|Sheila Hicks, La Sentinelle de Safran, 2018|
Sheila Hicks’ art is unusual in the context of 20th century American art. Her work is always made with textiles, most often silks, yarns, linens and cottons. And yet, the works speak directly to the developments of modernism that have taken place around her over the past 80 years. It’s unusual to find an oeuvre that engages in this twofold way—both adhering to and departing from—the avant-garde of its time.
|Sheila Hicks, Atterissage, 2014|
I found myself constantly seeing what the work was not. Looking at sculptures constructed out of yarn and seeing a man and a woman, or recognizing the sun rising over the horizon in an installation of balls of orange, yellow and red yarn collected in a corner. Many of the installations either appeared visually to mimic the patterns of nature, or with a little imagination, they transformed into the natural world. Knowing Hicks is from Nebraska, I also kept wanting to see the American desert in the images. Certainly, her use of a palette of earth tones encourage the similarity to the land. A series of boards covered in yarn were perhaps the most obvious example of a merging with a history of art that they were not. These works occupied the interstice with the color field abstractions in paint of the 1960s and 1970s.
|Sheila Hicks, Lianes de Beauvais, 2011-12|
The question I kept asking myself as I persisted in seeing the works for what they were not, was: Why? Why is it that we don’t have a language with which to write about fabrics as the substance of modernist art? And I know it’s not just me who has this problem. See, for example, Lauren Collins recent article in the New Yorker. Three quarters of this article is a discussion of Hicks’s biography, not her work. We know that a male artist exhibiting at the Centre Pompidou wouldn’t be written up as a quaint octogenarian surprised at the size of the crowd, and nor would so much space be spent on his wives. This goes without saying.
|Sheila Hicks, Lifelines @ Centre Pompidou|
And yet, I want to resist the idea that Hicks's work is difficult to write or talk about because it is made by a woman. For me, what makes Hicks’s sunrises and waterfalls, abstract canvases and prayer mats difficult is actually their modernist use of the fabrics. That is, she not only uses the softest of yarns and silks, fabrics and rafias to create abstract shapes imbued with visual qualities shared with nature. But in addition, the textures and shapes and overall visuality can be harsh, forthright, and in their ability to defy gravity by standing tall and independent, the sculptural formations are powerful. There is nothing sweet and soft about these objects, nothing that would connect them to the expectations we have of their materials. And the empowerment they give to the visitor who navigates his or her way through the installations is what makes Hicks's sculptures significant.