Portrait Society Gallery of Contemporary Art opens an exhibition of Shari Urquhart's tapestries

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Portrait Society Gallery of Contemporary Art opens an exhibition of Shari Urquhart's tapestries
Shari Urquhart, It’s 10 o'Clock -- Do You Know?, 1982. 71 x 107 inches.

MILWAUKEE, WI.- Portrait Society Gallery of Contemporary Art is presenting this major exhibition in conjunction with The Warehouse. Forty years of Shari Urquhart’s fiber art tapestries are being presented in two Milwaukee venues. This is the first time this extraordinary group of more than 30 monumental, figurative textiles from the artist’s estate has been shown together.

In addition, Portrait Society presents a related show featuring the work of Chicago artist Phyllis Bramson, who attended graduate school with Urquhart.

Shari Urquhart (1940-2020) grew up in Kenosha, WI. She earned her MFA at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1967 and spent the remainder of her career in New York City. Beginning as a painter, Urquhart started experimenting with textiles while still in Madison.

As her rug hooking practice grew, so did the scale of her work. Many of the textiles, dating from 1978 to 2020, are eight to 12 feet wide. They are meticulously constructed from hand-dyed and commercial yarns of varying textures. Wool, mohair, metallic fibers, silk, rayon, and occasionally even dog hair or plastic create an enormous and subtle range of color and surface activity. The largest works took a full year to complete.

In conversation with the narrative qualities of medieval tapestries, Urquhart’s subjects are sprightly renderings of contemporary human interaction. Topics of love, gender roles, relationships, desire, failure, ambition, and domestic stereotypes are presented in scenes that blend art historic and vernacular references within a feminist perspective. Often, a man and woman partake in some kind of humorous domestic standoff with theatrical body language creating energized mise en scenes.

Urquhart, in all of her work, was adept in mixing the high and the low. The practices of rug hooking and weaving have a history that ranges from palace walls to grandmother’s throw pillows. Ingeniously, Urquhart brought that same span of association into her subject matter, insisting on the eradication of hierarchical divisions.

The exhibitions present three distinct bodies of work. The narrative figurative textiles date from 1978 to the late ‘90s. From 1996 onward, Urquhart turned to famous Renaissance paintings for subject matter, re-staging details from Botticelli (“Flora Sees Green,” 1999), Jan Van Eyck (“Wedding Portrait,” 1998), and Leonardo da Vinci (“Accessorized III, Cecilia,” 2005). Urquhart’s final body of work, smaller in scale, features elaborate floral compositions.

Urquhart participated in several important exhibitions in the 1970s and ‘80s at a time when fiber arts were not yet considered “fine art.” Urquhart was included in the now-historic “Bad Painting” exhibition (1978) and in “Bad Girls Part II,” (1994), both curated by Marcia Tucker at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, NY. Solo exhibitions included the Madison Art Center (1976), Kansas City Art Institute (1984), Hillwood Art Museum in Brookville, NY (1993-94), the Virginia Center for the Craft Arts (1993), and Cheryl Pelavin Fine Arts, NY (2005).

Marcia Tucker states in the catalog for “Bad Painting” that, “The textural beauty and vividness of Urquhart's tapestries combine with the homely yet idealized figures, with results that are incongruous, irrational, and poetic, much in the manner of the haunting, often distressingly mysterious interiors with figures by Balthus in the 1940s."

Shari Urquhart also exhibited at Monique Knowlton Gallery, A.I.R., Snug Harbor Cultural Center, Allan Frumkin Gallery (NYC), Nancy Lurie Gallery (Chicago), Nasher Gallery at Duke University, among others. Urquhart was a grant recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts and a Mid-Atlantic Fellow. She also served as a visual arts panelist for New York State Council on the Arts. Many of her works are held in private and public collections, including those of the Milwaukee Art Museum, Mass MoCA, and the Lannan Foundation.

Urquhart continued her studio practice throughout her life. She directed and taught in the Find Art Workshop at the jail complex, Rikers Island, from 1978 to 1982. She designed and implemented the art program for the non-profit St. Francis Residence in New York City from 1982 to 2007. When she retired, she returned to Kenosha and continued to work in fiber until her death at age 80.

The exhibition at Portrait Society Gallery of Contemporary Art, which represents her estate, focuses on the narrative textiles and related watercolor paintings. The Warehouse portion of the show outlines her historic trajectory by presenting a chronology of the three distinct bodies of work.

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