Martha Clippinger, Not yet titled, 2017, Acrylic on wood, 14 x 14 x 1 inches
Two Sides/Dos Lados
June 29 - August 11, 2018
Institute 193, Lexington
Martha Clippinger (b. Columbus, GA, 1983) makes objects that blur defined borders between painting and sculpture, art and craft, questioning the necessity of such distinctions. Her current work exists in two separate but related modes; modestly-sized brightly painted three-dimensional wall works, and large, bold, patterned ‘tapetes’, or rugs, woven from Clippinger’s gouache drawings. Fittingly, she shares a hometown and draws inspiration from two figures who operate similarly: Eddie Owens Martin and Alma Thomas. Both artists are known for working in saturated color, meticulous pattern, and for creating work that supersedes those same boundaries.
At first glance, Clippinger’s work fits neatly within a lineage of artists working in abstraction within the last century. Her found-object assemblages bear no small resemblance to work by Betty Parsons (1900 -1982), perhaps better known as a legendary gallerist and advocate for abstract expressionists before the movement was well-received critically. The ‘tapetes’ can be seen as related to weavings by artist and textile designer Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889 - 1943) who also challenged arbitrary divisions between art and craft and championed the use of materials and techniques that had not been used in fine art contexts previously. These artists, of course, are understood as figures situated firmly within the Western art canon and the movements they helped to establish. As is often the case, in the process of their historicization, the non-western aesthetic practices from which they frequently drew inspiration were often forgotten or ignored.
Clippinger’s work, however, is remarkably cognizant of the universal context from which it arises. This is especially true for the tapetes. Abstract graphic adornment of objects, frequently utilitarian ones, is a phenomenon that exists across most of human history and in nearly all cultures; the decorated ‘parfleches’ made by indigenous Americans, abstract tantric paintings from Rajasthan, Australian aboriginal sand painting, and quilts from Gee’s Bend, Alabama, are just a few examples. Clippinger began painting the gouache studies for the tapetes while living in Oaxaca, Mexico. In the weaving village of Teotitlan del Valle, she met a family of rug weavers and approached them about translating her drawings into the tapetes. Since 2014, she has worked with Licha Gonzalez Ruiz and Agustín Contreras Lopez to create the woven works. The process is collaborative, and authorship is shared; rather than asking the couple to alter their wool dyeing process to accurately match her colors, Clippinger uses the gouache drawings as a jumping off point, frequently developing new palettes in response to the colors at hand.
In this body of work especially, the divisions that have been put in place to keep art and craft separate are rendered moot, and the impetus for the establishment of those divisions is laid bare. Frequently the distinction between what constitutes art and craft is determined along lines of gender, race, class, and geography. The work of artists is differentially privileged, legitimized, and valued according to these hierarchies. Clippinger, in recognizing this and making work that actively flattens some of those differences, does important work in undoing the structures that maintain such a system and does so with levity, humor, and brightness.