The uncategorizable, unwearable art of Shelbee Matis

The mixed-media artist’s “Dresses For Women” is on display through November 12 at the Edgewood College Gallery.

“The Silent Ones.” Photos by Chali Pittman.

The mixed-media artist’s “Dresses For Women” is on display through November 12 at the Edgewood College Gallery.

Tucked away on the edge of the Edgewood College campus, in the visual arts building named “The Stream,” is an exhibition of an actual lifetime of work. The primary focus of Shelbee Matis’ exhibition Dresses For Women, on view through November 12 in the Edgewood College Gallery, is on 25 assembled mosaic dresses created in honor of Matis’ artistic influences. After decades of work as a textile artist designing custom-made “wearable art,” the 89-year-old is channeling her experience in fabric-based thinking through a different material this time: paper.

Matis, currently based in Madison, has been making art her entire life. Her primary material of choice is fabric, and she spent many years creating one-of-a-kind, often customized garments at her boutique gallery, A Touch of Trim, in New Mexico. (She also started one of that state’s first rape-crisis hotlines, in addition to having her paintings and sculptures displayed in museums and galleries in Taos and Santa Fe.) She’s also worked as an illustrator, and is a self-taught sculptor and woodworker. In a late-1960s piece titled “Recycled Forest,” Matis constructed life-sized trees from lumber, creating a referential cycle in which the material went from tree to lumber to tree again.

Matis reminded me, when we spoke briefly on the phone in October, that as an artist with a body of work spanning a whole career, she finds that new works constantly arise from old ideas and experiments. Matis has clearly been working with fabric for a long time, and has perfected that material-based vocabulary over the decades. Her decision to stitch flat, but three-dimensional, dresses out of paper came directly out of her wearable art practice. Six of these dresses hang at eye-level around the Edgewood gallery, and it’s clear in these pieces that she’s still treating the paper as fabric: the dresses have layers, and the paper drapes in the way you would expect fabric to hang.

As a lifetime of stitching caught up with her fingers, however, Matis turned her attention to a new way of blending fashion with non-fabric materials. A few years ago, Matis began to create the primary component of this exhibition: 25 dresses cut and collaged out of paper, each dress a mosaic of glittered and marbled papers.

For Matis, the idea for these dresses is to pay homage to various artists who have inspired her, but create a strong visual vocabulary of her own. For each of these pieces, Matis read and thought about a particular artist and revisited their work, and incorporated that artist’s significant markers and visual cues into a dress. The dress for Georgia O’Keeffe nods at jimson weed on the sleeves, mesa landscapes on the front piece and antlers from the shoulders, and of course the famous O’Keeffe hat and a self-explanatory painting palette. The dress created in honor of fiber artist Claire Zeisler uses a ton of knots and braids, the dress cascading and flooding at the bottom. The dress for Marcella Hayes Muhammad is a flurry of motion, with geometric shapes and abstracted curlicues, and hints of a piano and stringed instrument. As a bit of a twist, the dress dedicated to Henri Matisse evokes his own use of paper cutouts to create his common motifs of geometric leaves and human forms.

These are just a few examples, some of which depended on Gallery Director David Wells to point out to me. There are 20 dresses left for you, the viewer, to decipher (there are 25 dresses, but the first is a prototype with no dedication from Matis). But deciphering the dresses requires a previous knowledge of these artists, or else a lot of the detail goes unnoticed. In the hallway leading to the gallery, there are small picture frames with visual examples of each of the artists that Matis is honoring. Yet their placement outside the gallery itself makes deciphering the visual cues, if you are unfamiliar with a particular artist, difficult without the aid of a smartphone in hand and an image search at the ready.

Complicating the issue somewhat is Matis’ visual vocabulary. While cohesive, her visual style is almost too strong. Matis’ style is so defined that it almost overshadows the allusions she is trying to make to the works of others. Then there’s the simple issue that there’s a lot to look at at once, each shiny dress demanding attention—with relaxed eyes, it’s a horizon of glitter.

Although the dresses are to be the primary focus, the most interesting pieces for me in this show are Matis’ woodworked sculptures. These works retain the color palette Matis uses in her dresses—think soft pinks, blues, purples, and yellows. There’s a flower from the aforementioned project “Recycled Forest.” There’s a self-portrait of Matis and her husband on a motorcycle, dressed for the part, cheekily entitled “The Silent Ones.” And the most intriguing and mysterious work, “Pieces For A Quartet,” consists of three women, perhaps muses, seated at a table, all with impossibly long hair and each with her respective instrument: flute, harp, and violin. The fourth member, who is absent but for an empty chair, is Matis herself. While I’m unsure of what, precisely, to make of this piece—is there a subtext on the nature of “muses”? What am I to make of the absence of the artist herself in the quartet?—I at least know I enjoy examining it. (When I asked Matis later, she couldn’t quite remember the impetus for making this work.)

To me, difficulty in contextualizing Matis’ pieces seems like a common theme. Matis herself is difficult to categorize as an artist, even as I ask myself, “Do we need to? Why is that essential to enjoying her work?” On the one hand, I could see the case that her sculptural works are reminiscent of outsider art, and her dress mosaics draw from a rich tradition in the Pattern and Decoration movement, specifically from the collage assembly that Miriam Schapiro calls “femmage.” And even Matis’ former art practice using fabric and textiles to make functional art for individuals doesn’t quite fit into a canonical “style.” When I asked Matis about how she characterized her art, she resisted the question wholly, claiming that she never put herself into any particular category. Matis’ work perhaps falls closest to the realm of decorative arts, but needs to exist out in the world rather than solely in a gallery, pushing common materials into unlikely roles.

Special thanks to Shelley Savage-Caw for her observations and offering of cultural references, and in particular for the heads-up on Miriam Schapiro’s theory of femmage.


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