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The Ongoing Thread in Material Lineage

February 5, 2024

Written by Julia Brukx

The intimate, pocket-sized exhibition space in the Brookline Arts Center occupies only a small off-shoot of the entranceway, most of the building being dedicated to events & education programs. At the opening reception of their most recent exhibition, Material Lineage, I found myself shuffling between groups of people in order to see all of the works on display. It’s fortunate, then, that the works beg for interaction. The theme of the exhibition deals with the ways that materials are used and co-opted by each of the featured artists … This is not the case with the fragile painting which sets off an alarm when viewers get too close. Each of the works forces thoughtful interaction with the materials from which it was made, and therefore the experience of viewing them is made richer by the tactile experience of being in the same room as them. The exhibition features work by four artists: Sonja Czekalski, Eileen de Rosas, Leslie Goldman, and Jillian Vaccaro. To celebrate the opening of the exhibition, three of the artists participated in a discussion on the themes that tie their work together.

The talk took place in a room next to the exhibition gallery, with blackout curtains and folding chairs arranged in a semicircle, populated with an eclectic group of people gathered on a Saturday afternoon. One of the artists, Eileen de Rosas, pointed out that both her daughter and her mother were in the audience. De Rosas created three huge photographs of trees from different times of the year, printed on translucent fabric and hanging from branches, stacking timelines together and asking viewers to step inside. She mentioned that her daughter and mother both worked extensively in textiles, though in different ways, and that she saw herself as inheriting the lineage in a way. The materials literally created a line from generation to generation.

Sonja Czekalski, a self-described “feminist artist,” framed the concept of ‘lineage’ in a material sense. She pointed out that her work was purposefully not archival, that it would biodegrade in the near future. There was one work, an artist book made from handmade paper, that I was too afraid to touch for fear that it would fall to pieces in my hands. Of course, that fragility is the point. The book of photographs, which as a medium itself means to make permanent what is by nature temporal, is ephemeral. The fact that it will disappear makes it all the more valuable to engage with now.

The third artist present at the talk, Leslie Goldman, created mobile-like sculptures of wire and hair, which mimicked tree branches when hung against the early afternoon light. The use of hair in art is far from a new practice; it was popular in the Victorian age, especially to use the hair of a loved one who had died. Goldman uses her own hair, describing the process of collecting hair which she has lost in the process of aging and harnessing it into something new. Thus Goldman reveals another form of lineage: how life is an ongoing process and can be made fresh by gathering and honoring the materials of living.

The three artists referred to themselves as sculptors. Though they have different material backgrounds and training ranging from ceramics to photography, working with textiles proved to be an entirely different process . The material is uniquely forgiving, almost infinitely changeable and repositionable. It isn’t until other things are added–thread keeping things in place; wire poking through the fabric; a canvas to drape it against–that materials are unwilling to be undone.

Though not the title of the exhibition, the artists couldn’t help but touch on the maternal aspect of the theme. Perhaps it’s the idea of lineage, that we all exist in a direct line from our mothers, from our grandmothers, and the women who have come before us. Or maybe it’s the incredibly tactile memories that come when we think of material, of mothers quilting or grandmothers knitting. When asked what her grandmother thought of her work, Czekalski laughed. “Why can’t you just make something pretty?” she said, imitating her grandmother. The audience laughed, perhaps because it felt like a common refrain for artists whose families don’t quite understand that the purpose of art is not to traffic in pretty. This is especially true for textiles, as Czekalski pointed out. There is a right and a wrong way to do things. There are patterns for everything you could possibly need to make, why not just follow those? If the goal was to make something pretty, it wouldn’t be too difficult. For the artists at the core of Material Lineage, however, that’s never been the goal.

The missing face, Jillian Vaccaro, was not able to attend the artist talk. However, her presence loomed large in the gallery in the form of a canvas from which pieces of fabric protruded and spilt onto the floor. It was colorful and messy, mimicking the lines of a tree trunk that show impressive age. Though there were no labels inside the gallery, a visit to Vaccaro’s website revealed that the fabrics used were his childhood bedding, a poignant statement on growing up and not being willing to let go of the past, even as it shreds to pieces in front of our very eyes, and at our feet. To bring this full circle, as I don’t believe any lineage is truly linear, Vacca’s piece is almost oppositional to Czekalski’s. Vaccaro works to preserve a fading memory, while Czekalski proves that memory won’t last. Czekalski encouraged participants to touch and interact with and flip through the very delicate artist book, knowing that this would speed up its decay. However, in the process of being looked at, it is transformed once again into memory, returning to its original form, and once again proving that despite changing material, lineage is indeed cyclical.

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