Over a career spanning more than 30 years, Jason Pollen has designed textiles for Chanel and Donna Karan, served as an influential president of the Surface Design Association and was chairman of the Kansas City Art Institute’s fiber department from 1998 to 2010, after joining the faculty in 1983.
Well-known as an innovator in the field, he has also achieved a significant reputation as an artist who coaxes multiple ideas, emotions and responses from fiber.
This fall and winter, the Kansas City Central Library is honoring Pollen with a two-part retrospective, “Jason Pollen Unfurled: Thirty Years in Kansas City.”
Part 1, on view through Nov. 2, reveals his extraordinary range of visual ideas and concepts. The second installment (Nov. 9-Jan. 4) will feature more work spanning his career, including some of Pollen’s sketchbooks and his most recent work.
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Pollen describes himself as “a painterly textile artist.” The works in Part 1 also attest to his abiding love of nature and openness to a wide variety of textiles produced by other cultures.
“Forest/Trees IV” comprises strip-woven African cotton, twigs and thread. Pollen attached rows of small twigs to the earth-colored cotton with thick thread.
Some twigs are tightly bound with rows of stitching, and others are simply threaded on with looped thread. The multiple rows of variously hued twigs create a gentle rhythm.
“Forest/Trees I” from 1966 is the stripped-down prequel of “Forest/Trees IV.” The twigs that Pollen picked up from a Parisian park are attached in a much simpler fashion and spaced more evenly.
The early version feels like meditative repetition, a working out of some inner question, an acknowledgment of being too impoverished to buy art supplies and perhaps a way to be in touch with the realness of twigs, thread and cloth.
The grids that appear in “Forest/Trees” and some of his other works suggest a kind of formal minimalism, a repeated way that Pollen organizes material.
The orderly grids are a soothing counterpoint to the chaos inherent in nature’s bounty and also may suggest a musical score, a reference to Pollen’s own musicality.
“Quartet” (2011) is four separate collages in cloth, tea dyes and a variety of stitches. Combining various fabrics, text, pigments and stitchery, Pollen creates a contemporary sampler. The four pieces are completely different, yet relate to one another through their color, texture and size.
By piecing together disparate fabric scraps, Pollen marries traditional quilting, embroidery and mending to contemporary practices of collage and abstraction.
Like Polly Apfelbaum, Anne Wilson, Lou Cabeen, Jim Isermann and many others, Pollen mines textiles’ multiple histories and conceptual potential.
His “Unfurled, Series I-IV” borrows from prayer flags he saw in India, Burma and Tibet. Pollen incorporates elements from his larger corpus of work, including abstraction, collage, stitching and translucent silks. Strung in six horizontal rows, these small flags flutter in the ambient air like the many prayers that they embody.
Similarly, movement and subtle shadows activate “Flicker” (2014). By attaching diminutive fabric squares, circles and rectangles to bits of wire embedded in the wall, Pollen creates a sculptural work that, as its title indicates, flutters and shimmers. The inspiration for the work emerged during a tai chi retreat in Colorado.
Pollen writes, “Standing next to an Aspen tree, I was enthralled watching the leaves twitch and tremble and reveal their two-tonedness. Returning home, I knew I had to make a piece, Flicker, that embodied that experience.”
“Thirty Days” (1992) is an abstract, diaristic contemplation on a fallow time in Pollen’s creativity. He made a 30-foot scroll out of thin strips of various fabrics that he adhered to a backing, producing one linear foot a day for 30 days.
At the end of this exercise, Pollen had broken through his creative block. Using two wooden finials, Pollen rolled up each end, leaving only a certain portion visible. Pollen marked time and emotion through the meditative accretion of these multicolored strips.
About his art-making he writes, “My daily, weekly, monthly, yearly art practice has led to a trust in being present for and attentive to what shows up,” suggesting that a daily ritual, such as the exercise in “Thirty Days,” can harvest something meaningful.
In his work, Pollen travels between the earthiness of the twig pieces and the ethereality of “Corona” and “Flights of Fancy” (1998). Using metallic silk and small, round, silvery/gold shapes, “Corona” is a mandala-inspired work that floats dreamily several inches from the wall, shimmering as the air animates it and the light reflects off of the surface.
In these works he fuses the silk to the backing material with a polyamide, a version of which he invented in the 1970s in London.
Pollen embraces a broad definition of fiber, working for a time with rubber in a series of jet-dyed floor and table mats onto which he applied pigment, thread and other material. In “Milonga” (2004), a deep red background is scattered with organic, abstract black shapes in which tangles of thread are gathered.
To Pollen the shapes suggested a group of dancers. Milonga is both a musical genre and a place where tango is danced, a reference to Pollen’s early life as a professional dancer and his continuing interest in tango.
While the rubber pieces feel somewhat anomalous, they underscore Pollen’s polymathic approach to art-making and to material.
The second installment of the exhibition will include some of Pollen’s newest work.
He notes, “I have never felt as in touch with the ‘source’ as I do now. The great gift (is) to see leaves, twigs, trees, forests simultaneously!
“The outpouring of working bits and pieces into wholes, urging them to become greater than the sums of their parts; that is what I dedicate myself to at least 12 hours a day.”
Jason Pollen has the insight, patience and perspective to recognize the gifts that are time, talent and simply being open to the shimmering inner and outer world within and around him.
“Jason Pollen Unfurled: Thirty Years in Kansas City, Part 1” continues in the Genevieve Guldner Gallery at the Central Library, 14 W. 10th St., through Nov. 2. Part 2 opens Nov. 9 and continues through Jan. 4. Pollen will give an artist’s lecture, “Jason Pollen Presents,” at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the library. It will be preceded by a reception at 6 p.m. RSVP at KCLibrary.org.