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American Tapestry Biennial 9 at the FWMoA

By Dan Swartz

Fort Wayne Reader


In modern times, textiles carry a shadow of their past influence and aesthetic value. Valued for its durability and ability to present great deals of visual information, textiles like the Bayeux Tapestry (actually embroidered cloth, not a tapestry), have been used to document momentous historical occasions, as well as personal and family purposes to highlight milestones. While textiles are some of the oldest forms of human expression, they are also ever-evolving, mixing with new media, and gaining relevance in new ways through contemporary context.

The American Tapestry Alliance (ATA), founded in the early 1980's, is now an international organization, dedicated to the promotion of tapestry artists through both educational and exhibition opportunities. Because of the awareness which that ATA creates, tapestry and textile work has gained a stronger position among the art and fine craft communities. The American Tapestry Biennal has been a constant push for this community to highlight its talents.

The Fort Wayne Museum of Art's current exhibition of the ATA's ninth American Tapestry Biennial is both a treat and a surprise with its diversity, size, and connections to modernism. Throughout the exhibition there are reminders of Hoffman and Albers, colorfield and minimalism, De Stilj and Abstract expressionists like Barnett Newmann, also Agnes Martin, Frank Stella, and Brice Marden. Much like the minimalists, these tapestry artists are using a rather limited technical language to build still, quiet, and powerful pieces. Unlike the minimalists however, these tapestry artists (many of them anyway) are tapping into this genre and media to produce narrative works, like their forebears before them, giving us hints into the contemporary life, how we view ourselves, and what kinds of questions we are asking.

While this writer has had very little experience with textile work which carries a particular concept further than process or media, the American Tapestry Biennial includes a number of rich pieces including "Home Sweet Home" a wool piece by Rebecca Stevens; "After Albers" by Carol Chave; and "Blueprint #7" by Mary Zicafoose. These artists and works all work in different ways to carry some of the symbolic and historical nature of textiles into the dialogue of contemporary art.

Stevens' "Home Sweet Home" has a very primitive, also "outsider art" quality to it, which turns the Rousseau-esque plants depicted, the universal and subconscious imagery around the central image of a Jungian House shape, and the collected rudimentary figure residing in it all the more interesting. Carol Chave's "After Albers" on the other hand is little more, visually, than a series of Albers-esque squares within squares, woven with small imperfections that become more prevalent as the viewer gets closer. In that surface interpretation, the piece is little more than an interesting "cover" of the original pieces in a new media. However, when one takes account for the historical connections between Josef Albers and the textile world in general, through his wife, Anni Albers, who was a textile designer, critic, writer and printmaker. In this way, the detached copy becomes much more an exploration of a little known or sought after part of art history- the talented wives of the male art superstars- some of which were geniuses in their own fields, like Anni Albers.

Mary Zicafoose's "Blueprint #7" is very interesting in a number of ways, especially its size easily as large as any large scale painting and contains abstracted data on three separate wall hangings, hung like a triptych and representing two large thumbprints as the viewer pulls back. Zicafoose's work speaks about the concept of identity in a large scale, using ethnic fibers to represent the age-old connection between man and the materials we use. It is also an explanation of textile history through that identity, highlighting this process that we take for granted in our clothing, the chairs that we sit on, and the sails which first took us around the globe. The choice of the figure print is perfect in that it is also our original identity but rarely seen except through its inking and pressing upon a surface. Zicafoose, more than any other artist represented in the American Tapestry Biennial, fully uses the unique position that textile holds to capture the viewers attention in each swoop.

This hidden narrative suggested in the fingerprint becomes an anthem for contemporary textile workers, who sometimes have the hardest time working and being taken seriously when starting out. For some reason the art world seems to feel much more comfortable with an older female artist working within textiles, than a male or young women fresh out of her graduate degree. Of course there is always a career (perhaps more lucrative) in the fashion industry for someone with the advanced knowledge of fabric, but it is sad to see creativity shunted and stifled due to the rarely spoken of conservatism of the art world.

Of course, there were many other well deserving works like Lialia Kuchma's enormous cobalt blue "Crane," "Dialogues through the Veil" by Elizabeth Buckley, and the structurally Robert Morris-like "Verdant" by Susan Iverson which hangs from the wall, and carries glass pieces keeping the textile taught. However these pieces were more formal, incredibly technically precise, but without the ability to absorb the questions and express the way the other pieces did. All in all, the ATA's 9th American Tapestry Biennial is an excellent introduction to the importance and place which fine textile deserves.

For more information:
Fort Wayne Museum of Art

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