search
Published  19/04/2022
Share:  

Sheila Hicks: Off Grid

Sheila Hicks: Off Grid

From her small woven minimes to installations that stretch from floor to ceiling, Hicks’s colourful, tactile works, spanning a 70-year career, are a delight to behold

Sheila Hicks: Off Grid. Installation view, The Hepworth Wakefield, 7 April – 25 September 2022. Photo: Tom Bird / Courtesy The Hepworth Wakefield.

The Hepworth Wakefield
7 April – 25 September 2022

by BETH WILLIAMSON

Off Grid is the first major UK exhibition of work by Sheila Hicks (b1934), which is astonishing when you realise that she has been making work for almost 70 years. Spanning her career from early works made in the 1950s to a new site-specific commission (its installation hampered by high winds), the exhibition manages to show historic work and artefacts without being backward looking. Instead, the curation of these delicious, colourful, tactile works creates a rhythmic to-and-fro showing how nothing is lost in Hicks’s extraordinary range of influences, while always moving ahead. Through fibre and thread, her response to the world around her has been, and continues to be, malleable, changeable and forward looking in ways that continually challenge and exceed th existing boundaries of art, design and culture.



Sheila Hicks: Off Grid. Installation view, The Hepworth Wakefield, 7 April – 25 September 2022. Photo: Tom Bird / Courtesy The Hepworth Wakefield.

Born in Hastings, Nebraska, Hicks attended Yale University School of Art and Architecture between 1954 and 1959, studying painting, photography, printmaking, sculpture, architecture and art history. She was taught by Josef Albers, Louis Kahn and George Kubler, among others, encountering Anni Albers too. Hicks’s introduction at that time to pre-Hispanic art and architecture led to an endless curiosity with thread and fibre and the creative possibilities they offered. She has accumulated knowledge and experience of global textile traditions on her travels, living and working in many countries. When she moved to Paris in 1964, she continued to travel and her minimes, small woven works made on a makeshift hand-held frame throughout her long career, have acted to capture something of local communities and traditions from the US, through Latin America, India, Morocco, the Middle East, Japan and France. It is one of the strengths of this exhibition that the selection of minimes (she has made more than 1,000) are not grouped together but scattered throughout the show, allowing the viewer to see elements of her ever-growing textile vocabulary that then plays out on a grander scale in larger works in each room. Hicks has said: “I found my voice and my footing in my small work.” This is not to say the minimes are not complete works in their own right, because they are, but they can perhaps be seen as providing the flexibility and portability for experiment that is more difficult in larger, even monumental, works.



Sheila Hicks: Off Grid. Installation view, The Hepworth Wakefield, 7 April – 25 September 2022. Photo: Tom Bird / Courtesy The Hepworth Wakefield.

Hicks’s photography is another important aspect of this show, and we see how she used the camera to frame the world and capture experiences in another way. Still, it always comes back to textile in one way or another. There are examples in this exhibition where she seems to draw directly on photographic elements, although it is never quite that straightforward. In one photograph taken in Santiago, Chile (1957), a man and child stand in front of a corrugated iron shutter, with a woman sitting to their right. This is shown alongside a work called Badagara Yellow (1966), made in Kerala, India. The ribbed effect of the work echoes that of the shutter in the adjacent photograph from Santiago, although the work takes its name from the village on the Malabar Coast where she stayed soon after arriving in India. Perhaps it is not surprising that she draws on elements from different times and places. As she has said: “Textile is a universal language. In all of the cultures of the world, textile is a crucial and essential component.” If anyone knows this, it is Hicks, as she has always worked closely with local artists and craftspeople on her journeys, learning and collaborating and absorbing local traditions around the world. 



Sheila Hicks: Off Grid. Installation view, The Hepworth Wakefield, 7 April – 25 September 2022. Photo: Tom Bird / Courtesy The Hepworth Wakefield.

In the 60s, Hicks began to work increasingly off-loom, creating more sculptural works that were piled on the floor, or hung from the ceiling. Banisteriopsis II (1965-6/2010), which hangs at the entrance to the exhibition, is a playful tumble of wrapped linen ponytails. It takes a fair bit of self-control not to walk through its trailing tendrils in order to feel them on your face. Later works such as La Mer (The Sea) (1976/2022), originally designed as a horizontal wall-based frieze for the corporate headquarters of the Louis Dreyfus group in Paris, is presented here in a columnar configuration, tumbling down from ceiling to floor in inviting blue waves.



Sheila Hicks: Off Grid. Installation view, The Hepworth Wakefield, 7 April – 25 September 2022. Photo: Tom Bird / Courtesy The Hepworth Wakefield.

If, as Hicks claims, textile is a universal language, there is no reason why it can’t be deployed in all sorts of settings, from fashion to furniture to architecture. Hicks befriended and worked with architects and understands how textile can impact on our experience of architectural spaces. The Hepworth Wakefield, designed and built by David Chipperfield Architects in 2011, is a perfect venue for her work, especially when you consider Wakefield’s textile heritage and, later, as the birthplace of modern British sculpture. Hicks is clearly at home in such architectural spaces. She made Rothschild Cords (1970) for the Rothschild Bank in Paris, a wall-based work shown in this exhibition. There were other commissions, too, with Hicks creating new work for an Air France Boeing 747 aircraft, the offices of the CBS radio and television network, and the headquarters of the Ford Foundation in New York.



Sheila Hicks: Off Grid. Installation view, The Hepworth Wakefield, 7 April – 25 September 2022. Photo: Tom Bird / Courtesy The Hepworth Wakefield.

It was in the 70s that Hicks began to repurpose found materials in her sculpture and these are some of the most affective works in this exhibition for me. This shift away from the traditional techniques and materials of weaving was accompanied by a turn towards a concern with the social and institutional associations. We can see this in works made from surgeons’ smocks or military uniforms, for instance. In Wow Bush/Turmoil in Full Bloom (1977-87), Hicks transformed 3,000 nurses’ blouses, tearing them into strips and dyeing them in her washing machine before creating a sculpture from the irregular bundles of material that here spill on to the floor and into the space. In yet another work, coloured bundles of soft netted fibre echo the billowing sky outside and fill the corner of the room from floor to ceiling with an inviting comforting heap that you want to sink into. Visitors to this exhibition will be spoilt for choice by colours and textures that are simply delicious.

Click on the pictures below to enlarge

studio international logo

Copyright © 1893–2022 Studio International Foundation.

The title Studio International is the property of the Studio International Foundation and, together with the content, are bound by copyright. All rights reserved.

twitter facebook instagram

Studio International is published by:
the Studio International Foundation, PO Box 1545,
New York, NY 10021-0043, USA