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Sam Jaffe produces her bright fabric works—part paintings, part sculptures—using a large Silver Reed knitting machine from the 1970s, a descendant of the industrial flatbed machines of the 19th century. The Chicago artist’s family history is intertwined with that of the New England textile industry. That connection isn’t the only reason for the high degree of skill and sensitivity on display in “One by One,” but it provides context for a practice that moves among art, craft and commerce.
Jaffe relies on acrylic yarn, which is capable of producing eye-scorching pinks and reds as well as more subtle combinations of blues and greens. She manipulates pattern and color in ways that pay homage to many styles of American art, from the vertical and horizontal lines of minimalist painting to the herringbone patterns of 19th-century quilts.
The largest piece on view—made out of heavy strands of yarn that spill forward, sag and collapse on each other—playfully dissolves the rigid lines familiar from Piet Mondrian and other abstract artists. Jaffe’s most successful works, among them The Earth Is Not a Perfect Sphere, combine satisfying textures and sly art-historical references: in this case, alluding to the wavy lines of 1960s Op Art.
The SAIC M.F.A. firmly situates her textiles in a feminist artistic tradition that brings methods of production usually associated with women into a formal gallery setting. Though this small show’s exhibition statement emphasizes the tensions among mass production, domesticity, ornament and abstraction in her work (using lots of words like undermine, question and materiality), her conceptual aims in these pieces are eclipsed by their captivating colors and textures.