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Sheila Hicks


by Brook S. Mason
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In our cross-disciplinary, rule-breaking time, does anyone care about distinctions between “art” and “craft” anymore? From the evidence of Paris-based textile artist Sheila Hicks, 77, whose fiber sculptures are poised right on that threshold, the answer is, well, interesting. Her new, self-titled exhibition, “Sheila Hicks,” now on view at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. in Chelsea, surveys the artist’s sometimes-provocative career, which spans five decades of production and demonstrates the degree to which she remains firmly rooted in the fine arts world.

"Textile had been relegated to a secondary role in our society, to a material that was considered either functional or decorative,” Hicks told Artnet Magazine. “I wanted to give it another status and show what an artist can do with these incredible materials.”

Highlighting her artistry, which traverses sculpture along with installation and encompasses conceptual art as well as unconventional tapestry, this show unites 45 works and stands as a powerful testament to Hicks’ considerable talents. Beyond examples of her large-scale work, this exhibition also includes a number of her framed woven miniatures, which she dubs “minims” and which have a distinctive painterly quality.

Going far beyond the use of traditional fibers like cotton, wool and silk, Hicks incorporates unexpected materials into her work, ranging from porcupine quills to feathers and steel fibers. She gives these unusual materials an almost pearlescent tonality, and even consulted on the design of some steel belts for a Japanese tire company.

To date, her work has ranged greatly in price, extending from $8,000 to $250,000, and has generally been successful in finding buyers.
“Clients from Europe and Latin America, along with this country, have been drawn to her sculptural installations and smaller works, too,” said dealer Michael Jenkins. Massive commissions are currently the subject of discussion. Most impressive in the show is Hicks’ 2012 Prayer Wall, a series of overlapping linen strings priced at $250,000, which at this writing is on reserve, and her 2008-10 Oracle from Constantinople, which consists of twisted ropes of wool and linen in irresistible shades of emerald green, teal, dusty pink and tobacco brown, and is going for $175,000.

The recent retrospective, “Sheila Hicks: 50 Years,” organized by the Addison Gallery in Andover, Mass., which traveled to the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, finally exposed Hicks to a wider audience. She is slated for inclusion in the 30th Saõ Paulo Biennial, which opens in September 2012. Large-scale commissions can be found in the King Saud University in Riyadh and the Fuji City Cultural Center in Japan, where her 1999 monumental bas-relief, consisting of five tons of linen thread in a stunning 90 colors, measures 338 feet in length. Needless to say, her materials are generally striking. For another work, Hicks utilized five tons of French laundry, all of it impeccably white.

Hicks holds both a BFA and MFA from Yale University, where she studied under Josef Albers, the pivotal Bauhaus artist and teacher. Eva Hesse was a fellow student. Her work can be found in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Paris’ Centre Pompidou, the Stedelijk Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

“Sheila Hicks,” Apr. 20-June 2, 2012, Sikkema Jenkins & Co., 530 West 22nd Street, New York, N.Y. 10011.

BROOK S. MASON is U.S. correspondent for the Art Newspaper, and also writes for the Financial Times and other publications.