The “Shoretime Spaceline” series, cited in the titles of Karen Reimer’s three large fabric pieces in “Sea Change,” references the artist’s 2016 exhibition at Hyde Park Art Center. There, Reimer had installed an enormous fabric construction that resembled undulating clouds from a vantage point on the ground, and rolling waves from the balcony above. The works in her current exhibition are repurposed from that giant piece — itself a composite of so many repurposed fabrics, all indigo dyed in various tones and hues of blue. Scaled down from that original spectacle, the patchwork material is something completely different here, formally and conceptually.
Finished around the edges and fully backed, the three largest pieces in “Sea Change” are quilts. Whereas quilts, as an art form, often embody notions of comfort and security, Reimer infuses hers with a stark contrast, embroidering terrifying truths upon their surfaces. Rendered in glossy floss, small illustrations are stitched among the patches, outlining the Great Lakes Basin, the widely fluctuating lake levels of the region, and a graph of sea levels pitching sharply upwards. This combination of homey, worn tablecloths, satin-striped bed sheets, lightweight denim and chambray, and the cold hard facts of climate change, merges the personal and the global, the human experience and the environment. Additionally, the quilts carry the sublime irony in imagining covering or wrapping oneself up in the evidence of our own mistakes and the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that have developed as a result.
Alongside the quilts are smaller swaths of fabric in which Reimer uses a different tactic in her subversion of the familiar and the domestic in favor of her environmental messaging. Here, the artist takes cues from the formal details of her chosen fabrics, seamlessly integrating them into her embroidered illustrations. Bits of a peaceful, watercolor-like forest scene printed on cotton become the green toxic algae blooms in a blue-threaded map of Lake Erie. Thin red lines punctuating a green plaid swath intersect lower-mid Michigan like a crosshair in “Average Maximum Temp.” Two tones of blue dyed scraps come together to delineate the water line that is also spanned by embroidered icebergs. The image illustrates the enormous increase in surface melt after 2005, a fact incorporated into the work’s title. Not only does this piece speak explicitly to the crisis of the melting icebergs, but it also makes the metaphor of the iceberg especially potent: there’s often so much more going on than what initially appears to be.
What makes Reimer’s work so ingenious is not so much the message she delivers, but the way she delivers it. The cool, calming blue hues, the soft fabrics, and the nostalgic prints are what we see first. When one leans in for a closer look, to read the tiny, stitched letters, numbers and graphs, that’s when one’s viewing experience and understanding of the work changes entirely. Reimer plays upon a collective comfort zone, beckoning us with the comfortable and familiar, before yanking us right out of it by delivering the kinds of urgent information that should be making us all profoundly uncomfortable.