Margo Wolowiec: Still Water, Circling Palms @Marlborough Contemporary

JTF (just the facts): A total of 9 works hung unframed against white walls in the main gallery space. All of the works are made from handwoven polymer, linen, dye sublimation ink, and acrylic dye and were made in 2018. Physical sizes are either 38×28 to 72×47 inches for one panel, 80×94 inches for two panels, and 90×188 inches for four panels, and the works are unique. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Making artworks that compellingly address the subject of global climate change isn’t easy. Not only does the complex science of the topic make it difficult to visualize, the evidence (in the form of documentary photographs) that we are consistently presented with, from melting glaciers and lonely polar bears to scorching deserts and massive tropical storms, has been so broadly disseminated that counterintuitively its impact has been meaningfully diluted. It’s as if we have become visually immune to the impending doom these harrowing pictures represent, so much so that the important signals they are sending largely fail to generate the necessary response or action.

While Margo Wolowiec’s artworks do use some of the same stock imagery we have come to associate with climate change, her unique process transforms them into something altogether separate from other forms of digital collage and reuse. She starts with source images of floods, fires, blowing trees, and storm tracker weather reports, that she then digitally stitches together and prints on heat-sensitive paper using dye sublimation inks. These are then transferred to partially woven polymer threads, which are then meticulously unraveled and re-woven together, creating striated irregularities in the imagery (see detail shots above). The resulting threaded compositions are then hand-stitched to canvas panels, and presented like paintings.

While plenty of other contemporary photographers have used stitching and needlework to interrupt imagery or have hacked weaving machines and looms to output digital files, Wolowiec’s approach isn’t so much a hand crafted transformation as it is a systematic degradation. The individual pixels of ocean waves, bleached corals, and iPhone weather alerts become fragments of tiny strings, which when purposefully misaligned and reassembled are reduced to something akin to analog thread-based static. The drifting snow, stormy clouds, and beating sun are methodically broken down into a gridded looseness, where the imagery becomes nearly illegible.

The overall effect is that the artworks require constant physical movement in and out on the part of the viewer, as at short range, the images break apart into tactile pattern and abstraction, while at a distance, they resolve into plausibly recognizable forms. This shifting uncertainty activates the works, and provides a thoughtful parallel to the way the tide of digital imagery around climate change fails to register in our oversaturated and overstimulated minds.

What’s unexpected about Wolowiec’s results is that while the underlying grid of source images has a sense of obviousness that is forgettable, when the images are re-processed and turned into woven threads, they accumulate a gestural lightness that is engaging. It’s as if their extremes have been muted a bit, the breaking down process unlocking a set of unexpected shimmering distortions and color bleeds that gracefully reimagine the bodies of water and orange skies. Whether we call what Wolowiec is doing “photography” or some other brand of textile or tapestry art doesn’t seem to matter – she’s leveraging available photographic imagery in new ways, pushing it to conform to new rules and constraints, and these artistic gymnastics have produced outcomes that feel fresh and original.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show range in price from $15000 to $55000 based on size. Wolowiec’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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