I was first introduced to Wilson’s work in the 1990s with her damaged linens/hair pieces, a series of work perhaps best embodied by her magnificent installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, FEAST, of 2000. FEAST is a massive dinner table covered in damaged linen fragments of various irregular shapes embellished with human hair and thread. Holes in the linen fragments are stitched around, further emphasizing the linen’s imperfections. One can’t help but be uncomfortable looking at FEAST; hair on white linen evokes in most of us perhaps not repulsion, but at least a strong aversion, a desire to remove the hair, if only to relieve the embarrassment of the incident. That embarrassment speaks to the awkwardness of hospitality and the obligation to keep the entire situation “clean.” As the holes in the linens weren’t repaired with Wilson’s stitches, but rather embellished and drawn attention to, we’re faced with the impossibility of repair, an implicit surrender to degeneration and decay. That all of this is highly sexualized makes the work that much more vital.
Dispersions simultaneously references this earlier work and transforms it. Rather than using hair, Wilson uses brilliant-colored threads and black in this new work, surrounding gaping holes in square and rectangular linen fragments with impossibly small, delicate stitches. The colors seem to come from either deep space or the depths of the ocean, glowing and self-illuminating in their crisp white frames. Installed in the front, street-level space of Rhona Hoffman Gallery, the pieces follow the horizon around the room, the tops of the frames perfectly aligned while the bottoms of the frames dip and fall irregularly, giving the impression of a cross-cut view of the ocean’s floor or a graph tracking financial/ecological/individual vital signs. The parallel happenings in the depths caught by our strongest telescopes and the bioluminescence of creatures at the bottom of the ocean, even in crevices where no light enters, are present in the work.
Read as color from Hubble’s images of neighboring galaxies, each embellished hole becomes the dust left from the distant histories of the births and deaths of stars, and the inherent violence of our most basic, universal impulse. Make no mistake: though these pieces are achingly beautiful, they are also witnesses to violence. The holes may be seen as celestial black holes or corporal orifices, or perhaps bullet holes left over from an overwhelmed moment, but even if they are seen for what they most certainly are — flame-damaged or bleach-burned or cut-and-chopped table linens — they are witnesses to the violent act that made them what they are. Wilson’s meticulous handwork consecrates the remnants of this violence with a luminous beauty. The stitches serve as documentation as much as decoration, and emphasize the absence inherent in the torn and damaged linens. Standing in the room, surrounded by these dispersions, we confront the simultaneous actions of creation and destruction, and must accept how they are inseparable, the making and the tearing apart occurring in one moment.
Anne Wilson’s Dispersions is showing through December 7. Don’t miss it.