Shari Urquhart produces visual narratives from candy-like yarns that seem to glow. Each piece presents sensual fields that we can easily get lost in, absorbing each story as it slowly unfurls. The colorful works are made from fibers of wool, rayon, angoras, mohair, metallics, fake fur, plastic and even Urquhart’s own dog’s hair. Each of her tapestries exhibits a brevity of controlled execution, awareness of composition that is meticulously constructed, making each piece monumental.
Shari Urquhart’s background was in painting during the post Ab Ex and Pop eras while completing her MFA 1967 at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Her early oils aptly illustrate her masterful knowledge of the push and pull of color and bravura of how to lay down mark. Thus, it is no wonder that her transfer from oil to fiber would possess the same knowledge. Like a fine chemist, the process of dying natural fibers in pure pigment can be savored through the soak. Armed with her own painterly command, this hands-on transformative process of using alchemical baths to produce palettes of saturated color certainly can be discovered throughout each of her pieces.
Urquhart’s labor intensive, tactile fields are filled with ambrosial chroma that have the power to whet any palate. Her larger works, some 10’ wide, usually take up to a full year to complete. The works she completed over four decades are so large one can easily fall into them to cuddle up and be embraced by their sensual pleasure. To take in Urquhart’s mythic works, similar to an impressionist painting, one must step back to allow for colors to coalesce and fuse into form. Each of the marks she makes is a punched stitch that carries opulent hue, threaded through monk's cloth, a cotton matrix, developing an inch thick pile. This is executed one stitch at a time. Within all of Urquhart’s works, the material and image become integrally unified in the process of making and construction of each visual story.
Urquhart often affectionately referred to the works she created as ‘rugs’. Each one is filled with humor and symbolic objects: rabbits being pulled from hats, jigsaw puzzles, hula hoops, hobby horses, toy air planes and tanks, sporting equipment, taxidermy, circus animals, targets, clocks, ballerinas, food displays, cultural artifacts from far away places, and so much more. In her own words, “I feel I can borrow any image I want and do it up anyway I care to because the medium transforms it into something else anyway.”
The works remain rich and exhibit reverence under the comical critiques of her own making. All are filled with urgent poignancy about the state of public and private affairs. Each object in Urquhart’s universe are symbolic surrogates for real life complexities such as love, war, greed, the uneven distribution of wealth, capitalism, envy, fantasy, all from a feminist point of view. Her fiber works neatly thread together an extraordinary and carefree artistic expression, illustrating her sharp knowledge of history, sometimes bordering on sardonic wit in the “powerlessness of a woman’s voice in matters of love and war.”
Source material is taken from popular culture and also from historical art references Urquhart co-opts for her very own. She loved mashing up early 15th century Netherlandish painted works by Van Eyck, van der Weyden, Dürer, Madonnas and Medici princesses, Khnopff, Redon, Picasso, and others. Looking at the totality of her work, one takes in numerous art history lessons at once, and most certainly recognizes the genius of her own witty perspective.
Urquhart orchestrates her figurative actors and still life props into theatrical stage sets to create complex compositions. Her early narratives often revolved around the interaction between a male and female figure. Each figure occupies a chromatic space that gesturally produces active energy and seduction where emotional heat seems to be visually discharged. Urquhart’s works are filled with pattern and pulse in each topsy turvy composition. There is no question that she is extremely fluent as a story teller, asking us to take nothing for granted in her densely packed, constructed worlds. Frantic psychological energy runs rampant throughout each of her developed narratives. Created in a material coziness of thick fiber seems to calm the highly charged emotions of her scapes, each work offers warm worlds for us to look at, perhaps to even fall into, to wander around and wonder about, if only for a while. In the work Urquhart produced in the 90s, the female figure went solo, sometimes propped up on a table top as if being a still life object herself. Her tapestries each present an other worldliness of bucolic paradises that enter tight interior compositions allowing us to day dream. They are indeed mythic works and she is definitely the enlightened magician.
Like the noisy and crowded Manhattan and Brooklyn boroughs she lived in from 1967– 2007, all of the objects threaded into her works are thoughtfully selected. Some of Urquhart’s largest works date from the late 1970’s, concurrent and immediately following the Summer of Sam, when serial killer David Berkowitz terrorized young women throughout the five boroughs. Perhaps, this was Urquhart’s cathartic way of dislocation and suspending belief to create fantasy-filled palatial worlds of her own making. Two hallmark exhibitions that included Shari Urquhart’s work were Bad Girls, Part II (1994) and ‘Bad’ Painting (1978) at The New Museum in New York, both curated by Marcia Tucker. Of her other accomplishments was a solo exhibition, The Fuzzy Museum at Cheryl Pelavin Fine Arts in December 2005, among others.
Under Urquhart’s keen eye for color, her bibliographic knowledge of history and art history, laced with her own feminist take on life and art, her dedicated works remain constructed concentrations that continue to speak. Urquhart’s works seem extremely timely and remain, as art critic Allan Schwartzman touted when re-visiting ideas behind the Bad Girls II exhibition she participated in, “unapologetically aggressive” in subject matter and material. Her sensuous, complex and comforting work, present a physical potency and liveliness that remains today. Urquhart’s lush, life-size tapestries offer up new fodder for contemporary ideas in current art making practices. Sadly, November 21, 2020, Shari Urquhart passed in her childhood home of Kenosha, WI at the age of 80.
Essay by Jen Pepper
Published in the digital art publication
Art Spiel.org, Reflections on Contemporary Art
New York, NY MAR 8, 2021
Image above: Madonna after Hugo van der Goes by Urquhart, 2001