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Dry & Mighty
Towels absorb river of emotions in "foldoverfold"

By Elisabeth Kirsch, Kansas City Star, 26 January 2006

Is there such thing as the "poetics of towels"?

If not, there should be based on the work of Marcie Miller Gross. This artist's textile sculptures--piles of towels arranged in site specific installations--appear deceptively simple, even humble.

Spend any time in a room with them, however, and they vibrate with emotional energy, even angst. The Kansas City artist, who is also a designer and interior architect, has employed towels in a variety of installations in galleries and public spaces for several years. "Foldoverfold" at the Kemper Museum is Gross' first one- person museum show. (The Daum Museum in Sedalia, MO owns an untitled sculpture of Gross' that combines used soil-coated hand towels piled on a wooden stool.)

As meticulous as always, Gross took careful measure of every inch of her space at the Kemper. In the relatively small Barbara Uhlmann gallery she employs more than 6,000 new, white cotton huck towels (typically used for medical work) to assemble three architectonic soft sculptures that inspire reveries ranging from landscape to diapers to bandages.

As Gross notes in the exhibition brochure, “we all have intimate associations with towels...I wanted to work with a substance that is accessible and universal, because of its contact with the human body.”

Gross' art has often involved references to the body.Before towels, she created work that dealt with inner biological functions. In one particularly memorable series, Gross manipulated super-thin slices of beets into two dimensional artworks that bore an unnerving resemblance to red blood cells under a microscope.

Having explored the human vascular system, Gross is now equally concerned about the relationship of the body within space. She has cited the importance of "aspects of repetition, emptiness and form, mass and void, weight and weightlessness, equilibrium and imbalance, compression and release."

In“Intersection”, Gross utilizes thousands of folded towels to create an inverted “L” shape that bends around the room, activating two wall and a corner. She trimmed the towels' edges so that they stack more neatly. That last fact may not be immediately apparent, but the amount of physical labor needed to create this work does register in the visitor”s psyche with an accompanying sense of wonder. This is an artist who cares. The labor- intensive quality of this work can reference everything from the endless drudgery of domestic labor to hospital laundry rooms and suffering patients.

The towels were all manufactured in Pakistan. Gross acknowledged that she considered the origin of the towels — and the human cost of the country's recent earthquake — while working with them. With such considerations, visions of blood and injured bodies hover like a mirage in the room, while the purity of the all-white towels suggests transcendence as well.

Gross tucks towels in a corner in "Edge" and stacks them all the way to the ceiling. In a recent lecture at the Kemper, she emphasized the importance of the natural landscape, with its seasons of growth and decay in her earliest work.

Geography, of course, is also a metaphor for the human body. With its incremental stacking of layers, "Edge" evokes the natural striations within a geographical landscape.

The compression implicit in the piled-up layers in "Edge" suggests a tightly wound or suppressed psyche, an emotional state that gives this work another kind of "edge".

In "Rotation", two stacks of towels, each in a quadrant shape, create pillars in the center of the gallery. This piece, with its geometric sense of an equation, especially connotes a gestural quality. This reinforces the sense of religious ritual and notion of art as meditation that permeates this exhibit.

While minimalism, the influential art movement that flourished in the '70s, is a clear inspiration for the simplicity of Gross' art, her sense of the organic and notions of touch subvert minimalism's deliberate lack of expressive content.

Gross particularly relates to the evanescent sculpture of the deceased artist Eva Hesse, whose work is minimal but also expressive and visceral.

The sense of the modest and domestic in Gross' art also aligns it with Arte Povera, an Italian art movement of the'60s in which artists deliberately selected materials for their "worthlessness," as a reaction against the commercialization of the art world.

With her innate sense of refinement, it is not surprising that Gross has studied aspects of Asian art. The contemporary Japanese art movement, Mono-ha, which deals not just with objects but the spaces between them, appeals to the sense of wholism that pervades "foldoverfold."

As Gross observes about her own art, "I am often intrigued by the mundane and ordinary and look for the extraordinary and poetic within that." Stay with this work long enough, and you will understand and feel what she means.