“FEMAIL: AMPM (2.0)” at Bellevue Arts Museum (BAM) is not your standard art exhibition. The show is not a collection of sweeping landscapes on canvas, glass-blown tulips or ceramic figurative works. Rather, Camilla Carper and Janelle Abbott have created vibrant fiber art. Ephemeral in nature, it’s part wearable art, part sculpture. The duo has transformed fabric from donated clothing, their own wardrobe and other sources into new garments and furniture. Each has a mixture of patterns and textures and even the face of Count Dracula is incorporated into one of the chairs. Cool and warm colors are paired with one another. The individual works progress in position from high to low and back up again. Abbott described it as an illustration of the ups and downs of life. The chairs act as stepping stones to get to the next peak.
“As you go through life, you can feel like you really reached a high point, like you made it,” said Abbott. “But usually that’s just the beginning of a decline where you kind of deconstruct who it is that you are, then use all those small pieces to reconstruct the next version of you.”
Abbott went on to say the color progression mimics a sunset over an ocean — a shift from one day to the next. For Carper, it’s also representative of their creative process.
“Each step along the way they get more and more worked on and hold more physical weight but also emotional weight.”
Just as their work is unique, so is their “reactive collaborative” process. Even though they live roughly 1,100 miles apart — Abbott is in Seattle and Carper in Los Angeles — both played a role in the construction of each piece. In an age where almost everything is digital, the two artists rely on a nearly 250-year-old institution to correspond: The United States Postal Service. The duo has taken full advantage of the “if it fits it ships” slogan applied to the flat-rate priority shipping boxes, using either the medium or large box. Abbott will typically start on a garment, then mail it to Carper and so on until it’s complete.
“We stuff so much in them. We usually roll everything into little burritos,” said Carper. “I somehow squeeze everything in and tape it up as quick as possible.”
The two artists met in 2008 at Parsons School of Design in New York City. Initially, Abbott intended for the collaboration to be within a group of six. By the time they graduated in 2012, Carper was the only one still on board. When each returned to their respective hometowns, the mailing component of their partnership began.
Their union is productive in part because the two share a similar aesthetic and are able to harmonize like a finely tuned instrument.
Long before the two met, each was destined for a career in design. Carper’s mom taught her how to sew and she was attracted to fashion magazines. At Parsons, she learned more about the process of making garments.
Abbott’s parents owned a clothing company when she was a kid. She spent a lot of time in the warehouse learning about textiles and manufacturing machines. She also learned how to sew from her mother.
“I found through my education that there is so many different ways to approach fashion and I think FEMAIL is really exemplary of that,” said Abbott. “You don’t have to do the normal route. You can reinvent and you can approach fashion in whatever way is authentic to you.”
BAM curator Benedict Heywood offers a stream of compliments when talking about their work, stating that “it’s fun and it’s personal and it’s kind of free and open and responsible.” He first came across FEMAIL last fall as co-curator of the group exhibition Out of Sight in Pioneer Square. Fashion is a notoriously wasteful business and Heywood sees Carper and Abbott’s exhibition as pushing against consumerism. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, landfills received 10.5 million tons of textile waste in 2015. Retail chain Zara, a producer of “fast fashion,” and others contribute to that excess. Even exclusive brands aren’t exempt. Last year, Burberry reportedly burned $36.5 million worth of products to keep it out of the hands of those who can’t afford to pay full price. The goal was to keep it exclusive.
By reusing clothing, Heywood said they are also sending another message about individuality, rejecting convention and the hierarchal nature of how fashion is sold to the masses.
“It speaks to this idea that we can adorn ourselves. We can be fashionable. We can wear clothes that have a statement that don’t necessarily buy into a corporate definition of what that should look like,” said Heywood. “They are making clothes that have had their own fashion contained within them.”
The installation provides contrast to its neighboring show, “Alex Katz: A Life in Print,” on the third floor of BAM. Katz, a famed printmaker, aligned himself with fashion as well.
“AMPM (2.0)” is their first museum exhibition. Abbott and Carper typically exhibit two to three times a year. As their community of support grows, so does the demand. Last year they exhibited seven new collections. In a previous show they created numerous jumpsuits, but there isn’t a theme present every time.
“The work ends up becoming the space in between myself and Camilla. The way that the conversation sort of lingers between two people, that’s kind of how the work felt,” said Abbott. “She and I both have a lot of sentimental elements imbued within the work and there can be a lot of emotional content for each of us.”
WHAT: “FEMAIL: AMPM (2.0)”
WHEN: Runs until Sept. 30; free admission First Friday
WHERE: Bellevue Arts Museum, 510 Bellevue Way NE, Bellevue
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Lisa on Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge
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