Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Book Review: Archie Brennan: Tapestry as Modern Art

Note:  If you are a member of the Handweavers Guild of America (HGA), you may have seen a shorter version of this review in the most recent issue of the magazine for members, Shuttle Spindle Dypepot.  Here I expand on that review with additional thoughts.  I am grateful to HGA for allowing me to review this book and urge you to join if you are not already a member.

I am thrilled to recommend wholeheartedly this book about a figure so influential in modern tapestry that he is known among weavers by just his first name:  Archie.  Though I never had the privilege of meeting or studying with him, I will presume to use his first name here.   This book, by "Archie Brennan as told to Brenda Osborn," compiles many of Archie's writings, his memoirs about his life, travels, and career, and best of all many photographs of his work.  If you are a tapestry weaver you absolutely need this book to understand contemporary tapestry.   And if you're not a weaver, I bet you'll still find the book fascinating for the details of Archie's life and training and for his thoughts about how weaving and fiber art connect to the wider art world, and simply put, how pictures are made.  

Published by Schiffer Publishing 2022; widely available 

Brenda Osborn was a longtime member of the "Wednesday Group" of weavers who gathered with Archie and his partner, weaver Susan Martin Maffei, on a regular basis for years to learn together.  The book is clearly a labor of love and a testament to a weaver and teacher who had a profound impact on all his students, and on the students of those students.  If you are new to the field or like me, want to study "with" Archie, go HERE to learn more.  This website has a link to a series of videos Archie made that are incredibly detailed demonstrations of tapestry tips and techniques.  I know several weavers swear by them.   

It was deeply thought-provoking to study the images of Archie's work and to read his writings.  I find much to agree with.  For example, Archie describes his work as "graphic, pictorial, often narrative" but always "a creative journey of discovery rather than a reproduction of a prepared design."  For me, weaving is definitely a journey of discovery, each and every time, but it's rarely narrative or even pictorial in the usual sense.  While I would love to get to the point of being skilled enough to weave without a cartoon, as Archie did, I'm not (usually) there yet.  And to be clear, Archie always did numerous studies and sketches that informed his pieces.  But his larger point has hugely influenced weavers today:  that the imagery in tapestries should appear as if it could only have been made by weaving, not by painting or photography or any other medium.  Archie championed the individual artist/designer-weaver, even though he apprenticed at the Dovecot Studios in Scotland and helped to found the Australian Tapestry Workshop.  

Archie writes that his work has been "a continuous search for a personal graphic language, the nature of woven drawing that is unique to tapestry."  I think most practicing weavers would agree that their work is an ongoing search for a personal voice and vocabulary in tapestry.  Archie's reference to drawing gets at a key point:  during his seven-year apprenticeship at the Dovecot, Archie was required to attend drawing classes four times a week.  Drawing remained a lifelong practice and the bedrock of his tapestry work.  He participated in life drawing sessions with live models for years.   Archie's genius is fully evident in the Drawing Series of tapestries based on these sketches.  They masterfully simplify line and shape in a way that honors and emphasizes the grid of the loom.  Rather than weaving from the side in order to smooth out steep vertical curves, he wove from the bottom up and exaggerated the "steppiness" of these lines.  Archie's love of the drawn line--and perhaps his color-blindness--explain a great deal about his own artistic style.  He is not a colorist who revels in subtle yarn blends; his work is bold, graphic, and focused on line and pattern above all.  

Archie Brennan, Sketch for Drawing Series LXXXIX:  Seated Female Nude, 2009  
and [tapestry] Drawing Series LXXIX:  Seated Female Nude, 2009.  36.5" x 17.5" 
Both photos by Archie Brennan. 

For me, it was fascinating to read Archie's account of his brief flirtation with what he calls "the new wave" of fiber art that exploded in the 1960s and 1970s.  These weavings eschewed pictorial imagery and exploited unusual and coarse fibers, hairy textures, massive size, and three dimensions, pushing weaving toward sculpture.  This style has been rediscovered by weavers today.  He writes that he realized, "The history of pictorial illusion in weaving was what intrigued me," and he revels in the "intimacy" of a tapestry that whispers rather than shouts, "savoring the delight of accumulating detail."  Weavers today can choose to work in either of these modes, and it is helpful for those of us like me who are still trying to decide whether to weave "Objects or Pictures?" (or both?) to read his thoughts.  

In a 1996 essay, Archie describes how today's weaving artists have sought to gain for tapestry a status equal to painting in the contemporary art world, and he thinks this is a mistake.  He writes that his many woven postcards and parcels are partly intended to poke fun at this ambition.  For him treating tapestry solely as art for the wall ignores a history in which in many places and times it has served other purposes.  Tapestry as Art "neglects a potential role that is unique to tapestry" which includes among other elements, the element of time.  In one of the several excellent essays by those who knew and worked with Archie, Mary Lane writes that "Brennan's pursuit of meeting tapestry on its own terms, his eschewal of descriptive color and his use of the grid allies with artists who favored the means of representation over the subject of representation."  This is something to ponder.  Indeed, I have read the book once, but I plan to reread it, cover to cover, soon, to further absorb Archie's views and clarify my own intentions and practice. 

If you are a tapestry weaver, you may already be reading this landmark book and you will surely see several reviews of it in the coming weeks.  Rebecca Mezoff has written a thoughtful review here.  My post here does not pretend to be encyclopedic and I certainly cannot add any contextual details of having met or studied with Archie.  But I hope this post suggests that if you take the time to read the text as well as savor the photographs, it will inform and challenge your thinking about what you weave, and why. 

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Fiber Ancestry, part 2

In last month's post I wrote about our fiber ancestors, those teachers and artists who have taught and influenced us.  I described the impact Sheila Hicks, Lenore Tawney, and Olga de Amaral have had and continue to have on my own work, even though I never took a class with any of them.  They are my "adopted" ancestors.  I also mentioned Silvia Heyden, Sue Lawty, and Agnes Martin.  Today I want to talk about them.  

Silvia Heyden, Weaving Dance, 2006, 35" x 41"
Courtesy the American Tapestry Alliance website Artist's Page

Many tapestry weavers cite Silvia Heyden as an inspiration.  Swiss-born, Silvia spent the last years of her life living and weaving near the Eno River in North Carolina.  Her work was commissioned for locations in Europe and the U.S. and featured in exhibitions world-wide.  If you haven't seen the documentary about her work, A Weaverly Path:  The Tapestry Life of Silvia Heyden--run, don't walk, to watch it HERE.  Indeed, one of Silvia's lasting impacts has been the concept of "weaverliness"--of approaching tapestry and image-making in purely "weaverly" ways to make objects that can only have been woven, not painted or produced in any other media.  She wove loosely and improvisationally, often on colored linen warps in an open weave that allowed the warps to show.  She wove eccentrically and innovated a type of wedge weave she called "feather weave" to create patterns that moved rhythmically across the tapestry. Exploiting the basic elements of triangles, half-rounds and slits, she developed a unique tapestry language.  Her work was deeply informed by the parallels she intuited between the strings of a violin, which she played her whole life, and the strings of the loom and between the movements of music and the movements of thread.  Silvia wrote a book about her work, The Making of Modern Tapestry:  My Voyage of Discovery, but unfortunately it is out of print.  Ask around at your local guilds and among your weaving friends to see if you can borrow a copy.  

I am fortunate to have a copy of Silvia's book and and a small study of hers in it was the source of my experimentation with exposed-warp triangles in this sample and later in my piece SkyGrass.  Thank you, Silvia. 

Molly Elkind, Sample inspired by Silvia Heyden's open-weave triangles. 
Linen warp and weft, 2020. 

Molly Elkind, Sky Grass, (c) 2020.  Linen warp; wool, linen and metallic weft.  26" x 45" 

I first stumbled across the work of Sue Lawty (see her other Instagram page here) on a visit to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London in the mid-2000s.  I was gobsmacked by her tapestries then, and I wasn't even a tapestry weaver yet.  

Sue Lawty, Silent Witness, (c) 2002, 206 cm x 30 cm (approx 81" x 12"), 
linen, raphia, cotton tape

Sue Lawty, No Mans Land, (c) 136 cm x 137cm (approx. 54" x 54") 2004, linen, hemp, raphia, cotton

I adore the way Sue allows her materials and the basic structure of weaving to speak a quiet, nuanced, textured language that for me is endlessly fascinating.  A simple search online will turn up enough links to the Victoria and Albert Museum, West Dean College, and Browngrotta to keep you engrossed for an afternoon.  On the Browngrotta page if you scroll down you will find links to two books about Sue's work that I can recommend (among many other tempting books about contemporary fiber art):  Earth Materials and rock-raphia-linen-lead.  The titles of these books reveal Sue's abiding interest in her materials as her key inspiration.  In recent years she has moved away from weaving toward "drawing" with grids of tiny pebbles on white grounds.  These works also rely on subtle variations within repeated patterns and upon allowing the textures and shapes of her materials to speak for themselves.  

Molly Elkind, Sample in Blues, 2021. Linen warp;
wefts include Churro wool, paper, cotton, soy silk 

The third artist who haunts me these days, as she haunts many artists, is the late painter Agnes Martin.  She is often called a minimalist, but she herself felt she was an Abstract Expressionist.  Her work lacks the wild, spontaneous gestures we associate with that movement, but for Agnes it expressed deep emotions, as evidenced by her titles for her work such as Happiness.  Others have written far more knowledgeably and extensively about Agnes than I can here, but for me, it's the daring to strip her work back to barest essentials that impresses me.  That, and the dedicated exploration of horizontal stripes in pale tints of blue, pink and cream.  She swore her work bore no resemblance to the New Mexico landscape she lived in for decades, but having witnessed our winter sunrise skies here I see a definite resemblance:  there are horizontal bands of pink and blue and lemon just as in her paintings.  I can recommend two books:  a biography by Nancy Princenthal called Agnes Martin:  Her Life and Art, and a short memoir by Donald Woodman called Agnes Martin and Me that recounts the story of his tumultuous friendship with the painter when she lived in Galisteo, NM.  There is also a wonderful documentary called With My Back to the World in which Agnes speaks for herself about her life and work.  You can stream it  through Kanopy with a public library card or university ID.  

I reiterate my challenge to you from last month:  Spend some time thinking about who your own fiber ancestors are--not just those whom you have taken classes with, but the artists in any media whose work has knocked you out and inspired your own.  What would happen if you let go of your doubts and fears and strove to honor your own unique voice, as those inspiring artists honored theirs?