Joy Curtis: With Every Fiber at Pelham Art Center

The artist holding a “green study”. Photo courtesy of the artist

Joy Curtis was born in Valparaiso, Indiana, and grew up in rural Indiana and Iowa. In college, she studied painting while making objects outside the medium. Later, Curtis earned her MFA at Ohio University where she studied sculpture. In 2002, she moved to Bushwick, Brooklyn, and has been living and working there since that time. Curtis has been represented by Klaus von Nichtssagend since 2010, and has had 5 solo shows with them. She has been included in other recent exhibitions at the Pelham Art Center, Ceysson and Bénétière, the Aldrich Museum (CT), and T.S.A (Brooklyn). Curtis is the recipient of fellowships from Socrates Sculpture Park and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. Her work has been reviewed in the New Yorker, Hyperallergic, ArtCritical, and Saatchi Online, and she has been featured on Gorky’s Granddaughter and James Kalm’s Rough Cut video blogs. Currently Curtis is working on a large, outdoor sculpture made of fabric that will be included in a summer show.

What brought you to work in Fiber?

I started working with fiber as a high-school student. I took a batik workshop from a lady who owned a store where she sold tapestries, tie-dye shirts and repurposed, dyed clothing. I became her assistant and worked at the store for a while. When I went to college, I realized I was not making “high art;” so I let it go and explored other mediums. I later did things like make fabric out of latex and cheesecloth, and interactive sensory enhancement or deprivation suits. About 7 years ago, I decided to make a summer piece on my rooftop, and I did a big monochromatic gemstone batik, and I could vary depth of color on the faceting in a way that was familiar. I had been casting a lot, and it felt natural to think in reverse on a flat surface in a similar way that casting requires. Concurrently, my friend made an indigo vat in her back yard and invited me to dye. I realized it was the perfect dye medium for batik, so I explored fiber further through batik and indigo dying. It was so fun I couldn’t stop.

Plants and Animals, 2020. Plant and procion dyes on cotton duck, rope, raffia, and sea sponges; spandex. 72 x 66 x 22 inches.

Plants and Animals, detail.

Tell me about the genesis of work in this group show and what is the idea behind it?

Plants and Animals
I completed this work right before the pandemic after I got a new job and moved to a new studio. It is a synthesis of things I had been building upon for the past couple of years. The figures are oriented towards each other in a mutually beneficial relationship; they are seeing each other, so to speak. The smaller components and attributes are representations of edible or medicinal roots, simple life forms represented by sea sponges and upward-growing leaves represented by raffia pom-poms. There are also shared plant and mammalian elements that stand in for stems, vines, branches blood vessels and guts, represented by rope and spandex jean tubes. Why are they spandex jean guts? To give the piece some breathing room; not everything needs to make logical sense.

The other work, Ghost Dance is about making visions reality. I made this work recently during the pandemic. I took cues from Black Elk’s description of his ghost dance shirt which he saw in a dream. He made the shirt and incorporated it into a ritual with his community members. I appreciate that this entire process was taken seriously by the culture. The Ghost Dance was part of a larger pan-First Nations movement started by the spiritual leader Wovoka, that spread with revival-like fervor across the American West. Followers danced in shirts of their own making, prayed for protection and for their traditional ways of life to be restored. The belief was that the shirt acted as ancestral protection, making the wearer impervious to the bullets of the European American warriors.

The orientation of the piece high on the wall and the inclusion of lightning bolts are meant to reconcile and imbalance of “charges;” the lightening reconciles the negative charge of the clouds by reaching for the positive charge of the ground. The sacrum bone is a grounding element; the oldest bone, the last bone of the body to decompose.

Can you elaborate on your process of working in fiber?

In both of these works, I have dyed all the fabrics with plant and procion dyes. The dyes include indigo, walnut, Osage orange, cochineal, madder and cold-water procion dyes.

Ghost Dance, 2020. Indigo and procion dye on cotton duck and rope, metal, wax, buckwheat hulls. 72 x 22 x 22 inches.

How do you see the work in this show in context of your overall work?

I have been making works in this figurative format for several years. It resonated with me so much the first time that I decided to use it as the substrate in many works. I can physically identify with it, and I can create any attributes within and around it with flexibility. It has become a very natural kind of projection space for me, and provides a given where I am able to explore micro ideas within a physical context or framework. I imagine this is a lot like painting on canvas; and actually, these are all made primarily of canvas.

Ghost Dance, detail.

All photo courtesy of Heidi Bohnenkamp unless otherwise indicated

With Every Fiber at Pelham Art Center through April 3rd, 2021

Curated by Anki King.

Artists: Joy Curtis, Ruby Chishti, Victoria Udondian, Jessica Lagunas, Liz Whitney Quisgard, Mary Ann Lomonaco, and Mary Tooley Parker