Jean Shin: Common Threads

Jean Shin, a rising star of the American art scene, has been elevating the status of textiles. Her sculptures are now on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum - the most prestigious contemporary art museum in Washington DC. The show is called "Common Threads" and will be up until 26 July.

At first glance, Shin appears to be a confoundingly eclectic artist. Any one of her pieces looks completely different from the next. In her portfolio, you see a banner made out of umbrellas, a really vast house of cards, neckties laced to urban fences - it's not immediately clear what they have to do with one another.

In fact, she doesn't appear to place any limits on the kind of material she uses. Instead, the work is linked by a common approach. She collects objects that are usually discarded - lots of them, piles of them - and considers their context. What were they used for? By whom? What city was all of this cast-off material "produced" by? In the end, the resulting installation is a response to all of those factors, which explains the aesthetic variety.

"Worn Soles" Leather shoe soles and heels, 2001

"TEXTile" Recycled keyboard caps, 2006

"Penumbra" Broken Umbrellas and thread, 2003

Jean taught drawing at the pre-college art summer course I went to at Pratt in Brooklyn. Back then, she identified herself as a sculptor. That was 11 years ago, and I've seen her bold work evolve from framed strands of hair, to walls colored with donated clothing (my shirt and underwear were there, in a museum!), to giant waves of broken records.

She works more and more in the mode of a textile designer, by collecting raw material, finding how it joins together, and making surfaces that sometimes are formed into large shapes. A few years ago, she was the artist in residence at the Fabric Workshop & Museum in Philadelphia. Does she still categorise her work as sculpture? Can she call it fiber arts? I wonder if things would have been different if she were called a textile artist from the start. Would she would have achieved the attention her work deserves?

Link: Jean Shin "Common Threads" at Smithsonian American Art Museum

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