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Two artists redefine ‘women’s work’ in ‘Uncommon Textiles’ show

"Myvatn" (from the "Iceland" series)
Rachel Starr Suntop
“Myvatn” (from the “Iceland” series)

At the new exhibit, “Uncommon Textiles,” in Susan Hensel’s south Minneapolis gallery, you’ll see cross-stitch, crochet, quilting, and traditional felt-work – crafts closely aligned with feminine domesticity, homely utility.

For this show, though, the two highlighted artists, Rachel Starr Suntop and Sara Christensen-Blair, have cleverly deployed such “women’s work” in service of surprising, occasionally subversive creations that re-imagine memory, geography and the “feminine experience.”

In Sara Christensen-Blair’s pieces, the juxtaposition of provocative form and traditional crafting techniques is particularly striking. Her work tackles the thorny issues surrounding reproduction, body-image and beauty, what she calls feminine “control and containment.”

What looks like a ring of doilies on one wall is revealed, upon closer inspection, to be a collection of 24 crochet containers, representing two years’ worth of birth-control pill packs. Nearby are photo-realistic snapshots of fragments of the female form — shoulder, thigh, belly, hip — all rendered in painstaking cross-stitch.

In particular, one work, “Deterioration,” lingers in my mind: It’s a collection of (presumably) human bones, lovingly encased in delicate crochet. I’m not sure what it means, to be honest — something to do with the compulsion to make beauty from human frailty, perhaps? — but the juxtaposition is compelling and resonant.

Where Christensen-Blair’s work is subtly subversive, Rachel Starr Suntop’s collection of pieces feels more meditative, even whimsical. Starr Suntop’s felted creations operate like memory maps to a private geography, with tactile shapes recalling the landscapes that captured the artist’s imagination during her travels in Scandinavia and Iceland. The resulting pieces are winsome and strange, organic undulations of brightly colored felt and yarn evocative of both the materials and cultural peculiarities of these northern climes, as well as the craters, lakes, fjords and valleys that mark the region’s terrain.

Each artist’s work is intriguing in its own right; but seen as a whole, the exhibition offers particularly eloquent testimony to the flexibility and abundant creative possibilities inherent in such traditional techniques and materials. 

“Uncommon Textiles: Two Directions” will be on view at Susan Hensel Gallery in Minneapolis through Feb. 27. Gallery hours are Monday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and by (generous) appointment. 612-722-2324.

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