Contemporary Tapestry Updates a Tradition

A textile exhibition celebrates the art form's revival in updated terms

A TEXTILE exhibit showcasing 12 New England artists at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln, Mass., may shatter the myth that the woven art is bound by traditional styles, techniques, fabrics, and designs.

``New Threads: Contemporary Tapestry in New England'' is an eclectic mixture of woven objects. The tapestries, ranging in size from small squares to large wall hangings, include lovely landscapes, abstract patterns, and doll-like figures in three-dimensional structures.

``We wanted to show the diversity of contemporary tapestry in New England,'' says Nick Capasso, the museum's associate curator. ``We were surprised at the versatility and vitality'' of what tapestry weavers are creating.

The exhibit begins with the more traditional work, in terms of technique and imagery, of Julia Mitchell, who creates tapestries that depict landscapes near her home on Martha's Vineyard Island, Mass. Using wool and silk on linen, Mitchell's marshes, trees, and seascapes are woven in muted pastel colors that capture these kinds of environments.

Napoleon Jones-Henderson, the only man represented in the exhibition, uses threads and techniques from different cultures in his tapestries, many of which are political statements. ``Amerikkk,'' created during 1976-78 is a striking, chilling work in red, white, and blue with skulls and Klan-like figures. Raffia, a fiber, runs down the sides like hair.

One of the most haunting works is by Elizabeth Billings, a Vermont artist who practices the Ikat technique. Instead of weaving from a drawing, she bundles the threads and dyes them before she sits at the loom, a method that allows for each image on the tapestry to come out differently. Her huge ``Wall of Ancestors'' is indigo with rows of white skulls in various forms and shades - some so pale they're almost indistinguishable, others clearly defined.

Two weavers who most seem to push the boundaries of the medium in this show are Marjorie Durko Puryear and Pamela Perry. Puryear's woven doll-sized figures, some of which occupy three-dimensional wooden structures, are simple and primitive looking. They combine metalwork, embroidery, and weaving and were inspired by ancient Chilean and Peruvian mummy bundles and ritual effigies. Perry has brought tapestry to utilitarian objects. Her fans are lacy blends of luscious colors that are attached to the frame like delicate spider webs.

Laura Lienhard's tapestries are delicate, paperlike, and abstract. She creates torn-paper collages and then imitates the layers, torn edges, and color modulations of the collages. The artist says she tries to capture a sense of romantic age and decay inspired by the ancient crumbling walls of Italy's architectural gems.

What look like ancient petroglyphs and the inside of a computer combine as interesting patterns in some of Eileen Wadsworth's tapestries. ``Hieroglyphics'' is a wide rectangular work of rust and turquoise with symbols, lines, and fish. ``Chutes, Ladders, and Child Abuse'' is a complex, stark black and white tapestry of lines and ladders.

Weavers usually draw images on paper, called cartoons, and then place them behind the loom as guides.

Micala Sidore, a tapestry artist who is director of Hawley Street Tapestry Studio in Northampton, Mass., and who was a consultant for the show, says the number of tapestry artists has grown dramatically over the last 15 years. Yet the debate over whether tapestry is art or craft continues, partly because tapestry is loosely defined. ``Is it simply about certain kinds of materials, is it about working with your hands, is it about a particular woven technique or any technique as long as the materials are fiber kind of materials?'' Ms. Sidore asks.

``In some ways it's an interesting discussion ... but at some point you just shrug and say, I like this, I don't like this ... and just leave it alone.''

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