As a child growing up in an isolated, mountainous area of China, Dacia Xu would gather with friends to knit and crochet.
"My earliest memories include images of my mother weaving," she told this news organization. "The sound of the loom in the house made me feel safe and warm."
After opening Qualia Gallery in Palo Alto in January of this year, she promised herself she would feature a textile exhibition as soon as possible. She has fulfilled that intention with "Interlaced," a group exhibition of tapestries and textile art, on view through Oct. 1.
The show consists of seven artists (Terri Friedman, Kiki Smith, Hung Liu, Josh Faught, William Wiley, Robert Kushner and Xiaoze Xie) with work created in traditional and more contemporary processes. All of the artists adhere to one of the medium's most basic objectives: to tell a story.
Tapestries can be traced as far back as the ancient Egyptians and Incas, who buried their dead in woven clothing. During the Medieval period, tapestries were used by the church to impart stories from the Bible, and to insulate castles and provide privacy. A prized commodity, tapestry-making made a major advancement with the invention of the Jacquard mechanical loom in the early 1800s. This allowed them to become more affordable and accessible to a wider demographic.
Tapestry art is represented in "Interlaced" by the work of Xie, Smith, Liu, Kushner and Wiley. All of these artists created the original designs, which were then sent to weaving ateliers, often in Belgium. There, computers that store design information are used to complete the project. The works are bright, colorful and amazingly detailed. Xu offered an explanation as to why these artists, many of whom are painters, decided to explore textile art. "I personally guess that the unique capacity of tapestries for detail, vivid color and texture might be the reason."
Xie, a painter and professor of art at Stanford University, has moved between painting and tapestry for many years. His Jacquard weavings in this show depict sacred books, covered in cloths and a stack of folded newspapers. The colors in these tapestries are intensely deep and beautiful and make the rather mundane subject matter glow with life. Xu explained that the artist likes to employ cultural objects like newspapers and books because they reflect "ephemeral notions of time and our collective memory about events" She added that there is no overt political message intended in these works, but rather the goal of "gathering interest in these objects, because the viewer can't actually read them."
Liu, whose paintings are currently featured at the De Young Museum, was born in Changchun, China and was trained in the Chinese Socialist Realist style. That is evident in her vividly colored "Above the Clouds," a portrait of a young child seated on cushions as white cranes (symbols of happiness) fly around him. There is a peaceful serenity to the tapestry, as there is in "Madame Shoemaker," where a kneeling figure works while encircled by spectacularly-colored butterflies.
Liu died on Aug. 7 at the age of 73. Said Xu, "Hung was one of the first Chinese artists to establish a career in the West. Her works that focus on the life of women in Chinese history particularly resonate with me. She will be greatly missed."
There are stark contrasts in the works of Kushner and Wiley. Using the Jacquard technique, both artists have designed wonderous landscapes. In the case of Wiley, known as a member of the California Funk movement that was based at U.C. Davis in the 1960s and 1970s, there is a fantastical beast nipping at the sun, while planets, plants and nonsensical writings fill the background.
Kushner's work is more lyrical and representational, with lush, floral elements that dance across the tapestry. It is easy to imagine his work adorning the walls of a well-appointed home, which is fitting since Kushner is involved in the Pattern and Decoration Movement. These artists seek, according to the gallery press release, "to revere and produce forms of art that had been marginalized as feminine or trivial during the height of Modernism."
Xu also wanted to include artists who are working in more traditional, hands-on weaving processes but with decidedly contemporary, even edgy, results.
"I am particularly fascinated by artists who combine tapestry or weaving with other artistic forms. Some have transformed drawing or painting into tapestry, while others have combined weaving, knitting or crochet with printmaking, photography, found objects and materials," she said.
Faught, a professor of textiles at California College of the Arts (CCA), definitely fits that description. Here he is represented with several pieces that incorporate aspects of hand-weaving (hemp is the material) with found objects woven into, or attached, to the piece. "Off-nite" is a cheerful rendering of an arched window revealing a view of the blue night sky and a large crescent moon. On the right side, however, colorful socks are hung from rainbow-hued pockets. A can of paint, with a bright red spillover, sits on the floor and completes the piece. The artist explained, "Found objects often exist as speedy or urgent antidotes to the otherwise glacial part of my production. As the spaces in which I site my work evolve, expand and diversify, my source materials expand with it."
Friedman, also on the faculty at CCA, finds ways to incorporate objects and text into her hand-woven, hanging pieces that reflect her background as a painter. In an email interview, she wrote, "My work is completely driven by color. My practice has always been about trying to explore painting with new methods and materials."
"WHY" is a crazy-quilt of color and pattern, mainly in hues of pink and purple, with the word"why" prominently woven into the body of the piece. "Green Placebo," a work of brightly contrasting hues of green and red, also has the title woven into the tapestry. "'Green Placebo' is inspired by my interest in neuroscience and the whole notion of brain plasticity/neuroplasticity. My work is all about rewiring the brain and the loom as a metaphor for wiring (the warp/weft threads)," Friedman said.
Although there is a sharp contrast between the tightly-woven, mechanically-produced tapestries and the more free-form, handwork pieces in the show, Xu believes that the entire cycle of history surrounding this ancient medium has revolved back to where it started.
"The newer approaches of hand-weaving, knitting and crochet could be the more ancient approaches," she said. "I hope the exhibition can provide a glimpse into the change and development of fiber art over time."
Qualia Gallery is located at 328 University Ave., Palo Alto. More information is available at qualiacontemporaryart.com.
Email Contributing Writer Sheryl Nonnenberg at [email protected]