Thoughts on the recent work of Grace Wapner

An exhibition at the Carter Burden Gallery in Manhattan features the painted textile constructions of Woodstock artist Grace Wapner. Included are ten incandescent works from 2014–16. The show’s title, “Only Connect” (an epigram famously associated with E.M. Forster), suggests the underlying theme of human interaction that has been an ongoing fascination of the artist throughout her life.

The works on view range from small, intricately shaped wall hangings to the enveloping color atmospheres of Wapner’s largest constructions, some reaching 8 feet in length. Wapner’s technique combines aspects of painting and collage in a way that successfully intertwines qualities often considered contradictory. Her favored material is burlap, which she joins roughly with glue and crudely sewn stitches emphasizing bold materiality. At the same time Wapner lavishes great care upon formal refinements in color and composition. The paradoxical result is often both rough and elegant.

Wapner’s imagery is similarly twofold. While at first it appears abstract, her work can also subtly evoke the forms of nature and the human body. She cuts and positions biomorphic shapes against fields of variegated color, sometimes linking them with strips of fabric that appear as rays, branches or channels. In the show’s largest piece “Only Connect” (also the name the exhibition) three powerful vertical shapes list to the left like figures in repose against a richly stained backdrop traversed by veins of red.

Deeply engrained in Wapner’s formal intuition is her interest in the figure and, to be more specific, in the psychological impact of posture and rhythm. When asked about the sources of her inspiration she answers, “I think it all starts with Martha Graham and Noguchi. I have always been attracted to the movement of form in space, but I knew I lacked the physical discipline to be a dancer and didn’t think I could be a choreographer.” Instead, she “choreographs” visual form and has done so over the years in a variety of materials including paper, clay and textiles.

Wapner developed her current process by turning to textiles after years of working in clay. “I began making small pieces out of a mix of fabrics about 4 or 5 years ago,” she recalls, “I would scavenge for swatches of silk, velvet, cotton and burlap and sew them together. After a while, I realized I could control the color better by painting directly on the burlap. As I became more familiar with how burlap accepted, and absorbed paint, the work grew in size and emotional impact.” Her experimentation has yielded a distinctive body of work that is a hybrid of painting and textiles.

Always at the heart of Wapner’s process is a tension between her penchant for spare, minimalistic form and a lyrical temperament that delights in variety and beauty. This exhibition showcases both extremes of her sensibility. The most ascetic piece, “When We Long to Touch the Sky”, is a somber work of monochromatic tones of pale yellow with a straightforward linear configuration that is a direct imprint of the floorboards in her studio. On the other side of the scale is “Branching I”, a whimsical construction that combines a fragmented branch motif with bud-like shapes that float around a delicately stained vertical panel heavily stitched to the background. The roseate color shifts from crimson to violet with puddles of vegetable green.

At each end of the spectrum, Wapner is authentically herself, devoted to experimentation and sharing her discoveries. She describes her artistic goal this way: “I want to make people think about alternative possibilities and ways of seeing, who we are in this world, how exciting color can be. I want to draw attention to the difficult and to the sublime.” In this exhibition, she does.

Grace Bakst Wapner

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