The exhibition “Fray” was a mammoth project involving 19 artists working with a vast range of textile-related approaches. The show could have been framed as a survey of current textile-based practice in Canada, but such thinking appeared less important than demonstrating that textile work, now commonplace in contemporary art, is still regularly relegated to the art world’s edges. So “Fray” positioned itself in relation to other medium-based exhibitions—for example, ones that place painting at their centre. With its title it ruefully betrayed a skepticism about its own enterprise and offered an antidote to more self-congratulatory approaches to production and exhibition. Cal Lane’s exquisite work Untitled (dirt floor)—a stencilled rug of earth that lay upon the grey floor of the Koffler Gallery like both an abject abstract and a ghostly Victorian parlour carpet— seemed to perfectly embody the show’s aspirations.
There were many highlights in this exhibition of more than fifty works, but many good pieces eluded the memory in the journey between the two venues. Making the strongest impression were the works that most artfully trouble the cultural fabric. Nadia Myre’s groundbreaking Indian Act (2002–03), with its careful obliteration of the legislation’s text using red and white beads, produces a stunning historical erasure. June Clark’s Dirge (2004), an American flag whose stars and stripes are rusted sheet metal sewn onto canvas, is equally telling. Doug Guildford’s miraculous crochet extension to a bait bag, entitled Mouth (2006), points to the environment. David Merritt’s untitled (after Sam Cooke) (2005), which contains a song lyric formed from a thin strand of sisal unwound from a cloud of the same material, brackets labour and race.
Some of the other works in “Fray” take part in a new formal dialogue. They include Luanne Martineau’s Panorama Flood (1998), an obsessive mixed-media drawing on cotton; Allyson Mitchell’s Sasskunk (2006) and Sassquog (2005), which move fake fur beyond kitsch; and Jeannie Thib’s screen-printed floral/viral wood panels Sub Rosa, Influx and Cluster. Kim Ouellette’s thread drawings on wool blankets are remarkable for their material buildup—they marry art and artifact, high and low. “Fray” managed to draw attention to recent textile practice without appearing overly invested in defending its terrain. More significantly, the show successfully argued that with art the canvas sometimes unravels, but when it does, it yields a delicate fringe.