Moments of Intimacy: “DISordered Systems” at TU & “Soft Tissues” at Brentwood Arts

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This month, two shows are shining light on how art can be used to create intimate moments of reflection on urgent issues. DISordered Systems at Towson University presents four women artists with a focus on environmental connections, while Soft Tissues at Brentwood Arts Exchange’s Lab Gallery showcases three Washington, DC-based women artists who probe fragility and perseverance through fiber arts.

In the midst of a constant news stream about pollution, ecological disasters, and the erosion of women’s rights, the works on display offer timely opportunities to question systems of power and to find hope, solace, and solidarity. By emphasizing the delicate nature of human bodies and the earth, these artists urge us to take responsibility for nurturing resilience in a changing world. 


"DISordered Systems," installation view, with Mallory Zontag, "A Disappearance of Bees," 2021, Wool, cotton, recycled fibers, beeswax, gold leaf, wood bee frames, 16.25" x 20" x 88.5". Photo by Lauren Castellana.

DISordered Systems at Towson University

DISordered Systems presents Diane Burko, Allison Janae Hamilton, Basia Irland, and Mallory Zondag in a bold exploration of eco-hope and despair. Curators J. Susan Isaacs and Erin Lehman have selected and paired paintings, videos, sculptures, and social practice projects that probe one’s relationship to the landscape and larger societal forces affecting the environment. 

Vibrant ever-green, soft sandy beige, and blood-red paint bursts from Burko’s canvas. “Roads to Ruin” is one of seven large-scale multimedia works exploring the destruction of the Amazon rainforest and its intricate river ecosystems in Brazil. This series was sparked after Burko read the article, “Illegal Airstrips Bringing Toxic Mining to Brazil’s Indigenous Land”. Under  the recent Bolsonaro administration, illegal mines popped up in the rainforest—particularly in protected indigenous areas, wreaking havoc on local ecosystems. 

From afar the artist’s paintings appear to be partial abstractions, but as I inch closer I find that they are aerial snapshots and parts of maps with some of these source material painted while others are collaged photographs. Her montaged elements feel carved and allude to the way illegal airstrips have been forced into the land. This segmentation further continues with layered paint. The intensity of the red and its placement evokes bloodshed, and the inclusion of long narrow strips of charred wood further hints at violence. Burko’s work feels like an outburst of despair, and she criticizes these brutal actions that can all happen in our modern world. 


Diane Burko, "Roads to Ruin," 2022, mixed media, 84” x 225", and Mallory Zondag, "Friend," 2020, 71” x 41” Merino wool, cotton, silk, beeswax (foreground). Photo by Lauren Castellana, Towson University.

Capitalism is one of the dysfunctional systems that leads to the destruction of the environment as we continue to exhaust our resources. And while the relationship between capitalism and patriarchy is complex, it can be argued that they are interrelated in the way that they objectify the environment and women. Thus to effectively conserve, rejuvenate, and protect the environment, it is necessary to adopt a feminist approach that recognizes the interconnectedness of social and environmental issues. 

The intensity and scale of Burko’s works are somewhat countered by Zondag’s fiber works, which feel more quiet, calming, and at peace. “Consumed No. 2” sits next to “Roads to Ruin”  on a waist-high pedestal. It is a felted organic form, like a lump of flesh or hearty mushroom with undulating hills and valleys. Root-like linear forms traverse its landscape with blotches of soft green popping up in an allusion to moss. 

“Friend” has a similar slowness, a soft sculpture positioned almost on the ground on a short pedestal. It’s made from various shades of green wool and cotton and I yearn to touch its soft membrane. Low-lying and flat like moss, Zondag has added round sewn bulbous forms and white bumpy vessels made of beeswax resembling bamboo mushrooms. I’m transported to Lake Mattawa in Massachusetts, where I sat on a Sphagnum moss carpet in 2020 recharging from being apartment-bound through the pandemic. Hummingbirds were flying to the feeder by the one-story vacation home and the scene was filled with solitude. The softness of this plant grounded me. With no pattern or order to it, “Friend” seems to be growing organically as it exists on the gallery floor. Both Burko’s paintings and Zondag’s sculpture function as ecosystems themselves, islands within the larger narrative of the exhibition. 


Installation view of "DISordered Systems." Photo by Lauren Castellana, Towson University.

Irland’s social practice project is inherently anti-capitalist and ephemeral. With communities that have invited her, Irland sculpts books from ice and includes calligraphic sentences with native seeds and other materials such as limestone to rejuvenate and aid waterways. While a part of her own practice it feels like a bid to create my own “ice books” after I leave the gallery.

These books are also poems of love for the river, and the project not only fosters community around the site but also has a potential, tangible environmental impact. These time-based sculptures have an element of sanctity and they are released into waterways in an almost ritualistic manner. I’m astounded by how ferociously life spurs from tiny seeds. 

The video work of Hamilton takes a more metaphorical direction. There is a painterly approach to “Lemon Tree” as it presents seemingly aged footage of a forest and meadow with beings walking through it. Other elements, all shades of blue, are collaged in, including a cicada shell, a spider, a wolf, and a vulture, suggesting an oncoming transformation and death. 

These beings are simultaneously specific to a place and also significant allegorically. The spider weaves its web like the artist weaves its tales. Like snowfall in a dream, the image is characterized by a graininess—placing it between fiction and memory. I reminisce about walking through wooded paths and soaking up joy as I listen to the wind dance through leaves. 

“Brecencia and Pheasant III” is a spectral archival pigment print with a woman, dressed in a formal skirt and white ornate blouse, standing in the center of a clearing holding a dead pheasant. The grass has been cut in a rounded and elongated pattern around her, almost like crop circles, and the clearing of trees stretches behind her. There is an eerie mood, and it feels like I’m glimpsing a moment of a much larger narrative. This work is from a series of photographs, some featuring the same model and bird in different rural environments. Hamilton mixes history with mythology creating an uncanny combination of elements.

DISordered Systems titillates between macro and micro views of the Earth and its many landscapes. It offers room to ponder climate anxieties and our intimate relationship with the landscape.The artists offer tender narratives of their own experiences of fear, displacement, rejuvenation, and the history that is embedded within the land. The recent environmental catastrophes, such as the one in East Palestine, Ohio, fuels my fears of imminent ruin and destruction. However, the show is not meant to solely cause fear, it also offers an opportunity to reflect on one’s relationship with his or her surroundings and even inspire one to take action, however small. 

DISordered Systems is on view at Towson University’s Center for the Arts Gallery through April 15, 2023. 


Curator Fabiola R. Delgado in "Soft Tissues," Photo by Albert Ting.

Soft Tissues at Brentwood Arts Exchange

Soft Tissues, curated by Fabiola R. Delgado, is a seductive and visceral exhibition challenging conventions of fiber arts to ruminate on the strength of the female body at Brentwood Arts Exchange. Featuring Annie Broderick, Artise Fletcher, and Olivia Tripp Morrow, an intriguing material sensibility weaves through the show, which pulls me in for closer, more intimate inspections of artworks in media ranging from photography to embroidery and sculptures.

A specific threshold in the exhibition feels magnetic: the meeting point of Morrow’s “Rib Cage II” and Broderick’s “Corset III”, which builds a narrative of pressure and pain as they both explore vulnerabilities of the body in distinct ways. 

While “Rib Cage II”—rendered with charcoal, conte, thread, and felt on paperdepicts a partial skeleton leaning back in an unnatural way, “Corset III”constructed with unconventional materials including corrugated steel pipe and alpaca fiberpresents a more abstract version of one’s upper body as a machine. Morrow’s pen strokes feel urgent as they are deeply pressed onto the canvas; the dark and light brown background feels hectic and brings to focus a skeleton whose spine is contorted abnormally. Morrow reflects on her spine surgery and recovery with direct references to the procedure in “Operating Field,” a combination of drawing and embroidery. Getting a representation of the interior of the body feels icky and makes the hair on my neck jolt up. 


Olivia Tripp Morrow, "Rib (Cage) II," Charcoal, conte, thread, felt, paper. Photo by Albert Ting.
Olivia Tripp Morrow, “Imperfections," Cotton, felt, embroidery thread. Photo by Albert Ting.

Together these works depict discomfort, coercion, and contortion. While Morrow’s works are representational, Broderick’s wall-hanging sculptures are abstract, yet reference the gut, the spine, and the skin. “Corset III” feels like the interior parts of the body that are often unseen have been pushed to the surface. Since the title references corsets, a supportive yet also constricting undergarment that gained popularity in the 16th century and onwards, I also am led to think about fashion and its effect on the individual and society. 

Both artists convert a sense of physical discomfort and vulnerability through the portrayal of the body that is normally concealed or hidden, and they do so in a way that emphasizes their fragility and impermanence. The works however remain open to interpretation, leaving space for the audience to bring their own experiences. 

Another work that references garments, however with a focus on identity, is Fletcher’s sculptural dresses constructed from synthetic hair. The forms are captivating and unexpected and make me wonder what it would be like to move in them and feel them against my skin. The conceptual nature of these works challenge the traditional notion of a dress by creating a sense of empowerment for the hypothetical wearer, yet they also question the politics of hair. Fletcher has also included 35mm photographs of models wearing the dresses to activate the objects. 


Works by Annie Broderick (L) and Artise Fletcher (R). Photo by Albert Ting.
Works by Artise Fletcher (L) and Annie Broderick (R). Photo by Albert Ting.

The form and material make me reflect on identity and cultural norms since a woman’s hair plays a crucial part in her self-image and identity. However, on another  hand the artist uses it to objectify and simplify hair by using it as a raw material for sculptural purposes. Unfortunately, Black women’s hairstyles have been criticized and contested, particularly in the workplace, and there have been countless court cases surrounding discrimination against Black workers’ hair. These bans and biases on natural hairstyles are rooted in racism and colonial standards of beauty. 

I’m reminded of Lorna Simpson’s “Wigs (portfolio)”, lithograph prints on felt, that I saw at the Walker Art Center a couple of years ago. I was captivated by the monochromatic scheme, the texture of the felt which resembles coarseness of hair, and the way the wigs represented striking unique wearers. Hair is such a crucial element of one’s self, it should never be a point of control or discrimination. Thus Fletcher’s sculptures are at once shaped sculpturally and culturally.  

The artists’ work sparks crucial dialogue about the importance and feminist elements of fiber arts as a craft that has been reclaimed to demonstrate its narrative power, physical necessities, and ingenuity. Here, cloth, string, floss, hair, and rope all lend themselves to a fluidity that is also present in the human form. Each work functions together as a cohesive narrative and also presents a portal of intimate individual stories. 

Soft Tissues is on view at the Brentwood Arts Exchange from February 6 to April 22, 2023.


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