Building it Up to Tear it Down
New York based artist Lacey Jane Roberts makes fences. Curious about the ubiquitous nature of industrial fencing in most urban environments and fascinated by their construction- the weave of the cyclone fence mimics the loop of the knitted stitch- Roberts’ work explores the ideas around enforced boundaries and in particular the roles assumed by the people on either side of the boundary. In Building it Up to Tear it Down, Roberts presents a large scale, hand-woven, colorful razor wire and cyclone crank-knitted fence through which she seeks to reclaim and re-imagine the industrial fence and the use of craft through her work.
Essay by Jessica Tully
Lacey Jane Roberts has been recognized nationwide for her groundbreaking textile work. Before graduating from CCA in 2007 with an MFA in sculpture and an MA in visual criticism, Robert’s sensational intervention “& Crafts” addressed the school’s removal of the word “Craft” from its name. Roberts knitted a bright orange, six-foot-long “& Crafts” and appended it to the California College of the Arts signage above the school’s entrance. Craft brought this Detroit native to CCA, and its dismissal provided an opportunity to demonstrate the inherent feminism—and for her, queerness—of woven materiality.
Her newest work, entitled Building It Up to Tear It Down, combines craft with commentary in the form of a huge and provocative knit fence. It reinvents this symbol of oppression and simultaneously explores and challenges notions of boundary. In place of borders, it unfurls a stunning textile path to freedom.
When Roberts left the Bay Area for a studio residency and teaching job in New York City, she settled in a place where her art practice and personal history deeply intersect. She now divides her time between a residency at the Museum of Art and Design and a studio in the outer Bronx. The latter is the former barbershop of a large residence for children in the foster care system; she uses it as both a studio and classroom. It came with a barber chair, a sink, and the smell of years of hair straightening tonic. There is no irony in what she sees from her studio: a shimmering turquoise swimming pool surrounded by a heavy gray, rusted barbed wire fence. It faces out; admittance regulated year round. She knows the drill; she’s lived it, not just as an artist and teacher, but also as a charge.
When Roberts was in the 10th grade, she was compulsorily enrolled in a school for troubled youth. In this punitive environment, every aspect of her life was controlled: contact with friends and family restricted while “ratting” publicly rewarded. Normative assimilation was the only path to more privilege, even if it was a performance.
Twenty years later, Roberts draws on this schema to make work that explores barriers big and small. She queers the space, tangles the linear, and tells a story with this 40-foot fence made out of hand-cranked Technicolor yarn and topped with razor wire. She uses the pink and sparkly Cool CorderTM and Barbie Knitting MachineTM children’s toys to enact the knit-and-sew endurance sport of making each link and barb—undoubtedly uncharted territory for Barbie hyper-femininity. Roberts likes that that the method “infuses [her] work with an even more amateur and low way of making.” She describes herself as having an “effeminate butch masculine identity.” She knits to disentangle queerness, she makes irresistible barbed wire fences as a feminist act, and she deftly deploys an admittedly “Crayola” palette to appeal to our basic senses.
Building it Up to Tear It Down is likely Robert’s last fence. In person, it begs to be touched. Soft red yarn fades into vibrant fuchsia, then to teal and gold, and back again to rose. There are holes and breaks, and graffiti-style drips of yarn. Unlike her earlier knit fences, this fence is porous and offers multiple places to cross. This permeability breaks her established code: it does not separate, dominate, or enforce hegemonic systems. Building it up to Tear It Down is playful, soft, sensual, and yielding.