While viewing Cynthia Atwood’s sculptures, I find that I am no longer looking at the surface, but gazing into and through the work of art. Layers of translucent fabric are fluted, crimped, frilled, and ruffled. Sewn gesture creates a rhythmic, sometimes cyclonic pattern that moves my attention in a swirling form. There is scant place for the gaze to rest, for even in the smallest arena of activity, the remnants of her obsessive attention to detail are mesmerizing. Twisting and vining forms, which are especially assertive in the gouache paintings, move the activity of the painting from the edges to the center and back again. Hooks and eyes attempt to hold swaying, sensual forms in check. Sometimes they succeed; more often the suggestion of gravity and the internal momentum of the work of art makes this impossible. It is in the realm of the ambiguous reality that Atwood is most successful. If Eve had crafted the Garden of Eden, she surely would have welcomed the complex, sensual vocabulary of Atwood’s creatures.

A velvety bough suggesting both antler and branch extends from the wall and holds the Transparent Couture sculptures aloft. The blurring of animal and plant forms is an important element in the surrealist lexicon of this work. The embellishment of the forms, taken to fanciful extremes, gives them a baroque quality. A shimmering translucent fabric pouch dangles from the curved stick. It is tenderly attached to the branch by a series of pearlescent buttons; like a nest or a hive it is filled with activity. Gazing through the layers of fabric, embellished with repeated bands of sewn strata, I discern pearls or plastic grapes, tightly bundled and sewn into more layers of fabric. The grapes add a saturated touch of red and green to the palette. Rivulets of stitched line echo one another like the topographic marking on the surface of a map. The sensation of movement and natural irregularity is powerful. It is important not to see this embellishment as purely decorative. It also functions as a scrim and the experience of voyeurism is suggested. This is a new Romanticism, nature captured and enveloped, tantalizing while remaining inscrutable.

The evidence of Atwood’s relationship with the work of art – the process of discovery, creation, editing, and completion - is both evident and hidden. I could not have known that at one point she cut off all of the blossoming petal forms on the front of Odalisque, only to meticulously hand-sew them back on to the silk chiffon Atwood Cynthia finds inspiration and resolution in the handling of materials. Dragging large branches from her wooded property in the Berkshires; collecting grape vine from abandoned farmlands; capturing rubber bumblebees between layers of silk, or painting translucent layers of acrylic onto the fabric, all inspire the mix of play and discipline that defines her practice.

A return to painting, and to stunning effect, is for me one of the hallmarks of this new body of work. It is as if the many layers of translucency and transparency gave way to an invitation - more, more. Here again, the excess of the baroque. Atwood stains fabric in shades subtle as the weight of breath exhaled from the body or perhaps from the sculpture itself. These sculptures are obviously not alive, but they hold so much of the memory of having been made that they seem held in mid-sway.

The sewn line, like breath moving in and out of the body, must alternate being above and below the surface of the fabric, seen and then invisible. But in her use of transparent fabric, Atwood upends even this “given”; the stitching is visible on both the front and the back of the fabric in her sculptures. The stitching that secures the binding on the armatures of Odalisque is more of a wrapped caress than a running stitch. The intimate knowledge of every curve and bend suggests knowing the body of a lover. The erotic charge is muffled, but present.

An Odalisque was historically a slave or a concubine in a harem, the form is now more commonly knows (through art historical representations) as that of a full-bodied woman in languorous repose. The figure is available, at least to be seen if not to be had sexually. So it is with Atwood’s life-sized flowering form. In Odalisque, dark pink flowers have stems that wend their way toward what might be internal organs. A bee has found its way into the channel of a blossom. Gatherings of tiny blossoms have been machine embroidered on the velvety fabric used to cover the back of the armature. In this universe, flowers can emerge from a machine or from the hand of the artist. Two button holes near the viewer have not been cut open – they do not function. Avenues of entrance, of connection, of germination have been suggested, but ultimately thwarted.

If Odalisque is the flowering female form, Captain is its assertively and comic phallic counterpoint. The tip, formed from gathered wood, is bare; the blue flocking used to tint the surface has been rubbed away. The curving form, half of which juts assertively from the wall, its curved tip seems to beckon one toward the piece, has been clothed in sheerest blue fabric. Under this is a passage of pale coral fabric. A series of pearls are used as buttons along the side facing viewer. On the left edge, the branch rests nearly at ease along the expanse of the wall. It peeks out from under the drape of fabric, like the wrist of a beautiful woman it appears at the opening of a blouson shape. This velvety antler like form curves up and then down, undulating right and lift in an “S” curve. A sewn line of blue thread travels in a circumference that mimics the contours of the branch.

The intimately scaled gouache paintings on view were done during the summer of 2005 while Atwood was living in Brittany, France having been awarded a Klots Residency. The images suggest both fabric and skin, and the hook and eye closures are attached with stitches, but perhaps we should here call them sutures. These findings are imbued with an animated energy; they strain toward one another in a clasp of unwitting purpose; this is an animal energy without intellectual reason. In their union they stand against the swirling energies of veins and vines and gravity. The form that suggests a nipple might also imply a universe. The hook mutates into a gourd. It is the union of hook and eye that allows this growth. It is not so much male and female as the synthesis of two dynamic forms.

When Third Eye is lit, small pools of light “gather” inside its concave form. The primary shape of Third Eye is that of a wrapped torso; the size mirrors that of Atwood’s own. I see this piece as a self-portrait. Inside of the torso inspiration is turned into reality – ideas “come to light”. They flicker against a painted pool of watery light. The thwarted avenues of egress in Odalisque reappear. A cluster of small, tightly bound fabric balls rest in a funnel at the base of Third Eye. These egg-shapes mirror the pools of light at the top of the sculpture and seem to be attempting to exit. They present the duality of thought and object, desire and reality and the often-impossible marriage of both that finds life in the artwork of Cynthia Atwood.

Barbara O'Brien
Assistant Professor of Art
Director of the Trustman Art Gallery
Simmons College, Boston, MA 02115