Stamford Advocate (Sunday)
Painter without a brush
RUBEN MARROQUIN TAKES EMBROIDERY TO THE NEXT LEVEL
ABridgeport artist who transformed a familiar Norwalk landscape has taken the Grand Prize in “Fiber 2020,” an exhibition currently at the Silvermine Art Center dedicated to showcasing the best in contemporary fiber art from across the country. The artist is Ruben Marroquin, who works out of a studio in the downtown Arcade Mall building. His winning entry, titled “View from Norwalk,” is an embroidery that looks eastward across the Norwalk River near its mouth to a far shore.
The embroidery is large, 4 feet by 3 feet, and almost minimalist in composition, especially compared to the home samplers of the past. The river, its current suggested by heavy blue thread running sideways, is in the foreground. The low-lying, rocky shore divides the scene roughly in half.
From the shore rises the tell-tale structure that identifies the actual location. It is one of the old electric towers anchoring the railroad bridge that spans the river. In Marroquin’s “View,” the bridge is eliminated and the tower
looks like an oil field drilling rig, spewing a gusher of red. It billows into a bright, but ominous mushroom-shaped cloud.
Marroquin, who opened his studio about seven years ago, regards his embroidery as a form of painting. “Some people call it fiber art. To me it’s basically the same as painting. Instead of paint, you’re using yarn,” he says.
When he conceived the “View from Norwalk,” he intended the mushroom cloud to suggest a nuclear explosion. He didn’t anticipate that by the time the Silvermine show opened in April, the red cloud might also be seen as a looming viral storm. “I think with the pandemic and the nuclear explosion, it kind of fit the moment,” he says.
Marroquin tells two stories about how he came to make his prize piece. The first begins five years ago when he went with his partner, the Bridgeport artist Liz Squillace, to do a photo shoot in connection with a job for a client, Spinaker Real Estate in South Norwalk. The idea for the mushroom cloud came later, after a photo taken from the rear of the Maritime Aquarium was turned into a screen print.
“I was hanging out at the Barnum Public House and when I returned to the studio I drew that mushroom cloud over the print. I drew it in a rush. Then I embroidered it. The piece was a hit and I sold it to a friend,” he says.
When the call came for entries to the juried Silvermine show, he dug out the original screen print and began a new larger version.
“I scaled up the tower and the bomb cloud, making it bigger. And then I achieved by accident this very cool effect, where it looked kinetic,” he says. He attributes the effect to the vertical stitching he used for the sky and mushroom cloud. “It almost looked as if the bomb cloud were moving upwards. It also looked as if it were dripping down. There’s this movement.”
Marroquin’s other story goes back further, to his education and influences. Marroquin was born in Chicago in 1979, but grew up in Venezuela, where his mother still lives. (The conditions there are as bad as reported, he says.) In art school, he wanted to paint but couldn’t afford the imported, good quality materials he needed. So he turned to fabric. “I said I’m going to make my body of work with textiles, mostly with the stitching and embroidery,” he remembers.
Among his inspirations were two celebrated Venezuelan artists, Jesus Soto and Gertrude Goldschmidt, known as Gego, both of whom are represented in the “Sur moderno” exhibition of abstract Latin American art at the Museum of Modern Art. Both also are known for work that suggests movement. Soto’s was of special significance to “View from Norwalk.”
“It reminds me of something I’ve had in my mind for many years,” Marroquin says, explaining the kinetic effect of his embroidery’s vertical lines, “which is the work of Jesus Soto.”
The mushroom cloud connects to a newer, much different artist; Takashi Murakami, whose cartoonlike paintings, more satirical than cute, often feature toadstools and fanged fairies. A measure of Murakami’s pop culture embrace is that he created an animated video for the singer Billie Eilish. Marroquin got to know Murakami’s work a decade ago in Paris, where he spent a semester on scholarship while enrolled in the Fashion Institute of Technology.
“There’s an underlying meaning to his work,” Marroquin says of Murakami. “The mushrooms may look like they’re from a Mario Brothers video game. But when he talks about it, these flowers and mushrooms are references to Hiroshima and the horrors of war.”
Another of Marroquin’s embroidered landscapes, done round the same time as the original “View from Norwalk, also features a mushroom cloud, but this time it’s smaller and disguised as a tree with yellow foliage. The tree is an araguaney, the Venezuelan national tree. He says he created it response to the political repression then beginning there.
For his FIT degree, Marroquin concentrated on weaving, mainly for practical reasons. He teaches weaving, but says none of his fine art is done on a loom. It now has expanded to include fabric sculptures that evolved from an interest in Japanese bamboo kite making techniques.
Searching for a way to add volume to his embroidery, he began building an understructure of armatures, then wrapping them in yarn, using upholstery needles. Sometimes he boosted the bulk with glass bottles or discarded yarn cones.
“Any shape I thought would help the composition, I would add to the mixture,” he says. “I would grab yarn from 10 different cones and thread the needle and stitch with that. It starts creating this sort of skin. It’s almost as if you have bone and flesh. I’d never seen anything like it before in the fiber art world.”
Examples on his website do indeed look like braided sinew, or maybe furrowed fields. The sculptures, which he also calls wall hangings, have found favor with interior designers. He also has done a series of detailed maps. He says his work tends to have an aerial or landscape perspective.
Marroquin is excited his prize entitles him to a solo show at Silvermine. The exhibit itself is viewable online and has been extended to mid-June. It features the work of some 60 artists and an astonishing variety of material. A piece by a Florida artist is spun from sterling silver. A necklace by a Massachusetts artist employs lemon rind. A village scene made from recycled teabags is by the Redding artist Jennifer Coyne Qudeen.