These Artists Are Changing our Expectations of What Tapestry Can Be
Diedrick Brackens, unicorn kente, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.
“Along with cave paintings, threads were among the earliest transmitters of meaning,” Anni Albers wrote in her canonical 1965 tome On Weaving. Considered by many to be the godmother of textile arts, Albers dedicated her book to her “great teachers”—the weavers of ancient Peru. The basic principles of tapestry—typically wall hangings defined by complicated pictorial designs formed by warp-and-weft weaving or embroidery—has not changed for millennia, despite the introduction of power machinery in the late 18th century.
Contemporary artists who have dared to take up the painstaking labor of weaving in the digital age similarly find themselves in dialogue with newly minted historical figures like Albers—who was instrumental in elevating the status of weaving as a fine art—as well as ancient traditions that span the globe.
Across cultures, tapestry has been used for practical, decorative, spiritual, and expressive purposes. The highly developed textile culture of ancient Peru emerged in the absence of a written language. In the Middle East, tapestries were often thought to possess magical properties; think of tales of flying carpet rides. The famously cryptic symbolism of the medieval Unicorn Tapestries has subsumed their practical purpose of keeping drafts out the Eureopan castle it once inhabited. In the 20th century, feminist artists employed handcrafts like weaving and embroidery to break down the distinctions between art and craft that typicallly left women and people of color marginalized as mere “artisans.”
These days, fiber artists have found increasingly receptive audiences, as well as institutions willing to show their work. They employ tapestry to explore politics and the harsh realities of modern conflict, or to tease out questions of identity and sexuality. Many bemoan tapestry’s glacially slow pace and the way it hampers their abilities to be prolific, yet none would trade the hand-made, unique approach. Below, we share insights from seven artists who are continuing to push the boundaries of this traditional medium.
The diverse traditions of West African Strip weaving, Flemish tapestry, and early American story quilts combine in Diedrick Brackens’s viscerally personal textiles. His works frequently comment on his identity as a queer, Black American.
The Los Angeles–based artist, originally from Texas, takes advantage of weaving’s great cultural capacity for storytelling and material symbolism. The threads of his figurative narratives derive from folklore, religion, mythical creatures, cosmology, and the artist’s own lived experience. Brackens’s choice of materials adds further gravity to his imagery: Besides commercial dyes, the artist employs colorants such as wine, tea, and bleach to stain textiles like cotton, a loaded material that points to the transatlantic slave trade.
Brackens has a thoughtful way of entwining social, political, and personal issues through a medium that has become at once contemporary and traditional. “Textile work is exciting audiences again because the field of makers has expanded,” the artist told me. “It is an expansive space where women, queer people, and Black and brown folks have made huge contributions historically and presently.”
The artist’s tapestries are certainly getting attention: Brackens won the 2018 Joyce Alexander Wein Artist Prize presented by the Studio Museum in Harlem, and his latest works are currently on view in “Diedrick Brackens: Darling Divined” in the New Museum’s lobby galleries.
The speed and prosaicness of contemporary female life find eternal stillness and glory in tapestries by Brooklyn-based Erin M. Riley. The artist’s distinctive tattoos appear in woven depictions of her mirror selfies, tweezing nipple hairs, masturbating. The digital sphere is further invoked by Pornhub screenshots and scattered iPhones.
Riley was raised on the internet, and her tapestries reflect her experiences “as a queer human who grew up in chat rooms” as a means of exploring sexuality and trauma. The artist frequently depicts herself in what some might consider compromising or revealing situations to evince “the physical labor and presence of body that it takes to depict them.”
“The images I weave are consumed and scrolled past at a speed that is maddening, but tapestry stays slow,” Riley said. At the same time, the process of sitting at the loom “allows for a total disconnect from the internet while also having a connection to binary and early computer technology.”
The reflective nature of the loom process allows Riley to zoom in on specific details—she often hand-dyes the yarn for each specific object—as a way to slow down the viewer and confront content that might be previously scrolled past.
“I’m lucky to live in a time when people don’t get pigeonholed into just one craft,” said Terri Friedman. The Bay Area–based artist only learned to weave five years ago, when she was inspired by a Joan Miró weaving she saw on a trip to Barcelona. Because she came to weaving late in life, after pursuing other mediums like painting and sculpture, Friedman doesn’t “identify solely as a weaver,” and prefers to be considered an interdisciplinary artist.
“I use the loom to catch my big hairy voluptuous colorful paintings,” she explained, adding that she uses the palette of a painter. Instead of finding inspiration in the works of other textile artists, Friedman, a self-described feminist, looks to female painters like Joanne Greenbaum, Keltie Ferris, Nicole Eisenman, and Sarah Cain. She is most interested in their unusual palettes, and is “obsessed with color.”
The undulating, uneven patterns of the wall works Friedman has created in these past five years slightly resemble the disheveled elegance of the bright and busy Coogi sweaters popular in the 1990s. They are “unstable, uncertain, and unmonumental,” she explained—humble, fragile qualities that inspire Friedman. “The work does not strive for perfection in a traditional craft sense, but more for emotion and storytelling in an abstract way,” she said.
Despite their resemblance to Color Field paintings, the majority of Brent Wadden’s fractured, geometric works are made up of woven panels that he sews together and stretches tight over wooden stretchers. The artist studied painting as an undergraduate before teaching himself how to weave, yet he hasn’t abandoned the abstract gestures that dominate the canvases of the great mid-century painters.
While prolific artists like Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, or Bridget Riley might produce a piece in hours or days, Wadden has taken abstraction in a slower-paced direction. These days, Wadden’s biggest challenge is the time it takes to produce a work: “It’s a big commitment,” he said. But weaving at a loom also satisfies the artist’s urge to make a tactile, one-of-a-kind objects by hand.
The influences Wadden cites are not the painters mentioned above. Traditional folk art from Nova Scotia, where he grew up, possesses “an honesty” that he tries to cultivate in his own practice. To that end, Wadden’s cardinal interest is in “embracing the mistakes that happen along the way.” As a self-taught weaver, he may find that his composition “doesn’t properly align,” or the yarn he’s using runs out, leading to variations in tone and color.
Aiko Tezuka likes to make the material structures of her fiber works transparent. Kitschy patterned fabrics dissolve into streams of colorful, unspooled threads that spill out across the wall or across the floor as the two ends of her patterned fabric, manipulated into traditional canvas shapes over wooden bars, remain intact.
Although the tightly woven structures of textiles are usually hidden or overlooked, Tezuka believes “the completed body can return back to be its materials,” she said. The tactile, sculptural, and “undone” nature of her works wrestle with the distinction between art forms, especially so-called “high art” and “low craft.” Tezuka’s pieces break down these hierarchies, an endeavor that is paramount to her creative freedom.
Tezuka even turned an academic eye to the subject; her Ph.D. dissertation, which she earned from Kyoto City University of Arts in 2005, explored the history of fine art and craft and the origin of their separation. Although Tezuka is based in Berlin, her Japanese background informs this research. In Japan, Tezuka explained, the border between painting and weaving and embroidery was created in the late 19th century, when the isolated country’s ports opened to the rest of the world. To hurry modernization, Japanese artists imitated European culture, including the prioritization of painting over craft. Tezuka continues to cross these lines in her most recent works, now on view in “Afternoon of Abundance” at Szydłowski Gallery in Warsaw.
Unlike the refined, even stitching of the tapestries that hang in medieval museums, San Francisco–based artist Josh Faught delights in the messy, knotty potentials of weaving. He employs an eccentric range of materials into his hand-woven pieces so that they edge away from tapestry to become catch-alls that can incorporate varied textiles from cotton to gaudy gold lamé; cultural detritus like VHS tapes and nail polish; and archival materials.
“Textiles are a wonderful way for me to communicate conflicting impulses through an often epic scale,” Faught explained of his hodgepodge approach to the medium. “Through weaving and crochet, soap operas, AIDS vigils, candy baskets, and codes of décor are forced to negotiate a psychic space between the idiosyncratic and the symbolic.” Faught’s creative display methods add to this controlled chaos. He has shown his “tapestries” on the wall and propped up against it; or as a sculpture, on metal supports and standing miraculously upright on the floor.
Faught, who is an associate professor and chair of textiles at the California College of the Arts, is excited by the current expansion of tapestry’s traditional definition. “Textiles have always been a platform from which we can share marginalized stories and experiences through the subjugation and celebration of errant threads,” Faught said. In his own work, the artist “considers how we can instrumentalize these experiences through an understanding of tapestry not just as an object, but as a tool, a cloth, and site of performance.”
The distinctions between weaving and painting become nearly obsolete in Julia Bland’s epic wall works. Loom-woven textiles are patched and painted over in oil; bits of canvas and fabrics like silk, wool, and velvet are crocheted or sutured together; hand-braided ropes climb through the complex compositions that are often nearly 7-foot-tall squares.
The Brooklyn-based artist described the process behind her intricate, handcrafted painting-textile hybrids as “a series of events that combine and dissolve.” She added that “in the end, it is impossible to parse out what exactly happened or how, what came first or what came last.”
Although Bland said the images and patterns of her compositions arise from an inexact process of handling her materials, the colorful and complex works always seem to find order in their usually symmetrical, geometric structures.
But it’s the “rich and vast, and overwhelmingly deep” history of textiles that the artist finds most difficult to negotiate. “Tapestry can be a way of combining, referencing, contradicting, breaking, repairing, contracting, expanding,” Bland said. “The history is rich and vast, but we don’t have to relive it. We can make something different.”