The first artist visitors encounter upon entering The Mysterious Content of Softness, a group show currently filling three of four galleries at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum, is Nathan Vincent. According to the accompanying wall text, Vincent's work "explores gender permissions" by "creating 'masculine objects' using 'feminine processes.'" To the right of that text, you'll see three traditional ivory lace doilies, into which Vincent has worked male motifs such as a men's room symbol and the circle-and-arrow Mars emblem; turn around and there's a pair of huge screws and a bolt crocheted in gray yarn.
OK. We get it. Manly stuff, girly methods.
This kind of literalism may cause some viewers to heave a sigh now and then at this exhibit; about half of the artists are working the same identity theory tropes. But that's no reason not to visit. Mysterious Content of Softness is a funhouse of sensory input, a motherlode of distracting beauty. Walk past those opening gambits and the gallery is taken over by Vincent's life-size installation Locker Room, complete with showers, benches, urinals – all softly knitted or crocheted. It's an impressive spectacle, and although it's in the same vein of contradicting gender expectations, the pure fun of it knocks the stiffness out of the theoretical underpinnings.
Next up is L.J. Roberts' equally didactic, equally impressive, equally exuberant and funny We Couldn't Get In. We Couldn't Get Out., a 10-foot-high hot-pink hurricane fence topped with coiling barbed wire, all of it built of fuzzy crocheted tubes of yarn. We don't need to be told that it's reappropriating gender roles and addressing issues of social barriers confronting the gay community – a hot-pink fence is as literal an interpretation of those ideas as I can imagine – but I couldn't help but delight in the ingenuity of its construction.
Through that fence, one glimpses Angela Ellsworth's Seer Bonnets, bristling with pearl-headed corsage pins – beautiful on the outside, bloodily painful on the inside. Their unwearability speaks to the pain of femininity's prescribed roles, not just crippling-but-socially expected beauty norms (like high heels – or foot binding), but the internal pain that accompanies or enables those outward displays. Also in this gallery are Lauren DiCioccio's enchantingly crafted objects – embroidered fabric replicas of everyday articles (magazines, water bottles, playing cards, a skull) almost indistinguishable from the real thing.
Angela Hennessy's dark explorations fill a corner of the back gallery. Midnight Disease, a series of delicate lacy jellyfish, turns out to be based on disease specimen slides. Crocheted of black thread, black velvet fuzz and unraveled hairnets, the thready filaments and tendrils waving and reaching out behind glass frames are unabashedly lovely, even touching. But they're freighted with heavy racial and feminist politics – perhaps too heavy for these ethereal creations. Similarly, Lisa Kellner's pink organza balloons are purely pretty until deflated by the artist's intentions, unpacked via the wall texts.
Husband-and-husband artistic team Dutes Miller and Stan Shellabarger are the sole performance artists of the show, and have created the most moving work. Their Pink Tube, a massive piece of crochet that they add to as an ongoing performance, will continue to grow for as long as the couple is alive and able to work – when one of them dies, the other vows to unravel the piece. In this case, the inherent gender identity critique (the use of feminine processes and the color pink to interrogate queer masculinity) succeeds, perhaps because it is so personal. Rather than preaching a theory, the knit work Pink Tube and Untitled (Graves) – a pair of graves dug side by side, with a connecting tunnel through which the artists can hold hands – are simple expressions of love and connection. And what, after all, is knitting but a process of connection?
The Mysterious Content of Softness
through Dec. 30
Cornell Fine Arts Museum
1000 Holt Ave., Winter Park