Crystal Gregory loves the materiality of pattern. Gregory chooses materials that physically or emotionally construct domesticity, while highlighting the acts of aggression within its construction. “Lace is my most valuable inspiration. The language of lace is complicated and delicate: pattern, fragility, negative space, gender, class, non-functional, decorative. Its ability to reveal more than conceal.” Through the physical act of drilling and carving intricate shapes rendered raw, Gregory poses questions about the perceptions of the same materials she works with.
A multi-media installation artist, Gregory assembles her work in natural and urban environments, activating a dynamic intimacy with very public architectures. Having taught therapists and women’s groups on the meditative potential of art making, Gregory’s work shows that “mending and healing are the same thing in different ways”. Fiber art has evolved from traditional experiences of community, a sense of which Crystal is currently instilling in her workshops.
With Crochet Graffiti, the reclaiming urban landscape transformed spaces typically encumbered with materials that are far from welcoming: iron, wood, chains. Such are the textures of public security: fences, posts, ownership, the separation of property. With Foundation I and II, and Foot Traffic, Gregory taps into the urban language of tiling. Personally, I’m fascinated by tile because it just might be the digital pixel’s predecessor. As a medium, tile has dominated public works longer than public art has been a viable art form. Perhaps cobble stones are even older expressions of the same concept, but tiles prepare the human brain for a relaxed association with pixel as form.
Gregory’s recent Department of Transportation commission, Foot Traffic, references that specific patterning of tile—already the dominant aesthetic of New York’s underground metro stations. The crochet shapes of Foot Traffic reference this form of tiling, but are embedded outside, in a free-form fence climb. The work addresses the absence of urban warmth. With her work, Gregory investigates layers of history, psychology, gender and class residing at the inception of design as fabrication. Foot Traffic will be on view for the next ten months in Brooklyn.
What follows is an edited interview with Crystal Gregory, spanning a particularly dynamic time in her creative process, from July to November of 2010.
How did you begin making work, in general?
Crystal: I think I was always an artist, making craft-based objects as a form of expression. Fiber art is charged in a different way than more traditional art forms such as painting.
I’ve read about Aran patterns and stitches, and learned that some basic stitches exist in multiple cultures. Stitch patterns evolved from the basic to the complex, but Peruvian knitting has basic stitches in common with Nordic patterns. And that didn’t happen from a cross-pollination of culture. It was human evolution. When you say fiber art is charged in an arts context, I’m really curious about what that means in your work, considering these disparate parallels.
Crystal: When I say that fiber art is charged I mean its distinct connotations: craft, class, women, etc. When people see this material, what registers first is not usually the visual, or the idea, but the familiarity of the medium. They recognize something they know as being used in a new way. That is exciting to me because I can twist or imbed materials into new ideas, new sculpture. Fiber art is charged on a micro level: stitching is an intimate personal labor. On an universal level, cloth is a basic life necessity. It’s cross-cultural, full of tradition and pattern.
What materials do you prefer to work with?
Crystal: My work is rooted in fiber art, which means I primarily work with cloth or thread. Lace is a driving material, manifested through crochet and thread. Recently I have been working with building materials: bricks, cinder block, glass, drywall and wood; connecting these materials to ideas of lace. I am very interested in the juxtaposition of domestic objects and construction material.
You deliberately work with materials that are very comfortably gendered by society.
Crystal: Society casts gender roles on these objects (lace, feminine; building materials, masculine). With my work, I pose questions about why the structural materials are masculine and the non-functional decorative materials are feminine.
You mentioned you like working through that fine line between fine art and craft.
Crystal: Yes, it’s an exciting gray area for me. I think working in a medium that is so familiar to everyone gives me an interesting and charged material. I use it because it allows me to comment on society from a personal level.
Tell me more about your current commissions.
Crystal: This month I finalized a public work for the Department of Transportation in Lefferets Garden, right after dismantling my installation in the DUMBO Arts Festival at the Giacobetti Paul Gallery. I am also working with architects on putting some of my installations (primarily the drywall-lace carvings) into apartments in Manhattan and Brooklyn. My public work has been in Manhattan in the past (Invasive Crochet at AiOP, and On the Fence at PS 122 Gallery).
How did that Lefferets Garden project, Foot Traffic, happen?
Crystal: The Lincoln Road Block Association approached me last spring, wanting to create an installation in their neighborhood. It’s an excellent location, across from an elementary school. From the bridge, you can watch the train come out of the tunnel, surrounded by those beautiful brownstones. The location itself is inspiring.
For years, a “chandelier” of shoes flung by neighborhood youth dangled from wires over the Lincoln Road bridge. The Foot Traffic installation was inspired by this urban image and the shoelace material. The overall piece combines ideas of movement, comfort and a reclaiming of community. I crochet 200 hexagonal ‘granny’ squares, then stitched them onto the fence, creating a colorful geometric path over the 75′ footbridge leading right into Prospect Park. This piece represents a colorful, playful and energetic geometric pattern that is inspired by the familiarity and warmth of a grandmother’s quilt.
Your largest installation to date, Heirloom at the Giacobetti Paul Gallery for the DUMBO Arts Festival this Fall, merged lace patterning with architecture. Did you have specific ideas you wanted to work with?
Crystal: Antique lace and vintage damask patterns. They penetrate the structural material, creating a domestic sculpture. Meticulously carved, the intricate pattern compromises the integrity of tensile strength. The deterioration and organic growth highlights the inevitable fractures, and reference a nostalgic past.
When I look at how you use fiber art with knitting and sewing, you use them in ways that we have all grown up with to associate with an older generation. Is there is a vestigial rejection of the female elder? Or is it more of a rejection of the contexts we’re used to?
Crystal: Do you mean because I use materials in a non-traditional way?
Yes, I see this residual rejection of the context we’re used to with lace and crochet—you place them outside domestic environments where we expect them to be. I think we all grow up associating lace and crochet as extensions of an elderly woman’s touch, a past generation. I think your work rejects that context, which is really an acceptance of other contexts.
Crystal: I really like that. By placing domestic objects in other places I comment on domesticity. Changing the context of something familiar is one way to pose questions. In a rebellious way, I think I use all of the materials I work with in search of growth. I particularly love working with ideas of lace because of its symbolism: class, grace, tradition and nostalgia.
What are you working on next?
Crystal: For the month of November I will be attending the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts residency where I plan on exploring different ideas of natural deterioration as well as pattern in space and time. I am excited about pushing the idea of deterioration with building materials and weather: watching water spots spread and mold, eventually falling apart. And I’m also starting a collaboration, about building patterns with time, using music and translating it into a visual piece.