Domestic Affairs: Metamorphosis


There is something inspiring about watching an exhibition come together. I first experienced this when I worked with the FIDM Museum on their first travelling exhibition, Modern love. Two weeks ago, I was one of a number of volunteers who helped install the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textile‘s (SJMQT)latest exhibition, Metamorphosis: Clothing & Identity — where I had the opportunity not only to see the exhibition come together, but to watch it go up.

Metamorphosis opened a week ago, and is already getting rave reviews such as this one from Art Nerd Blog by an acquaintance of mine, Sarah Lorraine.

The exhibition tells the story of the wearable art, or art wear, movement that originated in Northern California — specifically the San Francisco Bay Area — in the 1960s. As Sarah put it in her review, the art wear movement was a sort of “spiritual love child of the arts & crafts movement”. The movement’s purpose was taking the mundane — clothing off the rack, traditional crafts such as knitting and crochet — and transforming it into self expression and statements of identity that you could wear. The movement quickly began integrating traditional dyeing and weaving techniques from around the world such as shibori, ikat, resist and clamp dyeing, etc., as well as rediscovering of historical techniques, such as Ellen Hauptil’s works which use industrial heat-set pleats that mimic the Delphi gown and others by Mariano Fortuny.



The idea of this exhibition came about as a part of the larger story/background that the museum is trying to tell about the history of the rich and diverse Nothern California/San Francisco Bay Area fiber arts scene that we call Founding Fibers‘, I was told by curator Deborah Corsini. This larger story began in 2011, when the museum held an exhibition, Invisible Lineage, focusing on the four major founders of the fiber arts movement: Kathleen Westphal, Lydia Van Gelder, Mary Walker Phillips, and Mary Balzer Buskirk. Lineage also included works by four next-generation artists carrying on the tradition. Metamorphosis showcases not only the entirety of the movement, and showing that despite attention having fallen away from art wear in the last decade or so (the movement thrived from the 60s through the 1990s), it is still going strong.

Deborah told me that she ‘wanted to include work that used clothing as a vehicle for conceptual idea – completely unwearable but transformed. These pieces of knitted wire dresses, the yurt-like tent of ties, and the flattened, vintage assemblage pieces, evoke memory, loss, and transformation of something common and universal into another realm, another perspective. This show is possibly just the beginning of other clothing conceived shows as I realize their are a lot of other contemporary artists working in the field making artwear and/or more conceptual clothing.’


All of the pieces are on loan from the artists themselves, with the exception of four pieces loaned by the Levi’s Archives which were submissions for Levi’s 1973 denim art competition (no photographs of these, I’m afraid — no matter how entertaining the Watergate-themed jeans with Nixon’s face peering at you from the fly). With this notable exception, Deborah visited as many of the artists as she could in their studios — working with others through the internet — and collaborated with them on selecting those pieces that would make the strongest statement. There are pieces by Kaffe Fassett (as a knitter I have seen his work in Rowan and other magazines, and his patterns, but until installation none of his actual knitwear pieces), Marion Clayden, Jean CacicedoIna KozelWendeanne Ke’aka Stitt, Ana Lisa Hedstrom, K. Lee Manuel, Angelina De Antonis of Ocelot, and Carol Lee Shanks among others. The exhibition ends with a yurt made of silk neckties that visitors can walk through by Isaac Amala and Liz Simpson (which was not finished installing by the time I had to head home).

Another fantastic addition to a textiles show: Deborah received ‘touching samples’ from many of the artists so that while you can’t touch the pieces, you can still feel the textiles they are made from.

Due to the breadth of the show, Deborah had to limit herself (and the artists) to only five or six pieces maximum per artist. One of the best things about the show is that it has so many objects in it without overwhelming the visitor, or losing the thread of the exhibition’s purpose. Deborah had a rough idea of how she wanted things placed, but most of that changed when it came to the actual installation, because there is only so much you can do with a scale model and in the case of many of these pieces, a photo really isn’t enough.


This was also my first experience mounting objects on dress forms without supervision. It is probably best that I did it with contemporary art wear pieces rather than historic garments (not suggesting the former are inferior to the latter, but the damage done would have been less had I dropped any of them!). It was a unique and wonderful challenge that I very much enjoyed — especially finding a way to mount the hat that accompanied the Janet Liptkin piece below without a head mount and without endangering either piece). Deborah also included me in her process for creating the final arrangements (none of which you see here, since I was taking pictures in between mounting and moving forms), so that I could see her entire process and really feel like I was involved in the exhibition itself. It was amazing to see how a shift from one place to another, grouping certain pieces together, or even just proper lighting could completely transform the garments — emphasizing various artistic qualities, textures, colours, and so on.


Having had some bad volunteer experiences, I could tell that the Museum of Quilts & Textiles treated their volunteers well not just because I was one, but from the sheer number of people who had shown up to dedicate their time to the installation. What’s more, I was the only “newbie”, everyone else had assisted with previous installations and de-installations. In my opinion, that speaks volumes about the museum itself and its ability to cope in the current economic environment and make use of limited resources.

It is rather embarrassing to admit, since I’m a fourth-generation Californian, but I didn’t know too much about the art wear movement before working on this exhibition. I knew that it existed, and that it was a ‘California thing’, but not much more. And so I find myself, once again being introduced to textile art, and educated about it by the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles. Deborah Corsini tells me that the aim of the exhibition is to showcase ‘ the incredible richness and diversity of the art wear movement and the continued legacy of this movement. We want to give our audience a sense of the vitality and creativity of the times and to show the wide variety of artistic achievement by this unique group of artists that were creating art-to-wear.’

Through working with the objects, she’s succeeded with me.



The show is open from 29 January through 27 April. Be sure to check out Deborah’s article in the Winter 2014 volume of ‘Fiber Art Now‘.

I will be writing about the FIDM Museum’s Hollywood show in my next column, but if you have any North American events or exhibitions you would like me to feature here on Domestic Affairs be sure to email me the details.

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