The art in Pieces, a solo exhibition by Caroline Lathan-Stiefel on view at Sandler Hudson Gallery, uses objects from the artist’s possessions that float in the architectural space of the gallery. Held together by thin wire or thread, with parts salvaged from old milk cartons and fabrics saved and dyed, these works are like quilted mosaics of color and form, gentle abstractions containing signs and symbols. Only one work is actually suspended, but the lightness and openness of these works makes them appear to pulsate with energy on the wall.
Lathan-Stiefel is originally from Atlanta and makes a point of exhibiting here. Her work reflects her Southern roots with ties to quilt making, as she sews and arranges her hand-painted fabrics. There is also a connection to folk art in the way she combines found objects, recycled glass and plastics from her home to create mosaic-like elements that she collages into her artworks.
“Wheel Flag” (2019-21, 70 x 100 inches) is a large suspended work that shimmers. In this mostly monochromatic work, blue and red pieces pop up like small jewels within a rectangular form, with multiple strips radiating from the center. Many varieties of black materials gracefully curve in a mosaic that moves from the top to the bottom of the rectangle bisecting the composition. The work references flags in both its scale and the way the parts are sewn together, creating patterns that could evoke a country flag or one used as a signal. Lathan-Stiefel has a passion for flags; there are nine small collaged banners in this exhibition. Each is approximately four inches high and more or less eight inches wide; this proportion, a double square, was a favorite of Van Gogh’s. The divisions within each of these small works are carefully considered in terms of the color and texture of the fabrics, but they are amusing as well, made up of labels and the tops of socks; the colors lend the works the mischievous feel of something cobbled together in humorous juxtapositions.
“Jeux,” (2021, 69 x 45 inches) is an imperfect, vertical oval with small pieces of colored fabrics that the artist found, rescued and spaced within a net that sits just off the wall — its shadows engage the space as a kind of game, as the name suggests. (Jeux is French for games.) The artist has remade and repurposed the grid; there is nothing regular here. Nevertheless, she knows just where to place each piece to move your eye around this game of color and light, line and geometry.
In “Chime,” (2019, 38 x 51.75 inches) fabric, wire and thread define a rectilinear composition whose structure is characterized by its openness. The shapes delineated by negative space are just as significant as the physically present ones. The bands of fabric in muted pink, gray, tan and burnt sienna are bound together by a surprising crossband in a luminous phthalo green. The composition of “Place,” (2021, 65 x 76 inches) with its hand dyed and spray painted fabric, functions additively. Each piece has its place and the composition feels organic like a city that is growing and expanding and is viewed from above, as in plan view. “Batten” (2021) has pictures within pictures, the signs and symbols layered and sewn together. Nautical notation is at play in the patterns of signal flags that represent different letters of the alphabet used by ships at sea to communicate with one another.
Lathan-Stiefel’s work allows the viewer to experience common objects and fabrics remixed into compositions that are familiar yet totally new in their presentation. Her use of translucent fabrics that are spray painted by hand in soft shades are a balm for the eye. Her colorful inventions reference the history of quilting and craft, but the uniqueness of the compositions, the shapes and openings, have a distinct quality that is something new for the viewer to discover. There is a story within each of the works, articulated through found objects tethered together with new meaning and form.
Pieces is perfect for these pandemic times. Lathan-Stiefel combines a soothing visual montage of shape, color and texture with a lightness of touch. You might feel like wrapping yourself in these images, as in a weighted blanket, but they are also symbols that one might send up the flagpole in a time of distress. Perhaps these works announce the beginning of a time of hope.