“Very womb-y,” is how Katya Usvitsky aptly describes her 2011 sculpture of two nestable abstract forms – one large, Mama, one small, Daughter – made from knobby, bubbly fiberfill-stuffed nylon. Make that stuffed nylons, as in pantyhose, because that’s exactly what the artist employs to create the sensual, flesh-toned structures evocative of both embryonic cell division and bits of female anatomy – for example, eggs and ovaries.
A fiber artist since 2006, Usvitsky had worked with an array of materials, from yarn to extension-cord cable. About three years ago, she hit upon “a sturdy yet easily malleable material” with which to create work about femininity and motherhood. Pantyhose sprang to mind, she says, as “a garment most women don’t love wearing. I wanted to change them up by reshaping a material specifically made to smooth and soften the body.” The concave Daughter sculpture, which can be cradled in the arms, was the first of several pieces that now form a body of work the Brooklyn-based artist has shown in exhibitions around the country. Her exploration of three-dimensional fiber forms has included sculptural knitted pieces – actual-size eyeglasses, a full-size bicycle, and, famously, dog poop – which appeared in the 2012 Lower East Side multimedia exhibition “POW: (Pop Now).” But when she started making stuffed nylon pieces, “I felt that I had developed my own style, my own voice,” she says.
Usvitsky’s family emigrated to Cleveland in 1991 when she was 11, just before the Soviet Union collapsed, and she credits her Byelorussian grandmother, Babushka Katya, with teaching her needlework. “Thanks to her,” she says, “I knew how to knit before I knew how to read.” Usvitsky earned a BFA in graphic design from Ohio University, then moved to New York in 2004 and worked as an art director for magazines, including Condé Nast Traveler. Until recently, she worked as studio manager for a Manhattan-based photographer, a four-day-a-week job that afforded her valuable exposure to the stimulating New York art scene, while leaving evenings and long weekends free for work in the studio. Now she’s doing freelance graphic work in order to devote more time to her art.
Usvitsky is active in Brooklyn’s vibrant Collective Thread, a group of embroiderers and others who meet monthly to critique one another’s work. Networking with them, she says, “played a big part in how I started showing” at places like the Textile Arts Center in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood and the Assemble Gallery & Studio in Seattle.
In 2012, her work appeared in a group show at City Without Walls gallery in Newark, New Jersey, followed by her first solo exhibition, “Polymorph,” held at The One Well, an eco-friendly boutique/gallery in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood. As a supplement to the show’s sculptural work, Usvitsky created a collection of jewelry that could be sold at a lower cost – basically miniature versions of her puffy nylon pieces transformed into rings, brooches, and necklaces. The frothy wearables, in a range of candy colors from bright primaries to gradient-toned pastels, resonated with people who loved the tactile quality of the forms, and the work found a fan in environmental lifestyle guru Danny Seo, who commissioned a larger piece. After a review in the online trend-watching magazine Cool Hunting, Usvitsky was tapped for two group shows: “Material Matters” at the North Charleston Arts Festival in South Carolina, and “Repetition and Ritual: New Sculpture in Fiber” at the Hudgens Center for the Arts in suburban Atlanta.
Reviewing the latter show for ArtsATL.com, critic Jerry Cullum wrote: “Mining the vein of unconventionally metaphoric materials, [Usvitsky] turns women’s nylons into deliciously elusive nodes and matrices that combine attraction and repulsion in near-ideal balance.”
Echoing this observation, Sonya Yong James, a fiber artist and the curator of the Atlanta show, calls Usvitsky’s forms “soft and comforting but also somewhat unsettling.”
For the artist, the work is about one overriding concept: “women’s bodies in flux,” the combined strength and fragility of the material mirroring that of her subject. Usvitsky’s provocative feminist art and burgeoning career leave her growing legion of followers eager to see where her explorations take her next.
“Repetition and Ritual” travels to the Minnesota Museum of American Art in St. Paul; it runs November 7 through January 19. Andrea DiNoto is a New York-based writer on art, craft, and design.