Diedrick Brackens Weaves 21st-Century Concerns into Moving Tapestries
Portrait of Diedrick Brackens by Alex Hodor-Lee. Courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
Diedrick Brackens, summer somewhere, 2020. © Diedrick Brackens. Courtesy of the artist; Jack Shainman Gallery, New York; and Various Small Fires, Los Angeles / Seoul.
In order to enhance his thread-based practice, the artist Diedrick Brackens recently enrolled in a poetry course at UCLA. The first class, taught by Rick Bursky, focused on imagery—how a poem exerts power as it generates a striking picture in the reader’s mind. Brackens recently told me that he enjoys the opportunity to discuss language with a small cohort. The words “text” and “textile,” he pointed out, share the same root: A story weaves together words, just as a tapestry interlaces threads.
The 31-year-old Brackens, who opens his first New York gallery show at Jack Shainman Gallery this April, has enjoyed a rapid rise in critical attention for tapestries that elicit complex and moving narratives. Uneven surfaces, dangling strings, and fringed edges give strong character to his works, which often feature silhouettes of black bodies. As the weavings privilege texture and imperfection over traditional craft principles—and riff on 21st-century concerns—they give Brackens’s age-old medium a contemporary update.
“I became enamored of his ability to tell profound stories—personal, historical, even mythical—within the surface of his weavings,” said Anne Ellegood, executive director of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Ellegood included Brackens in the 2018 edition of “Made in L.A.,” the influential biennial mounted by the Hammer Museum (where Ellegood formerly served as senior curator).
Brackens’s star has only risen since then. Last year, both the New Museum and the Los Angeles gallery Various Small Fires (VSF) gave him solo presentations. With all this success, Brackens is particularly thrilled about being represented by Jack Shainman. “I’m going to sound like a fangirl,” Brackens laughed as we sat together in a small back office at the gallery’s space on West 20th Street. He said this was the first New York gallery he ever visited, back when he was an undergraduate in 2009. “So many artists I love, like Nick Cave, El Anatsui, all these folks were working with them,” he said. Jack Shainman’s artists also have a strong presence at Brackens’s alma mater, the California College of the Arts; Hank Willis Thomas and Toyin Ojih Odutola, who are also represented by the gallery, are fellow alumni.
Installation view of Various Small Fire’s booth at Frieze New York, 2019. Photo by Renato Ghiazza. Courtesy of the artist and Various Small Fires, Los Angeles / Seoul.
I first saw Brackens’s work at Frieze New York last May, when VSF devoted its booth to his work; when no softness came (2019) caught my eye with its delicious mint and watermelon hues. Vertical bars of alternately faded and bright colors recalled a wonky television screen; at the center of the work, a giant white horse pranced. All three tapestries in the booth took inspiration from the Black cowboys who labored on ranches throughout the 19th century. Brackens’s motif captured the mid-2019 zeitgeist, as the “Yeehaw Agenda”—which overhauled Old West lore—pervaded pop culture.
Yet Brackens’s interests range far beyond Black cowboys.For his first outing at Jack Shainman, Brackens mentioned that he’s thinking about picnics (“I find the form attractive and romantic,” he said), the AIDS crisis, catfish, and faith healers. Altogether, the artist hopes the works provoke ideas of leisure and labor, illness and belief, and Southern identity.
Catfish—a long-time symbol of Brackens’s—will appear in a new tapestry, There is a Leak (2020) (the title references the gospel song “There is a Leak in this Old Building”). It features a black figure seated in front of a giant yellow picnic basket and holding a long, forest-green fish. Brackens told me that Texas, his home state, has historically been the largest consumer of catfish. “It feels like the perfect spirit animal or mascot,” he said. The sea creatures are scavengers and survivors, he explained.
Brackens will also bring his work off the walls as he creates three baskets to complement nine new tapestries. He’ll fill the baskets with what he calls a “jelly resin” material molded to look like water. “When I was teaching, I’d tell my students that basketry was the next big thing in textile,” Brackens said. (He began teaching at California State University Long Beach in 2015.)
Diedrick Brackens, shape of a fever believer, 2020. © Diedrick Brackens. Courtesy of the artist; Jack Shainman Gallery, New York; and Various Small Fires, Los Angeles / Seoul.
Traditional craft media, including ceramics and tapestry, have recently undergone a kind of renaissance; Brackens thinks it’s just a matter of time before artists and historians turn their attention to woven vessels. The medium appeals to the artist because it allows him to move his hands in a different way—weaving a basket requires a very different process than using a loom. Brackens names three friends already pushing the form forward: Analise Minjarez, Sarita Westrup, and Sarah Zapata.
While physicality and tactility are integral to Brackens’s practice, his approach also values voice and communication: He discusses his looms as though they are close friends and has named one “Sprechen,” which means “speech” in German.
“To experience his works in person is often quite moving, as if you can feel Diedrick working out his life experiences through the laborious act of weaving,” Ellegood said. With heavily textured and lovingly wrought objects, Brackens tells layered stories that escape verbal expression and traditional narrative chronologies.