There is a great illusion at work in Lia Cook’s work. Her massive, black and white photographs of human faces — children gazing calmly at the camera, or extreme close-ups of lips and noses — are not photographs at all. Rather, they’re comprised of intricately woven cotton that, when viewed from afar, takes on a recognizable image. This oft-treaded pointillist technique is reinvigorated in Cook’s striking fiber art works, several of which are currently on display in a new show at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft.
Bridge 11: Lia Cook was organized by the Houston museum’s counterpart in Pittsburgh, the Society for Contemporary Craft, to showcase the mid-career, Berkeley, California, artist and her photography-inspired craft.
This desire to turn one medium into another is a fervent one — take those apps that let you make paintings from photographs. And it’s easy to see why — there’s unseen magic at work. Of course, the magic here is technical skill and know-how.
Cook’s app is the digital Jacquard loom, which she uses to create large-scale, intricate works based on photographs that she’s taken or pulled from her childhood. Viewing from a distance, the mostly black-and-white images become clear. But up-close, when you’re nose-to-nose with the subjects, it’s pixelated gibberish.
The museum gives viewers plenty of space to view the large-scale works, though they’re best seen as far away as possible. In fact, as you wander throughout the space and glance back at works you’ve already seen, they become more defined and have added depth.
Cook has certainly created a memorable experience for museum-goers; if only the images themselves held up as well. Sure, she has made some interesting choices — a pair of blurry photos of two kids is quite alluring, as your mind works in vain to pull them into focus, and her cropped images, showing just parts of the face, are dramatic.
But many of the images aren’t all that remarkable. Most of the “photographs” of children look like those placeholders you’d get in a new picture frame, and then immediately discard.
And a science-inspired series that plays with colored thread is also a bit baffling. In short, during a neuroscience experiment at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, scientists helped Cook map the human brain as it responded to her work. She then took this data and represented it in pink thread that crawls over some of her standard black-and-white works.
It sounds strange but somewhat promising, though the resulting works are messy and uninteresting. One image in particular literally depicts Cook’s experiment, showing a participant viewing one of the artist’s works with a web of wires attached to his head. This piece of art masturbation is not visually compelling or all that fun to look at. The magic alone just isn’t enough.
“Bridge 11: Lia Cook” at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, 4848 Main, now through May 13. For more information, call 713-529-4848 or visit the museum’s Web site.