Writing about the work
Courtney Puckett studied painting when in art school but soon after, she tells me, she (mostly) put down her brush and picked up needle and thread. Fabric is her great love, her “natural material” from her earliest years, a predilection nurtured by the example of her mother, an interior decorator/designer. Fabrics of all kinds in all kinds of textures abounded in her home, heaped into piles, as well as the trove of other paraphernalia that designers would have at hand. I like to imagine that Puckett secretly possesses a Mary Poppins-like magic carpetbag that when she reaches into it, yields up everything she needs. That might be yarn, string, plastic tubing, tinsel, scraps of cloth, and assorted cast-offs and found objects. She will then sew, bind, wrap, cut, collage, and assemble them together, her practice unapologetically, obsessively based on the domestic arts, on a labor-intensive practice that has something to so with solacing, comforting, protecting, her touch fortifying, one that is in no hurry to speed up the process or production, preferring the increasing rarity of the one-off and the hand-made in an age of infinite digital replication.
Welcomed at the door of her studio by her hospitable rescue dog, it seems no accident that she named it Penelope. Puckett often takes names from Greek and Roman mythology, this one of course after the faithful wife of the long absent Odysseus who, in one of her best known ploys, puts off the many unwanted suitors clamoring for her hand (and his kingdom, believing him to be dead) by promising to choose a new husband from among them after she finishes weaving a shroud for her father-in-law. Like Odysseus, she’s clever in devising escapist tactics, each night unraveling what she had accomplished during the day, a metaphor of sorts for women’s unending work and the achievements and failures of artistic practice—which is completed only to begin again.
Puckett, in this appealing, purposefully feminized exhibition of recent work, is showing sculptures and wall pieces from her ongoing “Calendar Series.” She calls the latter fabric panels to distinguish them from fiber art and craft, identifying them as aesthetic objects. The majority of the sculptures and fabric panels here are in a wide range of blues, based on the theme of water that was part of a recent residency on Governor’s Island, although there are deviations, including supports painted orange or yellow. But the blues are there to remind us, among other things, about the precarious state of our most precious natural resource. As one consequence of that focus, she is also now much more mindful of where her materials come from, recycling and repurposing objects stringently in order not to contribute to the ever fattening mountains of waste, a pressing global concern.
Her “Calendar Series” is site-specific in the sense that she installs the panels depending upon the particularities of the venue. There is no predetermined order; her timeline is nonlinear, her universes parallel. Each panel refers to a specific month, which acts as a catalyst and organizing structure for the composition, using such attributes as the color of the month’s birthstone or the shade or shape of the flower associated with it—and she springboards from there. She is not a representational artist, although like many artists in our multidisciplinary times, she doesn’t have an ideological objection to it (she was a representational artist to begin with) working in both modes with ease. However, she has come to prefer abstraction as more expansive and expressive, more suited to her practice.
I see the panels as a tribute to the anonymous works—among them quilts, clothing, wall hangings, rugs and much more—created by women over the centuries that have never been properly paid attention to and honored. Feminists have insistently denounced this lack of validation, this balkanization of media, citing the brilliant achievements of women artists such as Lenore Tawney, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Anni Albers, Mary Lee Bendolph, Loretta Pettway, and Arlonzia Pettway (the last three all Gee’s Bend artists), Faith Ringgold and the many gifted practitioners of the Pattern & Decoration movement—and some headway has certainly been made. But more attention must be paid. It is these genres that have made the world immeasurably less harsh, more gracious, sheltering, civilized, integrating art into life, as the Russian Constructivists demanded more than a hundred years ago, embracing the glamour of the quotidian.
Abstract painting, as is wonderfully evident, informs her work, even though she consciously chooses not to use paint, finding in her materials a challenge that is more satisfying. Her fabric panels are complex constructions, and compositionally as sophisticated as paintings, laced by a deceptive naiveté, a certain outsider, self-taught quality that blesses them with a beguiling intimacy and an improvised immediacy and freshness. The patches and strips of material are stitched together, representing a kind of brushwork, from large strokes (the cut fabric) to the more refined and delicate (the thread) although the components at times also suggest pixilation and digitalized imagery—and how removed they are from it.
The panels have the force of abstract expressionist paintings—and in aggregate, a similar scale—visually punching the eye. Among the most explosive is the whimsically titled May Day’s Eye Flower, 2014. However, it advances more like a supernova, its yolky yellow center ringed by a thin corona-like yellow band, while behind it are radiating streamers of blooming petals, say, or shafts of brittle light. Another galactic-looking formation is called Juno, 2014, for the month of June, named, it is believed, after the stately queen of the gods in Roman mythology. A vortex of blue and earthen colored fabric strips stitched onto canvas, a star at its heart, it might also suggest the fanned tail of Juno’s sacred animal, the peacock. Janus 1, 2014, and Janus 2, 2016, represent the month of January, believed to be named after the double-faced Roman god of transitions. They are primarily in shades of blues, whites, blacks and greys, and patterned in bands, in which a landscape might be seen, or a face, a pattern, a pure abstraction, or more. Interpretations are fluid, the changing readings of the imagery particularly apt for Janus. In Janus 2, in another take on transience, the small patches of bright blue that suggest tape also suggest a temporary manner of holding the strips together, underscoring the notion of change, of possible collapse, which is the natural state of things. In essence, Puckett is recounting stories of metamorphoses.
Other works are less elaborate, more simply grids but their empty squares are to be activated, inviting viewers, if so inclined, to project the events of their own lives, their schedules, into the blank spaces, taking possession of it.
Her freestanding sculptures are more figurative. For all their charmingly homespun, even whacky semblances, they evince a surprising regality, like a series of statues of saints or other sacred, totemic beings. Puckett mentioned that she was raised Catholic and the blue that appears so frequently in this show is also a color that is closely associated with the Virgin Mary. One work, The Seraph, 2017, might allude to a VIP angel or might be Mary herself. In shades of deep to light blue paling to white at the bottom, the “head” of the filigreed form is encircled as if by a halo radiating shafts of dark energy outward. Another figure that might be a dysfunctional chair also could be a kneeling figure. Puckett calls it The Kneeler, 2016, a knight in shining armor. Perhaps he is gallantly bowing to his lady—or perhaps to the Virgin Mary. And, while made before the pose became controversial and politicized, I also can’t help but think of any one of numerous African American athletes—and not only African American—who have “taken a knee” during the playing of the national anthem to protest the police shootings of black Americans.
What characterizes Puckett’s work, both two- and three-dimensional, is its extraordinarily vivid presence. The attentiveness and empathy she lavishes on a kind of making and materials once associated with drudgery, has burnished them into something more sublime, an ars poetica of the domestic. Like Penelope, Puckett shows us whose in charge—and who should be."
-Lilly Wei, Art Critic, 2018
“Soft Art” used to be a thing. Back in the 1960s and ‘70s, there were exhibitions of that title, and fiber sculpture – by figures like Eva Hesse, Lenore Tawney, Sheila Hicks, and Magdalena Abakanowicz – was in vogue. These artists’ pliant forms offered a welcome respite from hard-edge painting and minimalism. They also seemed to introduce a particularly female (if not yet explicitly feminist) sensibility.
Fast forward fifty years or so, and you find Courtney Puckett waiting for you, fabric and scrap wood and wire and string and graph paper in hand. She has embraced softness as a dominant aesthetic, conceiving it not just as a gendered quality, but also a way of thinking. Like a mathematician working out probabilities based on incomplete information (a sub-discipline called “soft logic,” by the way), she builds out her forms in a gradual and exploratory way.
Materials are gathered from the street, which is also an implied field of action. A recent sculpture, The Speaker, was inspired by the Women’s March of 2017. It is an upright totem, impromptu in its structure and pink at the business end, which seems caught in the act of shouting to the rooftops.
Puckett’s drawings, some of which are gathered in this slender volume, share the same associative yet committed quality. Some relate to sculptures, more or less precisely. Others are fragments from a personal archive, calendrical and other systems that break down into pleasurable incident as they sprawl across the page.
Art history has a way of leaving its best ideas lying at the side of the road. It’s always satisfying to see them picked up and put back in use.
-Glenn Adamson, Writer and Curator, 2018
Courtney Puckett’s sculptures made of conglomerations of skinny lines crisscrossing, like spider-webs building up a scaffold, show the thought process and structural necessities the artist must navigate, much like a buildings armature at a construction site. Like drawings in space these sculptures have a frontal view, where all form disappears into material on side view.
-Jesse Greenberg, Artist and Curator, from "World Holes", White Columns online, 2018 link
In the sculptural works of Courtney Puckett, cast-off parts of familiar mass-produced objects without authorship—a clothing drying rack, a fan cover, or a roll of gift box ribbon—emerge from anonymity through the act of binding, wrapping and combining, sublating historically dismissed entities and practices to give voice to materiality. Installed on varying sized pedestals, these new configurations enter into conversation with each other and the viewer, luring and attracting, disguising and disrupting, engaging in a play of play of signifiers that reveals a community of things, rescued from the oblivion of memory, whose voices become audible through figure and gesture.
-Rachel Frank, Artist and curator of “Sound and Vision”, Field Projects, New York, NY, 2018 link
Courtney Puckett’s work occupies a space among countless artists in its use of craft materials like yarn, scarp fabric and tinsel. Tapestry and weaving have long been tools of storytelling, especially for artists (often women) to whom more traditional art forms have been inaccessible. Puckett’s piece takes this a step further, her classical approach to the figure lending fresh significance to epics like Homer’s Odyssey, in which Penelope uses weaving to manipulate her patriarchal destiny. The wrapping and re-wrapping of the foundation of these figures is obsessive and yet tender, with an attention to detail and care akin to the binding of a wound.
-Kristen Frederickson, Curator, from “Text/ure”, Shirley Fiterman Art Center, 2017
Puckett’s sculptures take on human qualities. She uses yarn and other fabrics to obsessively wrap scrap objects. Like the artist Judith Scott, Puckett uses inexpensive and scrap material—scraps of fabric, ribbon, and craft yarn that she wraps around commonplace objects, such as wire planters or a dirty-clothes hamper. The easily recognizable materials used to wrap the objects add to the mystery of what the object underneath could possibly be. The sculptures become works of complete abstraction and take on new shapes. The household objects are no longer identifiable in the end.
The uncanny similarities between the work of Scott and Puckett tempt me to ask why each artist chose their distinctive process of wrapping. Curator Catherine Morris asked a similar question in the catalog to the exhibition Judith Scott—Bound and Unbound, which she co-curated with Matthew Higgs at the Brooklyn Museum in 2014. She writes: “Why all this hand-wringing in order to implement these fairly anodyne display structures? And why describe what may be a rather over determined process of analysis to get there?” Though her questions are asked in regard to Scott, an artist whose biography often overshadows the formal properties of her art, I believe that her answer applies to all of the artists included in Form of Touch.
-Becky Nahom, Curator, from “Form of Touch”,SVA MA Curatorial Practice exhibition at Pfizer Building, 2017 link