Kristen Caskey uses familiar yet forgettable background patterns of the past and turns them into life-size sculptures that demand attention. 

Velvet Wallpaper and Paisley Shirts

When the Hand Workshop presents artist Kristen Caskey's project Jan. 19, you'll probably get an instant sense of déj… vu. The six overscale sculptures that make up the former fashion designer's show are, on one hand, like nothing you've seen before. Enormous, bright, abstract forms — some standing upright 10 feet, some draped like gigantic oil spills all over the floor. But look closely and — wow — you have seen them before. In fact, they've lurked everywhere around you in places like pizza-parlor walls, your living-room couch — maybe even on your necktie. Only now, Caskey, an assistant professor at VCU, is making sure you'll notice them. She's pulled out the teeniest patterns in everyday fabrics and blown them up until they stare you square in the eye with their swirly, oddball personalities. It's like something out of the "Little Shop of Horrors." Only now your uncle's ugly paisley shirt is finally big enough to get back at you for all the mean things you've ever said about it. "I like the idea of something small becoming big and removing it from the history of the fabric, removing it from your grandma's shirt or wallpaper to see what happens," Caskey explains. The result is a collection of strangely familiar shapes that bolt out of their former background status to take center stage. Take "Clashing Pattern No. 1." It's two pieces, actually, one a cloudlike shape, the other, something like a 7-foot gray chess piece. Originally each shape was no bigger than your thumbnail, and each lived in its own scrap of fabric, never even remotely meant to be near each other to make a design. But Caskey, who loves to (1) move from 2-D to 3-D and (2) go really big, decided to call them out and make them meet — on her friend's front lawn, in fact, and with the help of two (presumably) very good friends who have agreed to wear the sculptures for a video. Pointing to the piece in her Church Hill studio, she says, "They're kind of cartoony and friendly. A little sad too when you see someone's skinny legs sticking out the bottom. But they'll be a clashing pattern. I have a friend who has generously let me use her home in Wyndham — her yard and front area are very, very suburban. I think that's the perfect place for these shapes to first meet. I've already taken them out of where they were, and I've said, 'OK, now you're something new.' They're clashing, almost fighting. They'll both be in the suburban environment — maybe with a lawnmower or something, then probably to nature, since these fabrics begin in nature." It's that kind of mix of detail, humor and belief in the living history of fabric that has characterized Caskey's work since her days as a student at Parsons School of Design in New York. Back then, she happily spent hours combing through documentary textile collections, the place where you learn names like "foulard" instead of "thing-y" when you're looking at a design on a shirt. But for the person who gets overwhelmed pawing through wallpaper books at Home Depot, a documentary textile library is as close to hell as you can get. "There are fantastic libraries in Paris, in New York — in any major city — that have documentary textile collections. You go in there if you're a designer, and it's thousands and thousands of drawers — all alphabetized by type and time period. So, for instance, you can go to Bees and Butterflies, open the drawer marked 1810 - 1820, and there are literally thousands of images that have been cut from clothes and documented as a reflection of society." It's not only hunting for specific shapes that attracts Caskey, but also what was happening culturally when that shape, pattern or fabric was the rage. She points to velvet as a good example of a fabric's history. Originally, velvet was reserved for clothing of the elite. "But with the rise of the bourgeois in France, you started to see cheap copies of velvet in ornate wallpapers and furniture. And then there's the wallpaper in the 1960s — that combination of raised velvet and wallpaper. I remember it so clearly because it was fuzzy. You wanted to touch it. I was fascinated because of its fakeness, but also because it was sensory. It kind of grosses me out that it's fuzzy, but I just have to touch that kind of thing." In fact, the image is the basis for "Stuffed Wallpaper," an enormous orange velveteen reincarnation of damask wallpaper. Measuring 20-by-15-feet, it looks both comfy and smothering — a nice combination, according to Caskey. "As I was looking at the fabric, I was thinking, 'Why is this shape put on fuzzy stuff? Why is this shape in bordello wallpaper? Does it give comfort or make people happy? And why, why is it in 1970s houses that my parents were looking at?'" Those are the kinds of questions Caskey relishes these days. The kind of questions that she didn't have time to contemplate when she was a hot, up-and-coming designer for places like Perry Ellis and Urban Outfitters. After a long stint of putting herself through college in New York City, she'd had her fill of living in disgusting places with half a dozen strangers for roommates. It seemed appealing to make a good living, travel the globe, and be on the edge of what people would define as stylish the next year. But she was also finding herself far away from the person she'd once imagined. As a kid, she thought she might use her love of details to be a classical scholar or pursue a career in scientific research. Now she was putting in 60-hour workweeks, keeping track of four seasons of fashion at a time, and managing truckloads of administrative details, such as "When the hell did you mail the fabric swatches?" There didn't seem to be a minute to think and talk about things outside of fashion. "I wanted to have time to do the things that I've always thought were important. Reading current fiction, going to films, talking about culture at large with people, talking about things outside of fashion. I was 30. It was the right time to think about this other person who was there and quiet while I was pushing myself for seven or 10 years." So in 1997 she joined VCU as an assistant professor in the department of fashion, design and marketing. She adores the job mostly because her students are just beginning to question themselves and push the limits of what they'll do in life. It's an itch that Caskey understands completely. In part, it's what made her grow — literally — out of what can be considered fashion into what we can call sculpture. "I make something that you can't put on. It's sewn, but it's no longer a garment. It's not in the realm of traditional craft, either, since I'm not a quilt artist. I saw that my work was expanding, in terms of concept and scale. There wasn't room in fashion design for what I wanted to do next." So she decided to let her definitions of her work as an artist get as expanded as her patterns, and finally this fall, she was awarded a fellowship from the Virginia Commission of the Arts for sculpture. It's true that she hasn't slowed down much. Her hours are almost as bad as when she was in New York. She'll spend 25 hours or so in the studio and another 30 with students at the university. But she considers the whole shift an act of love. "This is like my second child," she says of sculpture. "It's something that I enjoy. I can wrap my mind around history and fabric, and how culture works. And it's fun," she says, laughing. She holds up a smaller piece that looks freakishly like somebody's kidney in a happy red fabric. She explains that it'll be part of "Documentary Textiles," a series of smaller shapes that will be more or less the size of throw pillows. But it's obvious (and a little scary) that Caskey is listening to what the shapes themselves seem to tell her about their spirit. "Those will be piled on a couch. I think you'll want to use them as a pillow, but it's too strange. You'll want them to fit into a home environment, but they can't fit. So what I think they'll do is kind of take over the couch like a pile of adolescents," she says, eyeing the little guy expectantly. Whatever answer it gives her, you can be sure Caskey will make it heard. She shrugs off the implied conflict between "high" art and fashion and design arts. It's all interrelated in her world. What matters, instead, is making room to explore the crossover. "Art deals and comments on questions of cultural style, and fashion is constantly changing style. But, actually, I'm not even into applying a lot of critical theory to my work, mostly because I don't know that that's important. I think as an artist you have to let go of judging and leave a space open when you make something new." And for Caskey's exciting stuff, that space better be pretty big.

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