If you weave tapestries as I do, you have no doubt heard the remark “why don’t you just paint it?” rather than render imagery in such a slow and complex technique. Why indeed. This week I hit the galleries in the Chelsea art district in New York City, and from what I saw there it was obvious that the art world is currently infatuated by textiles and textile aesthetics. So if one was to “just paint it” but still maintain many of the aesthetic choices we appreciate in textile art (drape, texture, pattern, and common associations with domesticity and memory), what exactly might that look like?
1. Paintings that look like textiles:
The late artist Lee Mullican was being shown at James Cohan Gallery. Mullican’s paintings look for all the world like Bargello needlework until you get up close to see the brush strokes. The key themes of the exhibition included symbolic figuration, abstracted landscapes, and visions of the cosmos, but all I could see were would-be embroideries. Perhaps the renewed appreciation for Mullican’s work rests with a renewed appreciation for the textile aesthetics that seem so central to his brand of abstraction.
Vivian Suter at Gladstone Gallery showed an installation of untreated canvases hung from the ceiling, walls, and even on the floor in a random configuration, no one piece given visual precedence over any of the others. It made the point that all paintings have a textile substrate, and when you free them from their stretchers, the line between art and craft, between paintings vs. wall hangings, becomes unimportant.
2. Paintings that incorporate textiles:
I saw some really brilliant work in this category. Angel Otero at Lehmann Maupin paints on glass and then peels the partially dried oil skins away, using the skins as well as scraps of paintings on canvas, as elements in elaborate collages that drape like shredded curtains on the wall. Some work incorporated pieces of lace, chair caning, or chandelier crystals. According to the artist, the inclusion of these items into his works act as markers of his memories of his birthplace (Puerto Rico), and specifically, his grandmother. Such recollections of domesticity are the bread and butter of textile art, here rendered raw with a dash of machismo.
Sally Ross at Fergus McCaffery does use actual textile fragments in her sewn and painted constructions. She sews together paintings on canvas with fragments of printed fabrics and found materials to create compositions that the gallery description likened to landscapes seen from above. (Nowhere is the Q word. Heaven forbid.) There was also mixed media work by Meredyth Sparks on view in this show, with a similar quilt aesthetic used with interesting effect.
At Yossi Milo Gallery, Iranian artist Arghavan Khosravi adheres traditional Iranian textiles to canvas and then paints surreal scenes borrowed from contemporary media and culture on top of and around the frame of the textile. This mixed media combination called into question the boundaries of history and culture both visually and physically. The textile anchors the concept behind the work.
3. Textiles that incorporate painting
The most gorgeous work I saw in this category was the work of Julia Bland. I had read about this artist online, so I was super happy to see her work at Yossi Milo. The gallery description summarizes the work better than I could: “Her works begin with patterns crafted on her loom before dyed, stitched and painted fabrics, and fragments of painted canvas and linen are cut, glued, sewed, burned and tied to the works…building on post-minimalist investigations of materiality and context, her surfaces communicate through their physical presence as well and the history of their intersecting processes.” The work is inspired by universal geometry, pattern, and symmetry. It is so OMG!
And can we talk about towels? I nearly stepped on a “Towel Snake” crafted by Oren Pinhassi at Yossi Milo. Who knew the towel could be such a powerful muse before now? I bet every hotel maid who has mastered the art of towel origami would like to get in on this action: an individual towel snake sells for 4k. I hate to be cynical, especially because I really loved and appreciated all the textile inspired art I saw on my gallery walk - but seriously? - here I draw the line. (I will say his non-towel sculptures were quite nice.)
Unfortunately, all of these shows were ending on the day I visited these galleries, so I’m not trying to market this experience for you. I just was moved to share something I really did not expect - the presence of textiles and textile aesthetics at every turn. From the looks of the gallery guide, if I had been able to hit the Brooklyn galleries I would have found even more textile art. (Sadly, I missed a show of Sarah Zapata’s work that I would have really liked to have seen. You should google her!)
And this brings me to the best of all: a TAPESTRY SHOW. A full gallery of true handwoven tapestries by Christina Forrer was on view at Luhring Augustine Gallery. Heaven! Stay tuned.