Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Denver Art Museum tapestry show

Recently I had the good fortune to see Creative Crossroads:  The Art of Tapestry, currently on exhibit at the Denver Art Museum.  My appetite had been whetted for the show by Rebecca Mezoff's posts and other publicity and discussion in the tapestry world--and I was not disappointed.  The show was spectacular.  Do check out Rebecca's post for a behind-the-scenes look at the conservation of one of the large old tapestries on view.  She also has links to more photos of the show, the artists, and to videos the Museum made about her teacher, the late artist James Koehler.

Rebecca writes:
Though I find these old tapestries fascinating, I fear we are in danger of thinking that tapestry is ONLY a historical practice and is irrelevant today. The tapestries in the rest of the show make us think about what tapestry has been over the last five centuries, how it has changed, and perhaps a little about what it means today.
I agree:  while Renaissance-era European tapestries are awe-inspiring, I am more interested, as a contemporary practitioner of the art, in what tapestry can be today.  For me, at this show, the work by weavers in non-European cultures, or work informed by other cultures, is exciting and inspiring. 

Peruvian Table Cover, mid-18th century
This table cover is believed to have been worked by Peruvians under Spanish direction, and it combines European motifs (such as the double-headed eagle in the center) with Peruvian creatures real and imaginary (fire-breathing dragons in the corner, a rodent called a viscacha).  I love the density and energy of the imagery, how it fills every bit of space.  I also love how there are very few sharp angles--it's nearly all sinous, rounded curves.  There are lots of diagonal lines and shapes.  Altogether, the dense imagery,  the curves and the diagonals create a vibrant sense of movement.  Conventional tapestry weaving creates a gridded mesh; to make such smooth curved lines and shapes on a grid takes special skill.  In addition,  the piece was woven in two halves and stitched together up the middle.  The join is nearly flawless: another neat technical feat!

detail, Peruvian Table Cover, mid-18th century

Next to the Peruvian piece hangs a prayer rug from Turkey:

Turkish prayer rug, mid-18th century
In this piece too, the rich profusion of pattern conveys delight in the orderly beauty to be found in the natural world, even (especially?) if the elements of that world are abstracted, simplified, and stylized.

Navajo rug, Ason Yellowhair, 1983
Next to the Turkish prayer rug is this Navajo rug.   This is one of my favorite pieces in the show.  I love the variety within the strict repetition.  The strong border and orderly rows of flowering plants are enlivened by the unpredictable use of color in the flowers.  And as far as I could tell, each and every bird is uniquely colored.

detail, Navajo Rug by Ason Yellowhair
While the flowering plants are strictly geometric, the birds have a subtle roundedness that is a beautiful contrast.  The large scale and rich spots of color on a neutral ground again convey delight in the beauty and the underlying order of Nature.

detail, Navajo Rug by Ason Yellowhair
American weaver James Koehler's tapestry effectively combines motifs from Native American and Amish textiles:

Chief Blanket with Blocks by James Koehler, 1991/2002
The broad bands of the Navajo Chief's blanket are set off by the Amish diamond-in-a-square quilt block.  Looking closely, you can see a subtly darker purple square within each purple diamond.  Koehler was a master dyer who specialized in extremely subtle gradations of color, and here he pays homage to the surprising use of color often found in Pennsylvania Amish quilts.  (I have a special affection for this piece because it reminds me of how I got started on my life as a textile artist:   I stumbled across an Amish quilt--a purple diamond in a square!--in a magazine 25 years ago.)

detail, Chief Blanket with Blocks by James Koehler, 1991/2002

Of all the artists in the show, only one,  contemporary New Mexico weaver Irvin Trujillo, was represented by more than one piece.  The one I kept going back to recently won La Lana Weaving Award for Innovative Use of Color and Design in Rio Grande Weaving at Santa Fe's 104 Spanish Market.  This is Saltillo Shroud, purchased by the Denver Art Museum for this show:  

Saltillo Shroud, Irvin Trujillo, 2014
One could gaze at this piece for hours and still discover new details.  The intricacy of the weaving, the use of color transparency, the re-interpretation of traditional motifs from Spanish weaving . . .this is The Great American Novel written in the language of Southwestern weaving.  The piece radiates vibrant energy.  It is truly an eye-dazzler. 

detail, Saltillo Shroud by Irvin Trujillo, 2014
detail, Saltillo Shroud by Irvin Trujillo, 2014
There are two contemporary pieces in the show that break free of the strict rectilinear grid of traditional weaving and explore texture and three-dimensional space.  These pieces revel in weaving for its own sake, in the textures, lines and shapes that can only be made with weaving techniques. 

Parchment by Gayle Wimmer, 1981

Tapis Pobre, by Josep Grau-Garriga, 1973
I enjoy seeing how weaving can make sculptures with such powerful presence.  These pieces do not tell a story or serve any function but to entice the eye . . . and the hand.  But I know that to weave in this way is not my own direction.  For now at least I am driven to use traditional tapestry techniques to make pieces that speak with my own voice.  The work in this show was rich and satisfying food for the journey.  

If you find yourself in Denver anytime before March 6, 2016, go see the show!  And let us know what you think. 

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