65 Jeanne Bieri


Born Ann Arbor, MI, 1949 / BA, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo; MFA, Wayne State University, Detroit / Lives Grosse Pointe Farms, MI

Describing herself as the “compulsive collector that I am,” Jeanne Bieri is, verily, a hunter and gatherer of assorted, throwaway “stuff,” from which she occasionally assembles a one-of-a-kind grouping to render in oil. Other salvaged discards, chiefly textiles, accumulated by her and a cohort of friendly enablers, she restores, mends, sews, repurposes, “heals,” and “makes whole” again. An example of the former, Christmas Lights of 2007, is a veritable compendium of rescued artifacts arrayed, not on a laden table, but sprawled like a frieze almost five feet in width. Suspended, swaged, and push pinned to a wall, back dropped by a dun hued army blanket, the ribbons, bones and skull, Christmas lights, spool of thread, jump rope, and vintage photograph are immobilized by push pins as well as gravity.

Other subjects, drawn from Bieri’s cache of vintage photos, represent the performative images that fill many a family album. They too are accorded the oil on canvas honorific that elevates, recalls, and fixes in amber such everyday frolics. Notable are two antic examples in which anonymous, but now re-introduced individuals, are clowning and showing off for the camera. Though both paintings mimic black and white photos, each scene is in fact drawn from the original snapshot, albeit enlarged, tweaked, and sparingly colorized: the surface of Peek A Boo (2015) is glazed a pale yellow, while Ta Da, of the same year, is accented with a two-tone green door that underscores the unfurled body language of the blissfully oblivious danseuse.

A number of concurrent bodies of work populate Bieri’s practice, tacking in several directions, from painting to multiple experiments with textiles, within a given year. Linda’s Wish (2016), a slender vertical form, fabricated of tattered quilt remnants, army blankets (scratchy cast-offs courtesy of her father’s WWII service), and a passel of other fabrics, towers 14 feet, its frisky forms cascading top to bottom. For Bieri these slender “boards” evoke human figures. When exhibited as a group, their personas and titles—Linda, Clara, Myrtle–intimate distinct individuals, much as the unrolling of a scroll, which they also evoke, discloses words or images unique to writer or artist. Here, as the ladder-like black and white forms on the left jostle with the bright-eyed circles and geometric forms on the right, dominance seesaws back and forth along its statuesque height.

Two other pieces (composed and sewn in 2016), Clara’s Ribbon and Young Street, illustrate an alternate mode of display that disrupts the smooth surface and plumb edges of Bieri’s columnar forms. The artfully scrunched up passage, about three-quarters down the length of the panel, resists the tug of gravity, proffering robust projections and transforming flatness into sculptural relief. The rumpled, bunched up disturbance, serendipitously highlighting the artistry of piecing and stitching, then abruptly terminates, as upheaval (perhaps emotional?) swiftly reverts to bespoke order. These three-dimensional interruptions, deployed by artist or preparator when a work is displayed in a low ceilinged space, in fact contribute weight and substance to Bieri’s signature mash ups of geometric and organic forms. All’s well that ends well.

Broad, encompassing, and spacious are qualities invoked by other models of Beiri’s fiber art, as in Seep (2014) and Mended Shirt Quilt (2015). In both, the horizontal expanse of dusky green, military issue wool is blanketed by a looping stream of hand wrought chain stitching conjuring a restive universe of whirling galaxies. At random intervals circular, star-like nodes wink and blink, especially in Seep, evoking at once a starry night and expanding universe. In Mended Shirt Quilt, a multi colored bar, actually a repaired strip of a checker board quilt, hovers like a surreal sighting in the firmament. Bieri’s meticulous stitchery preserves the frayed fragment—presumably the handiwork of an unknown woman—and revivifies it as a radiant emblem of her existence and the longevity of art.

Cape, a somber, vertically oriented patchwork of brown and black fabric, registers as an austere anomaly of the dark ground group. Its sparse smattering of pinpricks of light and the suggestion of warmth and protection embedded in its title distinguish it from others in the series. It might be read as an aerial view of a topographical map of abutting plots of land and fabric (about 250 discrete pieces) whose irregular outline seems on the verge of imminent expansion.

So, Bieri collects, mends, pieces, assembles, and stitches to create wholes; converted into wholes, they constitute bulwarks against loss, dissolution, entropy, amnesia—and tender sustenance for the future.  Summarizing this multistep process at the core of her practice, Bieri says, simply and disarmingly, “I create big piles of sewn ideas.”

Dennis Alan Nawrocki, March 2017

Copyright Essay’d 2017