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To a Tapestry’s Warp and Weft, Add Vision and Craft

January 26, 2010
It is always instructive when artists translate their work from one form into another, especially if the end result is the mad, magical, labor-intensive domain of tapestry. While astoundingly flexible and able to represent the finest details, the warp and weft of the loom have a regularizing effect. Their physical consistency creates a level playing field but also deadens some designs while enhancing others. So we learn new things about an artist’s sensibility and how well it travels.
Grayson Perry/James Cohan Gallery

“Vote Alan Measles for God” (2008), a tapestry with war imagery based on a design by Grayson Perry, at James Cohan. More

Thanks to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibitions of Renaissance and Baroque tapestries over the last decade, the glorious history of tapestry as art is much better known than it once was. But it is still largely neglected as a contemporary art medium, with only a few exceptions. One is the South African artist William Kentridge, the subject of a forthcoming retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, who, starting in 2001, made a striking suite of large white tapestries populated by his black, puppetlike silhouettes, with touches of red.

More recently, 14 tapestries were commissioned from contemporary artists by the owners of the Rug Company in London, under a program called Banners of Persuasion. All but one of these works are now on view at the James Cohan Gallery in Chelsea in an exhibition titled “Demons, Yarns & Tales: Tapestries by Contemporary Artists.” The pieces were fabricated in China — a process that took three years — and they range from pedestrian to brilliant. By coincidence, this exhibition has a telling but somewhat humbler foil in a group show across the street at BravinLee: three rugs based on works by other artists.

At Cohan, “villa joe,” by the Briton Paul Noble, is the most commanding piece. For one thing, its labor-intensiveness is especially intense: it is 14 feet square. Not surprisingly, it took about eight months just to enlarge its cartoon to full scale and a year to weave. For another, translating Mr. Noble’s detailed graphite drawing into subtle shades of gray wool adds physical heft to his mordantly desolate landscape. This one is an immense, Death Valley-like expanse of totemic stone formations rife with references to the sculptures of Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. These are juxtaposed with a glass museum-like villa — filled with displays of ceramic vessels — whose variously shaped wings, seen from above, spell the word Joe.

Read more at: To a Tapestry’s Warp and Weft, Add Vision and Craft

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