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Light Lines 

Alice Philips, Fibre Artist

Alice Philips’ latest exhibition, “Light Lines”, is a collection of felted white cylinders, each supported in an upright position by a minimal internal frame. A small LED light illuminates the cylinders from the inside. Their translucence gives them an ephemeral quality. The pieces range from approximately 35 centimetres to 1.5 metres in height. Quite thinly felted, thicker shapes are often embedded within the material, making attractive patterns, particularly when the internal light is on. Philips describes this as mark-making in light.

Sometimes the embedded pieces flow right out of the felt and arch gracefully into the air. This adds a sense of movement to the pieces. Movement is also achieved by playing with the edge where the felt overlaps to close the cylinder. Sometimes the wobbly edge of the felt is emphasized and its join looks tenuous, drawing attention to the hand of the maker. It appears to be closing itself in a gesture of shyness, or, conversely, perhaps it is in the process of throwing itself open. Either way, the piece is in flux. The soft light provides a harmony among the pieces. They are like seaweed in a shallow sea, bathed in a tropical light diffused by the water.

Philips, a long-experienced hand felter, knows her materials and excels at their manipulation. The apparent simplicity of these light sculptures successfully hides the amount of work that goes into wet felting by hand. Although known for her dramatic, brightly coloured wearables, Philips now prefers to produce more sculptural pieces, exploring abstract minimalism using only white in merino wool, soy silk (fibre made from soy), sea cell (fibre made from seaweed) and unplied polypropylene rope.

The exhibition has a very contemporary feel to it. Without colour to distract us, we are left only with the uncompromising force of white, the command of technique, and the contemplation of form.  Thus the pieces are about themselves. In a way, departing from colour, Philips is showing off her maturity as a hand felter, hiding behind nothing but her skill and her understanding of form and light as they relate to this difficult medium. With the luminosity drawing attention to the material, one witnesses the control and evenness of the felting itself.  This highlights the irony of felt as a material that appears to be flimsy and fragile, yet in fact is hard wearing and strong. Felt, luscious in its whiteness, thin and thick on demand by the accomplished felt artist, defies form yet commands space.

The pieces are displayed singularly, equally spaced around the three walls of the corner nook in the gallery. There are a few in the window. Having seen them clustered together in Philips’ studio, I feel their sculptural quality is diminished by their separation. In clusters, they have a certain humanoid character that is at once harmonious yet mildly ominous, in spite of their purity. Although I prefer them clustered, each one is interesting and attractive in its own right, and in separation one does focus on the qualities of the individual.

The pieces are very sensitive to lighting, sometimes appearing more solid and sculptural, other times seeming more evanescent and mysterious. A strong directional light can increase their drama and form. The ones in the window are lit from the bottom. At night, with the darkened gallery behind, they have a strong sculptural presence. The ones in the nook, more evenly lit from above, benefit from the dark blue wall behind. However, when lit only from within, the transparency and the quality of the felting with its embedded details, many quite subtle, would be more discernable.

Overall, “Light Lines” is well worth a visit, as it illustrates the range that an accomplished fibre artist such as Alice Philips’ can achieve in wet hand felting. The show is on until December 6 at Crafthouse Gallery on Granville Island.

Reviewed by Toby Smith