Sheila Hicks, ICA Philadelphia

by Natalie Donghia, May 2011

“Tonight I visited an exhibition by a young artist who used to work helping to install my shows in an old toy factory in the Marais district of Paris. She amazed me and is quite fearless. Daring. I have to remember that risk taking is the crucial ingredient of surprise.” –Sheila Hicks

The first floor of Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art currently wears a dress of colorful linen, cotton, wool and synthetic threads. Hanging fiber installations become nebulous constellations, arterial confections. Heaps of carefully arranged silk tassels, such as the installation The Evolving Tapestry: He/She lie exposed like a code for the viewer to decipher. A palpably monastic, serene quality pervades the rooms. The gallery of works stands in homage to its indefatigable, irreverent creator.

This retrospective, the artist’s first, superlatively achieves the goal of any exhibition of its caliber. It comprehensively gathers half a century’s worth of artwork and allows for consideration of the career of an artist committed to exposing the textile associations that bind our lives. Woolgathering, as it were.

Sheila Hicks’s work spans languages, cultures and continents. In an era marked by unprecedented advances in every known facet of the telecommunications spectrum, where the advent of the internet has given rise to a codified vocabulary studded with phrases such as “real time” and “instant messaging,” Hicks has forged her own “world wide web” fifty years in the making—a body of work that evidences both the artist’s awareness of nascent technological systems and mastery of traditional weaving techniques. The work is best summarized as textile art. In truth, however, there is no easy description—the pieces range from two-dimensional swatches of hand-woven fabric no larger than a postcard to monumental free-standing fiber and yarn installations meters in length.

Emblematic to Hicks’s work is the process through which the piece comes into being—the hand of the artificer at work, often beginning with one solid concept or a single drawn line. A piece by Hicks is not only a woven work, but rather, a tapestry of symbols, meanings and associations: a poem. It presents a formula, a synthesis of conflict and resolution made tangible by the form and meaning of the completed work. Scholars have already likened her work to texts in which metaphor reigns supreme. I do not challenge these interpretations, but I will add that Hicks’s pieces are playful, colorful systems, texts that encapsulate some of the most profound concepts: language, culture, identity, and I daresay, the imaginative spirit that exists at the foundations of civilization.

Sheila Hicks: 50 Years
24 March—7 August 2011
Institute of Contemporary Art
118 South 36th Street, Philadelphia