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The Manly Art of Fiber: Steven Frost

Part of “Best of Chicago Art Magazine,” originally posted April 1, 2011.

Dee Clements

Steven Frost, Monument for Jorge

Steven Frost, Monument for Jorge

Steven Frost appropriates the combination of male stereotypes and theatricality that defines professional wrestling and boxing using a boastful elocution of craft and textile. His medium and subject matter create a visual tension that teeters on playful kitsch and gender identity. He is part of a generation of male artists working in the realm of Fiber Arts that are bringing the medium to the forefront of scholarship and critique. With the resurgence of DIY culture, rhetoric applied to craft is moving up the ladder of significant prominence in the art world. Artists like Mark Newport who hand knits oversized super hero costumes challenges notions of masculinity and vulnerability. Do Ho Suh creates site-specific environments, like his sewn apartment The Perfect Home, 2002, bringing into question the boundaries of identity. Other prominent contemporary male fiber artists like Ai Weiwei, El Anatsui are also incorporating traditional handicrafts in their practice to reconfigure notions of identity through medium.

The idealized male tropes in comics inspire many of Steven Frost’s images. Tintin, the 1970’s comic strip for boys often featured elements of mystery, swashbuckling and sci-fi through adventurous tales of the young male reporter. Male archetypes like the soldier, the cowboy and Davey Crockett were presented as masculine, authoritative role models. For Frost, the clean drawings and colorful graphic kitsch gave these icons an element of fantasy. Frost says, “In these comics I saw a connections to queer culture and gender identity. The iconic male characters became symbols of machismo and authority that I have always been interested in reinterpreting.”

Frost’s work also adapts elements befitting the aesthetic of Lucha Libre wrestling costumes. For the past ten years Frost has been making sewn figurative drawings out of synthetic materials like pleather and polyester. “My friends’ moms often give me old fabrics from the 70’s that have been stowed away in their basements. For years I worked with these materials and now they have sort of become my materials of choice. I really like working with plastic-y textures,” he says. His recent fascination with the materiality of Lucha culture, paired with the unscripted somewhat minstrel-like theatricality of the sport appealed to him. “Lucha is very much a sport about Spectacle and machismo,” says Frost. “The thing about Lucha is the winner is always pre-determined in advance, sometimes months and months in advance. To me, that is the ideal sport. I never related to traditional sports and I don’t really care who wins or loses. I like the iconoclasm and the theater of sports. That is part of why I am interested in Lucha wrestling. That theater is very blatant, lots of props and glitz. I’ve been getting really interested in abstracting the coded movements in Lucha wrestling.”

Steven Frost, The Marques of Queensburry

Steven Frost, The Marques of Queensburry

In Frost’s two dimensional piece, The Rules of the Butcher, a figure of a male boxer cut out of pleather is in crouching position, holding his gloved hands up to block his face that has just received a painful blow. Cotton Candy colored pink sequins pools like blood from the side of the boxer’s head while butterfly quilt pins flit about him signifying the disillusionment of the blow. Frost’s use of lowbrow craft materials like fluffy pompom balls, strings of sparkly beads, pleather, and cutesy quilt pins are materials that excite him. Frost says, “Back in my undergrad years I made this wall collage of fabrics and underwear in my studio. I was trying to paint then and I began an oil painting of that fabric collage. One of my professors visited my studio and was like, ‘that painting is crap! The collage is way more interesting, keep doing that.’ That was sort of the permission I needed to go ahead and get into the kind of things I was excited about using.” Similarly, artist and designer Virgil Marti, an influence for Frost, has stated in various interviews that he had a similar break through in school. There came an important transitional point for Marti where he stopped using paintbrushes and paint but kept using the stretcher bars by exaggerating them sculpturally. Stretching store bought fabric over them and creating wall panels like wallpaper, he experimented with taking attributes of a painting and turning them into environments. His penchant for flamboyant, ugly fabrics is meant to be campy in a way that playfully makes the viewer uncomfortable The playfulness in Frost’s work, whom also likes to incorporate camp in his work through the use of stylized materials, elevates kitsch to make serious points about identity.

Steven Frost, Rules of The Butcher

Steven Frost, Rules of The Butcher

Fiber Art is really the study of manipulating materials to create an essence. The difference between Fiber Art and say, painting, is that techniques are always advancing. From innovations in sewing machine technology to the manipulation of non-traditional materials, amateur craftivism can work in an artist’s favor where as not understanding the viscosity of paint application can be extremely inhibiting. “I feel like techniques used by painters are the same as they were hundreds of years ago, those don’t change,” says Frost. “Working in the realm of fiber, for me gives me the freedom to make things up as I go or try technologies and use them in a new way.”


Steven Frost is graduating with an MFA in Fiber and Material Studies from The School of The Art Institute of Chicago this May. He is currently teaching himself how to flock objects and his work is currently on view until March 15th, 2011 at Robert Bills Contemporary, in Chicago.