James Baumgartner: The two exhibits up at the Newport Art Museum right now play off of each other in interesting ways. One is called Dress Code, it features works of art based on apparel. The other is called Social Fabric, and it’s all art made from textiles, fabrics and techniques like weaving and quilt making. Francine Weiss is the Chief Curator of the Newport Art Museum. I asked her why so many artists are using textiles right now.

Francine Weiss:  A lot of artists are doing handmade things, but with recycled or reused or repurposed materials, which is really amazing. Many of the artists in this show have family members that were sewing and mending things when they were young, or cross stitching. I also see it as really similar to what's happened in photography, where digital photography has kind of caused more people to work in antiquarian processes. It's like it's driven people toward a real interest in the handmade.

Baumgartner: The galleries are filled with handmade quilts and woven pictures and sculptures made from denim. There are too many amazing works in the show to mention them all, but I want to highlight just a few: Elizabeth Duffy lives in Providence and teaches at Roger Williams University. She has several works in the show that center on incarceration. There’s a large quilt that hangs on the wall and has the alphabet on it, like you’d see on a blanket for a kid’s bedroom, except that the letters look a little off. That’s because they’re patterned on the floor plans of different prisons.

Then she has a little living room scene with wall paper that you could imagine in a 19th century house except that when you look closely, you can see guard towers in the wall paper pattern.

Francine Weiss: I think textiles have always lent themselves to social commentary as community-based projects, where people work together on a quilt to make something or people repurpose fabrics to make something for instance. And given all the artists have to express, these contemporary issues, social protests, social activism ideas.

Baumgartner: While most of the art is contemporary, there are some older works as well including a few panels from the AIDS Memorial Quilt - a project that started in the late 1980s. People contributed quilted panels memorializing loved ones who had died of HIV and AIDS. The panels are each 3 feet by 6 feet - about the size of a coffin. In 1987, about 2000 of the panels were laid out on the national mall in Washington D.C. 

Weiss: And I just felt like we couldn't do the show without that piece because of how central it is to American culture. How familiar it is, and how important it was as a piece of recognition, memorial, social protest, even just being informative. Like we found in researching it, you know, that it was very connected with people becoming educated about AIDS as well.

Baumgartner: While many of the works emphasize the handmade nature of textile work, there are a few that are a bit more high tech. There’s “Ru Paul Cross Stitch” by Aubrey Longley-Cook. He worked with a group of workshop students who each took a frame of video from Ru Paul’s Drag Race and made a cross stitch pattern out of it.

Weiss: Then he assembled those all into an animation, which is fantastic. So he's, combining these craft traditions with, you know, very contemporary technology to make something new, which I love.

Baumgartner: The animation is bright and dizzying as it moves through each pattern and you see Ru Paul’s exaggerated facial expressions. Many of the frames feature the back of the cross stitch pattern, so you can see all of the threads. It’s an interesting way to bring the handmade into the digital video.

While the Social Fabric show at the Newport Art Museum is all about textiles in many different forms, Dress Code is about apparel specifically. Megan Horn is the curatorial assistant at the museum. She told me that the idea for Dress Code came from her work on Social Fabric.

Megan Horn: Thinking about how specifically, dress and what we wear on our bodies is so important to how we interact with one another and communicate things about ourselves. But the fact that clothing also is something that carries those associations, it's already been written over kind of like language.

Baumgartner: The fashion industry certainly plays a part in the language of the clothing we wear. Abigail Glaum-Lathbury has a work in the show called Genuine Unauthorized Clothing Clone Institute, G.U.C.C.I.

Horn: She took selfies in designer clothing in the fitting rooms. So you can see the imprint of her hand taking a selfie included in all the patterns.

Baumgartner: She then makes a dress pattern from those selfies and lets people download those patterns for their own use.

Horn: So you get these really flat designs that come out of it, they're new, they're totally different from what the original product was, in the sense, they're like, almost like sandwich board, to kind of highlight the fact that they are limited, you get the likeness of something that we desire, we know it's a luxury good.

Baumgartner: Some of my favorite works in the show were by Bhen Alan. There’s an untitled video where he dances in an outfit made from bright glittery streamers. 

Horn: This shimmering light, filled on, garment that swishes and moves with his body, it kind of disguises, you can't really see where his limbs begin and end. And it conceals him, but it also makes him really hyper visible, and it creates patterns in this doubling and mirroring, where you almost lose sight of him, you can't quite see where he is. The pattern is supposed to become like a weaving in itself, look like a woven textile.

Baumgartner: In another video called “Excess,” Bhen Alan is wearing a suit  made from all sorts of fabric and paper scraps and his body is completely enveloped, you can’t see him at all. And he’s dancing in India Point Park. It looks like this giant purple and  brown monster made from fabric scraps rolling through the park. It’s a disconcerting contrast to the shimmering kaleidoscope of his other videos.

Baxter Koziol makes what he calls ‘skin suits’ pieced together from reused scraps of fabric.

Horn: And he the artist creates these around his body while watching a movie, usually. And then he cuts himself out of them and then reinstalls them on the wall and they look really flat and compressed when they're hung against the wall.

Baumgartner: One suit has exaggerated muscles, another kind of looks like a super hero costume.

Horn: It's looks like a really hyper masculine superhero suit almost made out of denim, but the back of it’s a dress zipper. So there are these kind of hints that kind of tease and then joke about masculinity and anonymity. And what might the wearer do by putting those skins on? And what might it mean to shed them like a snake or like to remove that skin?

Baumgartner: Along with the hyper-masculine skin suits, there’s a hyper-feminine pink prom dress and then there are hand-made traditional-looking wool cheerleader dresses, but with radical political slogans on them. There’s fanciful dresses that were made for the queer ballroom scene and beautiful fashion photography by Rey Londres featuring a trans woman model where it feels more like collaboration than objectification.

Horn: I think working in the show, I've realized clothing is a it's a performance we put on every day. It's something we do to communicate who we are in that day. And it is not fixed in time. It's a system we willingly participate in. Not always by choice. It's something we do to fit our surroundings. It's something we do for survival, but it's also something we do to tell stories.

Baumgartner: And they are stories you will want to see at the Newport Art Museum. You can see Dress Code now through October 8th, but if you want to see Social Fabric, you’ll have to go soon, it’s on through June 11th. And I think it’s worth seeing them together to see the variety of contemporary talent, and local talent that’s on display.

Social Fabric: Textiles and Contemporary Issues, curated by Francine Weiss, PhD. and Megan Horn. December 3, 2022 - June 11, 2023.

Dress Code, curated by Megan Horn in collaboration with Holly Gaboriault. May 6, 2023 - October 8, 2023.