Sheila Hicks Creates Textile Magic at Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis

By Krystin Arneson
In Culture

Sheila Hicks is an American artist who lives and works in Paris and whose work occupies a gray area: What the art world would classify as either “decorative arts” or “textile art,” she straddles with her creations that feature intricate assemblages of yarn, panels of tassels and brightly woven pieces. Despite the length of her practice—pieces in the current Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis exhibition date back to the ’60s, while others are much more recent—the works remain timeless and fresh, says associate curator Kelly Shindler.

Installation view | Courtesy CAM

Installation view | Courtesy CAM

“I’d seen an exhibition of her work in New York several years ago, and I hadn’t previously known of her work, even though she’s a senior artist—then in her 70s—and it was my first introduction to her work,” Schindler says. “I was really taken by the breathtaking range of form and color and texture in her work and it really stuck with me.” Shindler met up with her for coffee at the Neue Galerie during the 2013 Whitney Biennial, where Hicks had a big installation.

But how Hicks’ works got to CAM is a  bit of a surprise, even though she has strong connections to the city. She spent time here as a child, and she worked with architect Gio Obata on a project in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, says Shindler.

Installation view | Courtesy CAM

Installation view | Courtesy CAM

“Because she had been coming back and forth to St. Louis, she had also developed a relationship with Cara McCarty, who was then the curator of design and decorative arts at Saint Louis Art Museum,” she says. “Through Cara, several of Sheila’s works had entered into the collection at SLAM. Sheila told me about those works, but there was really no record of them on SLAM’s website, and after doing a little more digging, I discovered there were these incredible works in the collection that, turns out, hadn’t been on view in over 20 years. The fact that there were these extraordinary works in a collection down the street at SLAM, during a moment in which Sheila’s career was experiencing a renaissance, it was too great of an opportunity to pass up.”

Shindler reached out to SLAM to request the pieces, and “those works became the basis for the show,” she says. “What’s really exciting about those works is that two of them are from the late ’60s during a time of incredible foment in Paris during the May ’68 riots—[a time of] incredible change in the sociopolitical landscape—but they’re also from a time in which sculpture was undergoing its own transformation in contemporary art.”

Installation view | Courtesy CAM

Installation view | Courtesy CAM

It was a time when artists began to challenge, play with and, sometimes, outwardly reject the “heroic” or elevated nature of sculpture: It was ousted from its place on a pedestal and put on the floor in a literal and figurative statement. Bronze, steel, wood and marble became passé in many circles as artists like Eva Hessa and Claes Oldenburg eschewed these classical materials to embrace soft materials, gravity and the “inherent potential of these forms to create their own shapes,” says Shindler. “So Shiela was engaged not only in conversations around indigenous textile traditions and craft, but also in this sea change in contemporary art in the late ’60s.

“All this to say I was really taken with the fact that there were these amazing early works in the collection from this really important moment in contemporary art history that  hadn’t been on view in 20 years, that they were tremendous major installations and that those could be then augmented with other recent works,” says Shindler. “What happened then is that the show took on this flavor—it bridges 50 years of her works … so it was about timing and kind of local fortuitousness that prompted me to do the show.”

Installation view | Courtesy CAM

Installation view | Courtesy CAM

Shindler  “Literally one of her works was in a laundry bin—it had arrived to CAM in a laundry bin. So it’s interesting … She shows at the major contemporary art galleries in New York now, and another one in London and another one in Paris, so throughout her career she’s navigated these various seemingly fixed worlds. But to her, they’re all fluid and there’s a lot of gray area to embrace and inhabit. I feel like her own narrative is reflected in this funny situation at SLAM that has these distinct collections and areas, but her work by its very nature defies boundaries.”

For the viewer, Shindler says the works will lure you in with aesthetics before conveying deeper, powerful and timeless narratives. “I think you’re immediately drawn in by the color and the tactility of the work, but then looking at these forms and seeing how they’re engaged in larger conversations about craft, about decorative arts, about decorative arts, about feminism, about politics…” she says. “Looking at these works from the ’60s literally installed next to works she made in her studio last year, it’s amazing the fluidity among these forms that have become really integral to her visual vocabulary and how timeless and fresh they feel now—and how amazing it is for an artist in her 80s now to create work that feels as fresh as it did today as it did in the ’60s.”

“Sheila Hicks” is on display at CAM until Dec. 27. 

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