Huge balls of yarn and eight-foot-long knitting needles dominate the floor of the main exhibition space at Blue Star Contemporary Art Center. Standing nearby is an assortment of strangely woven women’s garments and behind are giant mittens, tapestries, and small rondels made of the same material. Though the artworks are constructed of paper, this is a sculpture show. The dresses and other works by Ivano Vitali are knitted, knotted, or crocheted from paper yarn that the Italian artist makes by twisting strips torn from sheets of magazines and other old periodicals. The massive wooden needles are not props, but used to knit the paper fabric. The colors that pattern all Vitali’s works are found by carefully choosing material to recycle — it took him two years to locate enough yellow to make one of the dresses.
Ivano Vitali and Joan Hall each use paper as their primary medium in this exhibition; both artists are strongly concerned with the environment and ecology. Though the show doesn’t trip over rhetoric, it’s charged with attitude. The voluptuous use of textures and tangible materiality of the pieces add impact, but it’s the contrasting ways the two artists use paper and similar imagery that draws the viewer in.
Vitali works in the radical tradition of Arte Povera, which began in Italy in the late 1960s as not so much a movement but a conviction that to make truly revolutionary art one must abandon both convention and the rule of the marketplace. The use of found objects and a delight in transience are valued over the permanence of archival materials. Vitali began his practice as a performance artist in the 1970s. The show’s curator, local artist and UTSA faculty member Meredith Dean, describes the Florentine artist as “a very considered person, everything he does has purpose,” and recounts an early piece by Vitali. “While living in the countryside in an old farmhouse, he went about collecting dead trees. From these he stripped off the bark, then set up `the trees` around the farmhouse as sculpture ... during the winter, the house being unheated, they were burnt as firewood.”
Vitali learned to knit from his mother in 2005, and began the current collection as an homage to women’s work, craft that is not often given the respect of high art.
The rondels, round and multi-pointed star shapes, recall mandalas, and more prosaically, doilies. Not all his works at Blue Star highlight the feminine, though. The knotted tapestries that cover the walls in large netted rectangles appear to mime atavistic fishing gear, but originate instead in his father’s work as a maker of river reed baskets used to cover demijohns, huge glass containers that hold 70 bottles of wine. Of his art Vitali states, “My works are poor and precious at the same time.”
St. Louis-based Joan Hall sees a continuum that places cell in body, and body within the environment, as levels nested in a single ecology that is dangerously fragile. As both an avid sailor in the Caribbean and a cancer survivor, her identification of trash that she has seen dumped in the ocean by garbage scows as malignant cells invading the sea’s bloodstream is perhaps inevitable. Working with 8’ x 12’ pieces of handmade paper, Hall makes collograph prints from castaway fishing nets she picked up on Florida beaches or was given by fishermen in Key West. Combined with the shadow-like traces of the nets are bits of flotsam found in the ocean. Laminated with plastic, cells of the pattern are cut with a scalpel to create reveals. Pinned to the walls of the gallery, the glowing sheets are tucked and puckered in shapes that recall turbulent waves.
On the floor of the gallery are circles of netting combined with photographs of plastic and other garbage found in dead birds’ stomachs. The placement is fortuitous. Underneath the installation “Here No More” are marks made when tape from a memorial to a member of the Blue Star family who died recently was removed, lifting bits of the floor finish to form ghost images. These marks are like the digital photography in her work, which Hall remarks, “function much like memory in that the fragmented images can change indefinitely.” •