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Online OnlyApr 27, 2023

Textile Politics: Newport Art Museum’s “Social Fabric” Remixes the Subversive Stitch

Review by Kendall DeBoer

Colorful quilts hang from the walls of Newport Art Museum, while fabric-based installations also display in the space.

Installation view, “Social Fabric: Textiles and Contemporary Issues,” Newport Art Museum, 2023. Photo courtesy of Newport Art Museum.

Textiles are […] “in the fray” of heated disputes, controversies, and disagreements, and have been at the center of arguments about the materiality of gendered labor. Those debates are often about the limits or boundaries between high and low, since textiles, not least because of their constant use in and affiliation with the everyday, trigger suspicions that such boundaries might not exist. —Julia Bryan-Wilson, FRAY: Art + Textile Politics, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017) 4.

The Newport Art Museum is a patchwork sort of space. The institution sutures together a historic “stick-style” house from 1864 and a smaller, cube-like building from 1919 with an ornate ring of marble columns supporting a low dome. Linked by a small sculpture garden, these two buildings house curated galleries of art that are just as mixed in their displays of works. Walking through the nineteenth-century style hallways and staircases, one encounters constellations of art that span geographic and temporal distances, grouped around themes like “touch” or “protest.”

Those themes could also describe some organizing concepts of their current exhibition, “Social Fabric: Textiles and Contemporary Issues,” which poetically gathers more literal, material kinds of patchwork. One room displays three monumental quilts by Jesse Krimes, pieced together from incarcerated peoples’ garments; nearby, a striking triangular textile by Judy Chicago and sixteen International Honor Quilt Artists combines embroidered pictorial icons of feminist devotion. Tamara Kostianovsky’s metamorphosis of clothing-into-carcass rotates from a meathook, invoking both Argentinian cattle ranching and militaristic butchery while alluding to fast fashion, waste, and ecological concerns.

Installation view of "Social Fabric" at the Newport Art Museum

Installation view, “Social Fabric: Textiles and Contemporary Issues,” Newport Art Museum, 2023. Photo courtesy of Newport Art Museum.

A second room includes several unsettling works by Elizabeth Duffy, invoking surveillance states and panopticon carceral systems. In the center of the gallery, Marie Watt’s assemblage weaves references to Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) ironworkers with blankets signifying her own relationship to the diaspora of the Seneca. A wall dedicated to a block of the National AIDS Memorial Quilt is especially humbling and evocative, with highly personalized individual panels embellished with photographs, poems, and D.I.Y. appliqués. These spaces are potent with the haptic surfaces of fabrics humming with the political-personal.

“Social Fabric: Textiles and Contemporary Issues” is on view at the Newport Art Museum through June 11, 2023. There will be a free museum day this Saturday, April 29th full of family-friendly activities inspired by this exhibition, and the museum will host “Social Fabric: Incarceration, Art and Restorative Justice,” an event featuring a panel of speakers on May 23.

Kendall DeBoer


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