photographs from vacations and holidays to explore the ways we build memory and celebrate interpersonal relationships while Emily Staugaitis’s, Untitled (Brush Collection), builds the space and time to linger over and appreciate the beauty of use, design, and the everyday. The hermit costumes of Arie Ruvinsky use the identity revealed by a garment to explore the social balance provided by those among us who are removed from general society. Gabrielle Pescador’s Tallitkatan transforms a ritual garment exposing the symbolic weight of spiritual practice and Xiaohan Zhao’s Baobao is a mixture of garment and skin that connects and separates two bodies in an intimate moment. Technology also brings comfort – think of the ease of getting in touch with an intimate partner which the fabric quilt/collages of Andrea Alonge complicates with a mixture of domesticity and sexting. Ariel Levine’s Envy removes the material component of comfort and uses the aural experience of a story and the degradation of the technology that transmits it to us in order to wrestle with the internal dialogues stemming from our relationships.  Many of the pieces in this exhibition struggle with the stillness, contentment, and rest comfort suggests, exposing the tension between our day to day challenges and a need for peace.

Cranbrook Art Museum
Photograph by Justin Maconochie
Courtesy of The SmithGroup JJR

 

The tension between daily struggles and the human need for contentment is in evidence each day at Cranbrook as my students question their basic assumptions about who they are, what they make, how and why they make.  The realizations that are part of this process of exploration do not make most people comfortable – makers or viewers.  What I understand from working with the dedicated students of Cranbrook is that they embrace these challenges and do so in ways that honor their unique viewpoints and experiences. The texts that follow share some of the process of Arie Ruvinsky’s first year in the Fiber Department and thoughts on the theme of comfort from Jovencio de la Paz, 2012 graduate of the Fiber Department. 

– Mark Newport, Artist-in-Residence and Head of Fiber at Cranbrook Academy of Art

 



 
 

Arie Ruvinsky
Gradient 2
photograph

If we are going to have a dialogue about comfort during my first year at Cranbrook, it’s best to preface the discussion with what I brought with me to make the initial transition to campus more amenable.  Amongst the studio materials packed into the moving van, I managed to squeeze in a vintage Santa lamp, my favorite armchair from my undergrad days in the UK, the 70’s John Deere bike that I bought from a thrift-store in Texas, several shelves worth of books, and a mini trampoline.  To say the least, the selection felt rather Spartan to me, but was replete with all the items necessary for the ideal hermit’s cave.

Hermits, most commonly thought of as ancient monkish creatures, are infamously known for their disavowal of creature comforts.  Central to the tenets of being a canon 603 hermit, institutionally-recognized within the Catholic Church, are the teachings of St. Damian, who emphasized a life devoted to the praise of God, penance, prayer, solitude, and public evangelism.  To quote:

“The teachings of St. Peter Damian are important for understanding the solitary communion of the hermit with the entire Church. The prayer of the hermit cannot be strictly solitary; while physically isolated, the hermit is fully present to the Church. Damian called the hermit a minor ecclesia, a Church in miniature, in communion with all of its members. The life is a radical choice of God and a life of radical solidarity with all of humanity.”

Ariel Levine
Envy
sound recording
 

Reading through this particular lens, I see many similarities between being a hermit in the Catholic tradition and an MFA candidate in the Fiber department at Cranbrook and the askesis or practice, of becoming a studio-artist.  To me, living in a tight-knit (no pun intended) community of fellow artists mirrors the experience of the Desert Mothers and Fathers of early Christianity, who adopted Christ’s suffering by arranging themselves in isolated pocket colonies.  As precursors to the monastic tradition, I think they perfectly embody the difficulties that MFA candidates face throughout our daily struggles with making art happen and the doubts within our internal dialogues.  To go to art school at Cranbrook is indeed a radical choice.  In a way, it is a kind of confession of faith – faith in aesthetics and an inter-communal social practice via academia to find meaning and beauty within chaos.

When I think about my research, I think about how the archetype of the hermit manifests itself through the figures of clowns, nuns, and Santa Claus, each living apart as a costumed Other in order to provide the pastoral duties of benevolence, goodwill, charity, and mirth to the rest of world.  Through isolation, they maintain a sort of metabolism between solitary introspection and societal engagement to contribute positively to the greater human fabric.  The difficulty in understanding these kinds of hermits are their need for separation in order to embrace their own personal-freak behavior as on par with coming to terms with their own purity and purpose.  In essence, the hermit is at one with its own truth and creates its own reality and aesthetic lifestyle irrespective of what is socially sanctioned. Likewise, the artist replicates this by creating worlds that would otherwise escape the popular imagination and pinpointing and giving form to those sentiments, which elude us.  The artist, like the hermit, works from the gut, confronting frictions and discomforts that must be faced head on, thus the practice of the hermit/MFA candidate is motivated by the questions that call us away from sleep.  In short, within my fiber-based practice, procedures of dress and movement become forms of self-mortification.  The act of wearing my costumes of Nuns, Santas, and Pierrot clowns, create for the wearer the burden and association of being Other, they are the points at which the freak-self and the pure-self collide, and those so-called cheap thrills and frills, we lug around are simply tools for deeper meditation.

– Arie Ruvinsk, student, Fiber Department, Cranbrook Academy of Art

 


The Soft World


 
 

Andrea Alonge
Good Buy Cellphones
fabric applique and mixed media

Writer Gregg Bordowitz has referred to the field of Textiles and Fiber as “the Soft World,” words which outline a material reality and also a terrain of ideology. Differentiated from hardness and its preoccupation with edifice, with the rigid, the immovable, the absolute and the masculine, softness is the pliable, the elastic, the permeable, the mercurial and the mutable. The issue of “softness” has seen peculiar popularity in unexpected fields: fuzzy logic, quantum mechanics, string theory even, all theorize a softer universe, one in which matter and energy are not bound to strict absolutes or binaries of being, but are fluid, undulating like the polyester stuffing in a plush toy. This view of a malleable world marks a deep shift from how past hierarchies have equated hardness with strength and importance and softness with weakness and the inconsequential. In this schematic of the universe, softness is essential, allows for transformation, is the energy of potential. This softness is a radical kind of softness. In its fluttering resistance to stiffness both material and ideological, is the purview of any person engaged in textile or fiber based practices.

Jenny Walker
Canoe
Commemorative plate

 


Comfort and its Illusions 

Comfort is an economically fraught term. It is a gray middle, a no-man’s-land and a fantasy of an increasingly non-existent middle class. The workforce engages in life-long efforts towards the proposed stability of “a comfortable” life. “We’re working hard, but we’re comfortable.” ”We don’t want much, just to send our kids to school and retire comfortably." Comfort, as the primary goal to which the poor and the middle classes strive, is a goal that equates security, stability and happiness to adequate material consumption. For many Americans, the race towards comfort is set intentionally with no specific finish line, because we are a culture engaged in a continuum of consumerism with no cap, no knowable end. With what greater force could a capitalist society manipulate its citizens? There is ever more comfort to be had, the market tells us, the bar of comfort rising with every economic hurdle we clear. We work harder, strive more, buy more. The illusion of comfort is that it is an end, when in reality, it is a process that engages us in stunning insatiability.


 
 

Emily Staugaitis
Untitled (Brush Collection)
mixed media

Comfort and Scarcity

What are the comforts of scarcity? What do they look like? How are they felt differently from the comforts of abundance? My grandmother, a survivor of Japanese occupied Singapore and a late-in-life immigrant to the United States, speaks often of comfort in very surprising places. She is comforted by the sound of the old fridge, humming too much, an assurance of the next meal. She is comforted by the dandelions in the yard, a reason for her to be out in the sun, an invitation to fresh air and a chance conversation with the neighbors. These comforts are surprising to me because they are not really marketable comforts, easily set into an economy or exchange. They are things which pass through life, even now – the daily events of life, repeating endlessly and grounding in their repetition. Cooking is like this I think. So is sewing, or doing laundry or washing the dishes. These ways of interacting with the world are elemental to life. These domestic tasks are the assurance of the continuity of life, the gentle and ever soft reminder that lunches will be packed, the towels will be folded, socks will go on without holes. This too is radical, that textile and its soft office in the home should be the comfort at the foundation of life.

– Jovencio de la Paz, alumni, Fiber Department, Cranbrook Academy of Art

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Published in conjunction with the SOFA CHICAGO 2014 Special Exhibit Comfort Me presented by the Fiber Department, Cranbrook Academy of Art, Bloomfield Hills, MI

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