Demons, Yarns & Tales: Tapestries by Contemporary Artists at James Cohan Gallery
January 8 to February 13
533 West 26th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues,
New York City, 212 714 9500
Three years ago, Banners of Persuasion, a London-based arts organization, commissioned thirteen artists to design tapestries. Artwork was then sent to a workshop in China to be woven by a team of experts. The results, on display at the James Cohan Gallery, could not be more diverse. Indeed, without the consistent medium, almost nothing seems to hold these works together visually.
While many prominent artists have used tapestry to their advantage (William Kentridge and Chuck Close come to mind) some pieces in this show are less suited than others to this particular translation of this medium. That the artist never touched the object seems out of sync with the hand-heavy quality of these kinds of weavings.
The most interesting works were those in which tapestry added a level of meaning to the image. Kara Walker’s A Warm Summer Evening in 1863 (2008) depicts a large black silhouette of a hanged female figure against a background of rioting masses and burning buildings. Although it is a black and white image, it calls to mind the richness of Renaissance weavings in its composition and story-telling ability. It is completely stunning in a way that a charcoal drawing or a photograph cannot match.
Fred Tomaselli’s After Migrant Fruit Thugs (2008) and Shahzia Sikander’s Pathology of Suspension (2008) are both enriched by making reference to the history of Middle Eastern weaving. In Tomaselli’s work, two large birds, depicted with every feather colorfully articulated, sit in a tree amidst a starry nighttime sky. The use of flat space and the decorative, stylized depiction of the birds, branches and stars harkens back to Middle Eastern pictorial rugs. Sikander, whose work references Moghul craft traditions, uses a border motif, floral patterns and a strong, if off-centered, red rectangle typically seen in traditional Persian or Oriental rugs.
Grayson Perry’s Vote Alan Measles for God (2008) stands out as the only work that makes reference to war rugs. These highly collected weavings started to appear in Afghanistan in the 1980’s and included images of bombs, tanks and guns. Perry’s piece has a decidedly folk-art feel—the crooked writing along the border, the crowed cacophony of images, religious references. Central to the image is a giant red Gumby-like character standing atop the twin towers waving an M16. His body is strapped with a bomb, filled with grenades, and he’s surrounded by coffins, Osama Bin Laden, car bombs, fighter planes, crosses, dollar signs, images from Abu Ghraib and more. It manages to be at once marvelously wacky and terrifying.
In Francesca Lowe’s Trump (2008), a mushroom cloud is a swirl of exploding body parts, thrusting feet and fists. Clouds and smoke erupt from the central figure in an apocalyptic, almost religious ecstasy. The deep space, the rich color palate and the otherworldliness make the image compelling. However, one has to imagine that the experience of looking at the tapestry and the original painting would not be much different. As with other works in this show, one is left to wonder what the sheer amount of labor that went into its creation was ultimately for.