Life's a Stitch

Among the many mindless prejudices that enjoy wide acceptance in the art world, several stand out. One is the notion that physical and emotional struggles are good for artistic development--the concept of the "starving artist." This persistent romantic myth takes a real toll on artists even today, despite the fact that anyone who has bothered to pick up a book knows that many of the greatest artists in history lived in luxury. Would Leonardo Da Vinci have done better if he hadn't spent his long life as a serial houseguest of Italian princes and French royal families? Would Michelangelo's accomplishments have been greater if he hadn't been allowed to run a tab for decades at the Vatican? What about Rembrandt? Should he have given up his mansion in Amsterdam--that is, before it was taken away from him--for the sake of his art?

Another chestnut that has lingered far too long is the one that creates a pyramid of merit for art forms. This pyramid has painting at the top, with other kinds of art, such as sculpture, printmaking and drawing, beneath it. Below even these are the various crafts, which until recently were sometimes called--revealingly--the "minor arts." Like the starving-artist lie, this shibboleth still hangs on, though it's hard to understand why. After all, there's nothing inherent in paint on canvas that makes it more interesting to look at than, say, woven cloth.

This point is brought home locally with three exhibits that showcase the visual power of quilts, tapestries and rugs--and which should exorcise the old "art versus craft" bugaboo once and for all.

In Golden, the Foothills Art Center is presenting two excellent fiber exhibits: Contemporary Fine Art Quilting, a selection of quilts from the local Front Range Contemporary Quilters, and the spectacular touring show American Tapestry Biennial I. The Denver Art Museum, meanwhile, is featuring a show that adds a little history to the mix: Daisy! Master Navajo Weaver & Spinner.

Contemporary Fine Art Quilting is an abbreviated version of The Artist and the Quilt '96, which ran last summer at lower downtown's Metro State Center for the Visual Arts. The show is notable for the fact that its artists favor traditional quilting techniques while clearly drawing their inspiration from abstract painting. As a result, their works include not just the geometric compositions one would expect from the applique technique of piecing cloth, but pop-art and expressionist references as well. Standouts among the quilts on view include Janet Robinson's very dense "Urban Jungle-August 1994," a pictorial quilt of a tree covered in food, money, birds and newspaper clippings, and the edgy "Totaled Too," by Diana Bunnell, a four-panel piece fringed with frayed, hanging strings.

The quilt show whets the appetite for the main course at Foothills, the gorgeous American Tapestry, which will come to the end of a two-year, four-state tour on Sunday. The exhibit was sponsored by an amorphous national cooperative known as the American Tapestry Alliance, and the ATA's Colorado representative, Kathy Spoering of Grand Junction, is one of only two Colorado tapestry makers to be included in the juried show.

Spoering is represented by the beautiful "Lust for Life," which pictures a chair in front of an open, flower-filled window. Spoering has written that the piece is a tribute to Vincent Van Gogh, an homage hinted at by the title, the empty chair and the sunflowers. Could "Lust for Life" also be Spoering's metaphorical self-portrait? Just guessing.

The other local artist in the show is Celina Grigore of Denver, whose much larger, exaggeratedly horizontal tapestry, "Rhythms of the Earth," is more about visual effects than biography. As good as any painting, "Rhythms of the Earth" is one of the show's greatest attractions. Seen last year at Denver's Jewish Community Center, the piece features an exquisite olive-drab ground, vaguely geometric vertical bars and abstract organic elements that suggest the sun, rain, leaves and seeds. According to the artist's written statement, the opposing dark and light areas that run horizontally across the tapestry are meant to symbolize "the alternation between day and night, the uninterrupted thread of time."

Abstract forms inspired by nature are also seen in the best work of several other participants in the show, including Jennifer Sargent of Phoenix, Lialia Kuchma of Chicago and Virginia Salisbury of Vista, California. Sargent's "The Commitment" is an impenetrable array of black and white lines from which a shrouded, upside-down figure descends. Kuchma tricks the eye by placing a black linear abstraction atop blobs of purple, pink and orange--a seemingly three-dimensional mirage that's actually part of the pattern. Salisbury uses the same trick in "Essay," employing black gestural lines over a field of blue and pink.

Given that the basic patterns of weaving are rigidly horizontal and vertical owing to the orientation of the weft and warp of the loom, capturing curvy things like humans and animals is a formidable task. Most of the artists who succeed in creating pictures of humans and animals do so through a lyrical expressionism that allows them to leave out many details.

In the large vertical tapestry "Freja," by Port Townsend, Washington's Inge Norgaard, a woman and the dolphins behind her are sketched simply in the threads. Norgaard's palette (all soft blues and golds) and the subject matter (the Norse Venus) reflect her Scandinavian roots. Martha Matthews of Charlotte, North Carolina, takes a similarly simplified approach to the figures in "Keeping Safe," but she injects a bold palette of black, orange and red and a much more emotional subject: a woman and two children walking a tightrope over a sea of flames.

Though Norgaard and Matthews keep their figures almost vaporous in form, some tapestry makers use yarn to create extremely realistic scenes. In "Coal Combustion," Sonni Wendt of Tucson, Arizona, captures a lifelike image of flames that's almost as crisp as a laboratory photo--one of which, in fact, provided the inspiration for this work. One of the most sharply detailed pieces in the show comes from Alexandra Friedman of Hartford, Connecticut, whose "Who Are You?" pictures a small child looking through the sidelight of a front door. This tapestry is a tour de force, possessing an essentially abstract character that only snaps into focus once the child's face is made out.

Some of the most compelling tapestries in the Foothills show are those that recall the magnificent American Indian weavings of the Southwest. These include the ethereal "Four Corners/8," a tapestry by Rebecca Bluestone of Santa Fe. On a field that goes from black at the top to gray at the bottom, Bluestone has placed a series of red, blue and yellow squares according to a mathematical sequence. The weaving is reminiscent of both a Navajo rug and a minimalist painting. It's the same combination that Bluestone's Santa Fe neighbor, Jeremy Koehler, conjures up in "Koshare Window IV," in which red bars frame a rectangle of black and white ones.

As edifying as these contemporary homages to Navajo weaving may be, there's nothing like the real thing. That's what the Denver Art Museum has to offer in Daisy! Master Navajo Weaver & Spinner, a brief retrospective surveying the work of Navajo weaver Daisy Tauglechee, who died in 1990 after a career that stretched from the 1930s to the 1980s.

Tauglechee is considered to be one of the greatest Navajo weavers, all of whom traditionally were women. She is associated with the Two Grey Hills style named for the New Mexico trading post close to where she grew up. The trading post is celebrating its centennial this year, and DAM planned the show to mark the anniversary. The eleven Tauglechee rugs on display have been culled from the museum's impressive permanent collection and from several private collectors.

The Two Grey Hills style is defined by geometric patterns and muted colors. Only natural-colored yarns are used, reflecting the real-life palette of sheep wool--white, gold, brown, tan and black, along with infinite variations of these shades. And Tauglechee's rugs are supreme examples of the style, which is one of the great classical traditions in twentieth-century weaving. Though this is a small exhibit, it's well worth seeing.

These three fiber-art shows have more than one thread in common. The most obvious similarity is that they are populated almost entirely by women. So could sexism be behind the idea that art is superior to craft? Could this be one reason the art mainstream has long relegated the crafts to a position subservient to that of painting, which until the last twenty years was almost exclusively the realm of men?

We'll never know. But in the meantime, we all could stand to add a little fiber to our diets.

Contemporary Fine Art Quilting and American Tapestry Biennial I, through April 13 at the Foothills Art Center, 809 15th Street, Golden, 279-3922.

Daisy! Master Navajo Weaver & Spinner, through November 30 at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 640-2793.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia