Upon ascending the long thin staircase to Lloyd Dobler Gallery, one emerges into what seems like a caricature of a superfan’s homemade shrine. The focus of such a shrine: Led Zeppelin (specifically guitarist Jimmy Page). The medium: found and collected materials, seemingly chosen at random and stitched together. After the initial uncanny moment of seeing six handmade effigies of the “rock god” it quickly becomes clear that there is something very personal, and yet very accessible about Lined Pages.
Gnatowski, a Chicago-based fiber artist and instructor of Fiber and Materials at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, breaks with her previous, largely two-dimensional work with a set of life-size Jimmy Page figures, all situated on a slightly raised stage along the east wall of the gallery. The effect is similar to that of a performance, with a crowd of onlookers on one side of the room, and the inanimate “Lined” up “Pages” putting on the show on the other. (The pun there is one of many campy moments in the show.) Apart from the figures in the main space, a bed frame plastered with the lyrics of Led Zeppelin IV and a bundle of sticks (a sly reference to the album’s cover) sits in the foyer. The gallery’s kitchen is also conscripted as a “Resource Center” complete with the artist’s personal collection of Led Zeppelin fan books, a bowl of nuts for eating, and hot cider and whiskey. Gnatowski, who is present at the gallery during public viewing hours each Saturday, is quite clear in her goal of making sure that the message of the show is not lost on anyone.
And the message is clear. Gnatowski is a Led Zeppelin fan, and the pieces directly explore her affinity for the band through implicit and explicit references. This becomes abundantly evident in the artist’s close attention to specific details. Gnatowski carefully draws on the tropes of Jimmy Page’s stage identity, tipping her hat to others in the know, reveling in her deep understanding of the myth that is Led Zeppelin, each piece representing one of Jimmy Page’s distinct personas, from silky androgyny to larger-than-life guitar wizard. This is perhaps most recognizable in the piece Travel Jimmy (2013). Depicted in a costume reminiscent of that worn by Jimmy Page in the documentary The Song Remains the Same, Gnatowski mimics Page’s “guitar face” in felt. She also exaggerates the length of the figure’s legs to evoke the effect of the wide-angle lens used in that famous film. The gallery didactic even describes the piece’s dimensions as “The Size of Jimmy Page at Madison Square Garden,” another reference to the film. For those not indoctrinated in all things Zeppelin, the reading material in the “Resource Center” is carefully bookmarked to fill in any gaps in the viewer’s knowledge.
In each effigy, Gnatowski takes a similarly direct approach on multiple levels of detail, giving the entire project a pleasurably layered macro/micro effect, each move revealing itself upon closer inspection. This plays itself out brilliantly in Herringbone Jimmy (2013). It is here that Gnatowski displays her deep understanding of her medium through finessed detail. Hidden under a layer of fabric, an inner lining is embroidered with Zeppelin lyrics. Gnatowski acknowledges what she sees as an innate urge of viewers to touch fabric works, which become fully legible only through touch. This also gestures towards the implications of temporality on making meaning, with a path slowly worn into the fabric by reading hands (the path also being a recurring Zeppelin theme). This control of the viewing experience, specific to the fiber arts, can be seen in each of the pieces.
Gnatowski’s medium is unexpected in a show about a classic rock legend. Wet felt, quilt work, and knitting don’t normally evoke the hyper-sexuality and deafening reverb of 1970’s rock. At the same time, her choice to work in her medium of expertise transcends material and technique, instead coming off as a poignant and personal moment in the work. At no point does the viewer see a felt and button Jimmy Page, but rather a Jimmy Page made by someone that works in felt and buttons…and wire, and silk, and sticks, etc. (There is another pun in there somewhere about lining and Lined Pages.) In this way Gnatowski shows her hand, not in an attempt to let you in on a joke, but more to let you in on who she is. As she explained while I flipped through her tattered, coverless copy of Hammer of the Gods, Led Zeppelin has always been a comfort to her. First when she emigrated from Poland as a child, and then again upon her return to Poland as a resident artist. It was in the residency that this project found its genesis in the form of a Jimmy Page costume she made while coping with her now unfamiliar homeland.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am a big Led Zeppelin fan. When writing this I questioned whether my affinity for this show would be overly skewed due to the subject of the work. I came to the conclusion that I could just as easily be overly critical of the show for the same reason. I found that the nature of Led Zeppelin’s stardom, one of past glory, lent itself particularly well to a show about fandom. Instead of foregrounding the band’s popularity, or current lack thereof, Gnatowski takes a nostalgic position with regards to her subject. It was this realization that made the strength of this show clear to me. Though clearly about Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Page, and Gnatowski’s vision of them, these references are not the only things most people will take away from this exhibition. Instead that sense of the wonder, and fanaticism, that everyone has felt for some musician, at some point in their life, comes through in the form of a slightly awkward performance by six makeshift idols.
Lined Pages: New Work by Karolina Gnatowski runs October 25 – December 7, 2013 at Lloyd Dobler Gallery, 1545 W. Division St. Gallery hours are Saturdays 12-5 pm or by appointment. www.lloyddoblergallery.com