‘Abstraction in Fabric’: Ken Smith sews stuff together

Ken Smith: “All Seeing Pyramid,” cotton fabric.

Victoria Crain

Ken Smith is experimenting; he’s trying things out; his tools are scissors, Kona cotton fabric, sewing machine and geometry. He started messing around with fabric as a way of spending more time with his wife in her studio, and to relieve some of the stress of his work. But the work has become more of an ongoing investigation — perhaps an enhanced interrogation.

Rutland’s Castleton Bank Gallery is featuring a show now of many of Smith’s investigative artworks. The space is full of color in motion. There is a lot of work here, and at times it is difficult to focus on a single piece. But there is plenty to look at and consider.

Ken Smith: “Sunset in the City,” cotton fabric, 2016.

Specifically, Smith is making abstract color and line studies with fabric using a free-hand method. He calls the process Sewing Stuff Together (SST), and it’s a stream-of-consciousness synthesis of perception and material.

Unlike abstract painting, it takes longer to construct drawings with fabric. However, like other forms of art making, it does require learning the skill of dealing with a particular medium. In this case, the Kona cotton is a plain fabric in blunt, opaque colors. The pieces Smith cuts for his compositions are bright, dense and no-nonsense. Though he has a huge palette from which to choose in this fabric, every choice results in vivid, flat patches of color. This choice of material has obvious benefits, but also, it makes subtlety of image difficult to achieve.

Sometimes Smith’s SST method is successful, but occasionally it catches up with him. The results can vary; for instance, a line may be broken where it doesn’t match up in an intersection. In one case, a piece of fabric meant to lay flat gathered a bit and couldn’t be pressed flat. But, as Smith says, his method is organic and is meant to see what happens.

When his work employs black fabric for contrast, the color alphabet pops out and gains structure. The black gestures create more line in the random compositions. For me, as a viewer, this is a comfort.

Smith’s art, though not quilting, is sometimes quilted. With his overstitching, he is able to create motion and coherence on a piece, and this proves interesting. One small piece, unlabeled, displays my two favorite things about his work: the contrast of black with his bright color choices, and overstitching to give it unity.

Ken Smith talks about the concept behind his cotton fabric piece “Love and Loss,” last Thursday at the Castleton Bank Gallery. Smith talks about one theme behind the piece: the color of fabric and how it fades to black as it reaches the right side — which he saw as a trait for the human mind and its functionality as it ages. (Robert Layman / Staff Photo)

Abstraction is hard for humans. We’re always looking for pattern, for line, for narrative. We want abstraction to remind us of something else. Most of these works, though, are purposefully unplanned. As Smith says, he starts with an idea and lets it grow. Nonetheless, I observe that he has named his constructions; he has attached words to pieces that began in the abstract. Personally, I think the titles are counterproductive. My preference would be to let the art speak for itself, to let the viewer experience it without the guiding benefit and the limiting cage of words.

In any case, it’s a bright, active exhibit, and it will be on view until Oct. 13: a good addition to Rutland’s downtown art scene.

Castleton Bank Gallery

The Castleton Bank Gallery presents “Abstractions if Fabric,” fabric compositions by Vermont artist Ken Smith, through Oct. 13, 104 Merchants Row, Rutland. Hours are: noon to 6 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; call 802-282-2396, or go online to www.castleton.edu/arts/art-galleries/.