Criticism
Thursday, October 30th, 2014

Heroes of Superfuzz: Mark Newport’s Knitted Suits


Fiber Madness at the Palos Verdes Art Center
October 10 to November 16th, 2014
5504 West Crestridge Road
Rancho Palos Verdes, CA, 310 541 2479

Installation view of hand-knit superhero costumes in exhibition "SWEATERMAN: Mark Newport," on view at the Palos Verdes Art Center through November 16. Photograph by Monica Orozco, courtesy of the Palos Verdes Art Center.

Installation view of hand-knit superhero costumes in exhibition “SWEATERMAN: Mark Newport,” on view at the Palos Verdes Art Center through November 16. Photograph by Monica Orozco, courtesy of the Palos Verdes Art Center.

“Fiber Madness,” at the Palos Verdes Art Center through November 16, showcases the larger-than-life knits of fiber artist Mark Newport, also known as Sweaterman, whose work defies its own aesthetic whimsy, tackling social issues such as labor, gender, and domesticity. The artist is the head of the fiber arts program at Cranbrook Academy in Michigan, where he is also the acting artist in residence. His fiber works are both bizarre and arresting, due in equal parts to their evocative resonance and massive scale.

The exhibition’s first gallery houses eight oversized hand-knit bodysuits crafted with cheap acrylic yarn. The suits’ hoods and colors create the impression of homespun superhero costumes, which hang lifeless like misshapen, stretched and molted skins. In Hollywood movies, Batman and Spiderman wear suits made from structured latex and polymers that cling to each muscle, ripple and bulge — the actor’s athletic and masculine physique left on full display. With works such as Newport’s 2008 piece Sweaterman 5, the artist queers this conventional superhero archetype, creating an impotent, cast-off hero using a traditionally “female” craft.

Mark Newport, Sweaterman 5, 2008 Hand-knit acrylic yarn and buttons, 80 x 23 x 6 inches

Mark Newport, Sweaterman 5, 2008 Hand-knit acrylic yarn and buttons, 80 x 23 x 6 inches

Newport’s suits sometimes include a corresponding element of performance in their production: outfitted from head to toe in one of his signature knits (which serves to both glove his hands and mask his face), Newport will work quietly in a rocking chair in the corner of the gallery, fumbling over his needles with yarn-covered fingers. Here, he embodies the figure of the crestfallen hero, the speed and dexterity associated with comic book warriors is replaced by quiet, frustrating tedium. This quality of impotence, even failure, which guides the work, touches upon an inquiry into gender normativity begun a decade earlier. In the 1990s, Newport designed a series of hand-embroidered sports trading cards.

By contrasting the hyper-masculinity of professional sports with a method of women’s labor, Newport puts gendered notions of professionalism in dialogue with cultural constructions of pastime, performance and dress. Unlike more “conventional” queer and feminist practice, which often takes for granted the artist’s marginalized subjectivity, Newport’s work stems from an inquiry into his internalized conceptions of masculinity and the ways in which he identifies with the associated tropes. By both embodying and critiquing his relation to this normative position, Newport reframes our understanding of gender and sexuality to resist binaries, upend classifications and embrace failure.

 

In the interest of full disclosure it serves to mention that Maddie Phinney curated an exhibition at the Palos Verdes Art Center earlier this year. 


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