Martha Tuttle’s Textiles Merge Modernist Aesthetics with Molecular Theory

Chicago

at Rhona Hoffman

Martha Tuttle: Milestone, 2019, wool, linen, pigment, and quartz, three panels, 78 by 86 inches overall; at Rhona Hoffman.

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The nine works in Martha Tuttle’s exhibition “The Dance of Atoms” (all 2019) have a spectral presence that is impossible to capture in photographs. To create them, Tuttle stitched together creamy-hued patches of wool and pieces of thin open-weave linen that she colored with flinty gray mineral-based pigments. She stretched the resultant geometric compositions, which she considers paintings, on wood frames that perform aesthetic as well as structural functions. The raw blond wood and black-painted stretcher bars, some oriented diagonally, can be seen through the gauzy linen, appearing to alternately emerge from and recede beneath the fabric.

Seven works were individual vertical panels, while two took the form of multipanel configurations. The latter incorporated wall space in interesting ways. In Milestone, a horizontal panel nearly abuts a vertical one, while another hovers above, the trio carving the wall into a rectilinear assortment of forms and voids. The four panels in Separated Column (After Noguchi), meanwhile, are organized in a loose wedge formation. In both Milestone and Separated Column, small hunks of quartz are sandwiched between panels and perched atop edges, rendering the works sculptural and calling further attention to the spaces within and around them. (The press release suggests that Tuttle employed the crystals as a nod to the mineral dyes she had used, but I couldn’t quite shake their association with New Age nonsense.) These works were also lit in such a way that they cast dramatic, staggered shadows that extended them across the walls in an immaterial way.

The bloomy grays and irregular splotches of Tuttle’s hand-dyed fabrics call to mind cultures in a petri dish. This microbial effect may be deliberate, given that the exhibition’s title is drawn from On the Nature of Things, a long poem by the philosopher Lucretius that introduced Epicurean ideas about molecular matter to Roman audiences in the first century bce. The Greek atomist philosopher Epicurus believed that all perceivable phenomena are produced by the collision of particles that are themselves imperceptible; according to this view, everything we register as form is merely a by-product of these transitory processes.

If Tuttle is interested in exploring the nature of matter, she has chosen her materials well. Textiles are a cumulative medium: they pick up hitchhikers along the way. For instance, there are stray hairs, perhaps human, enmeshed in the swatches of wool, which Tuttle spins, weaves, and felts herself. Fabrics are also vulnerable to being consumed by animals. Tuttle alludes to this quality in Milestone: a nub of slag-covered aluminum appears to be worming its way through a seam in one panel, while a chunk of metal sitting on another panel resembles dung. But for an artist who employs a medium marginalized in Western art history—textiles have long been neglected due to their association with the feminine—Tuttle’s points of reference are curiously canonical, her practice paying homage to high-modernist abstraction, monumental sculpture, and classical philosophy. Her affinities lie with these decidedly more orthodox histories. 

 

This article appears under the title “Martha Tuttle” in the October 2019 issue, pp. 91–92.