Coulter Fussell’s exhibition, Downriver, at Institute 193 serves as a material testament to the diverse and interconnected American South. Fussell hails from Mississippi and comes from generations of seamstresses and quilters. She also organizes her studio to be a place of boundless, completely donated, and wildly romantic materials.
In her artist statement, Fussell says of her studio: “The place is around 100 feet long and 25 feet wide and is absolutely jam-packed with thousands of textiles…all in various states of wholeness: clothes, bedsheets, curtains, carpets, blankets, quilts, pillows, t-shirts, beach towels, lawn chair cushions, drapes, sleeping bags, tents, parachutes, and tablecloths. There’s also a substantial number of antique sewing machines, from beautiful little household Singer Featherweights to industrial machines from mill town denim factories.” Fussell goes on to say that her goal is to tell stories about how these textiles came to her practice, by way of donation or reclamation. I’d extend that she succeeds by cultivating a textural mirror of our personal and historical lives.
Fussell’s illustrative descriptions of her studio and practice demonstrate the same imaginative dexterity that permeates the exhibition. Coverage Area (2023) hangs on the wall, peering over the viewer. Hovering three feet above my head, the striking vertical work includes tie-died bedsheets, arched oven mitts, reclaimed wood borders, an iridescent flowing skirt, denim, blue and white pieces from a quilt. Cadmium reds appearing from underneath, as does a quiet, donated, photograph of a friend’s child covered with a comforter to simulate a ghost. The various textures are stitched and adhered together indiscriminately. Some are cross stitched, some loosely hand-stitched, and other pieces, like the photograph, are attached with an adhesive.
A myriad of found and donated items fill her practice, but Fussell utilizes tools of formalism to create her objects, and in doing so, employs abstraction as a means to collect memories and conjure untold stories. Formerly a painter, Fussell isn’t utilizing specific textiles to refer to any of their possible economic or social value. However, she does rely on formalist issues of color, pattern, texture, value, and scale to cultivate an object rich in incidental narrative. Fussell recognizes that some of the materials hold meaning due to their age, while others rely on the viewer’s ability to recognize the original source and utility of the fabric. Fussell becomes both an interpreter and a color field painter.
The works at Institute 193 are primarily culled from Fussell’s series of “river raft quilts.” According to the artist these works, “are set to journey on an imagined river rolling through valleys past the bank-side mills, foundries, and army bases—amidst the Southern economic fallout’s reign upon the natural world.” Fussell’s work is in conversation with a history of artists using found materials often referred to as Arte Povera, culling from trash bins and ‘discard only’ piles. But rising from the remains is evidence of where the region and the Nation have been. Using what is already here reminds us of how we should hope to move forward. Though the artist doesn’t seem to make declarations or even announce an opinion on the future of America, her habits favor community, gifting, and the comfort of our clothes, blankets, and stored ephemera.