Magnolia Tapestry Project

Fort Collins is somewhat off my beaten path. Like Colorado Springs, it's more than an hour away, but Fort Collins doesn't have a major art-exhibition venue comparable to the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.

Last week, however, I made my way up there to be a juror for the 2008 Rocky Mountain Biennial, sponsored by the Fort Collins Museum of Contemporary Art, where I chose about eighty works out of the nearly 600 submitted. I was surprised that there were so few Denver artists whose work I recognized. As it is for me, I suppose art in Fort Collins is out of sight and out of mind for them. All in all, I'd say it's a different art world up there.

After viewing works projected via PowerPoint for several hours and making my picks along the way, I checked out the exhibits on view. I had heard about the Magnolia Tapestry Project, installed in the large main-floor gallery, and had even seen a couple of textiles from the group at Robischon Gallery last year, but I had no idea it would be filled with breathtaking work by several internationally famous contemporary artists.


Magnolia Tapestry Project

Through August 8, Fort Collins Museum of Contemporary Art, 201 South College Avenue, Fort Collins, 1-970-482-2787, www.fcmoca.org.Through July 12, Sandy Carson Gallery, 760 Santa Fe Drive, 303-573-8585, www.sandycarsongallery.com.For a complete slide show of these exhibits, go to slideshow.westword.com.

The tapestries were created by Magnolia Editions (www.magnoliaeditions.com) of Oakland, California, which is mostly a fine-print maker. It all began in 1999, when artist John Nava received a commission to decorate the interior walls of the then-under-construction Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, by José Rafael Moneo. Nava originally proposed cutting bas-relief sculptures into the walls, but engineers determined that the idea would be an acoustical nightmare.

So Nava, with no previous experience in textiles, suggested tapestries instead, and his idea was avidly accepted by the archdiocese. Nava went to Donald Farnsworth, co-director of Magnolia Editions, who likewise had no weaving experience but was an expert at digitizing images for printmaking and therefore had an advanced knowledge of color theory and practice. He also innately understood that combinations of different colors could be read by the human eye as a single hue.

Nava and Farnsworth traveled extensively, looking at production weaving in this country as well as in Europe and Asia. They soon decided to go with a mill in Belgium that used elaborate electronic looms capable of making the subtle color shifts required in translating paintings into tapestries. Belgium was the perfect choice from a historical standpoint, because it was there, in 1801, that Joseph-Marie Jacquard developed the first mechanical loom, a contraption that controlled the movement of the different-colored threads using little wire hooks guided by paper cards punched in a binary pattern. This was a major breakthrough in the early Industrial Revolution, and the idea of using cards to direct machinery would be essential to the later inventions of the player piano, the adding machine and the computer. In this way, then, Nava and Farnsworth were bringing their creative endeavor full circle by using computerized Jacquard looms to make their tapestries.

The show is made up of fourteen of the Magnolia tapestries, and every one is choice. As you enter the gallery, you can't miss the monumental Chuck Close, titled "Self-Portrait," even though it's hung all the way on the other side of the room. In this piece, Close's familiar mug appears to be in an oversized black-and-white photograph, but, of course, it's actually woven wool threads. Using an unbelievable array of grays, plus black and white, Close's highly detailed face stands out against the dark, indefinite background. It's incredible.

No less amazing are two tapestries by Deborah Oropallo, "George" and "Gladiatrix." Oropallo's work, like Close's, is photo-based. Her signature style is to combine found images from the history of heroic portrait painting and overlay the principal figures in them with shots from lingerie catalogues. Oropallo looks for erotic models who strike similar poses to those of the heroes, so that the two figures line up and meld into one. There's a post-feminist theme to the pairing of the patriarchal symbols with cheesecake shots, and stylistically there's a debt to pop art, but the way Oropallo brings it all together is completely her own sensibility.

Perhaps even more amazing than translating photo-based works into tapestries is creating them based on paintings — in particular, color-field and abstract paintings. And Magnolia excels equally in this category, as demonstrated by the incredible pieces by Lewis deSoto and Leon Golub.

"Security," by deSoto, has a purple-ish field surrounded by a pink frame on a burgundy ground. The Golub, "Reclining Youth," is breathtaking and the size of a mural. Golub is known for his scabrous painted surfaces created by scuffing and removing layers of paint from the canvas, so the shift to the relatively flat and even wool is a radical one. But the computer technology's ability to record all the small shifts in tone of the rose-colored background leads to a credible fiber version of one of his oil paintings.

I know it's hardly a hop, skip and a jump to Fort Collins, but this knockout exhibit is worth the effort.

Another reason I don't get up to Fort Collins much is the plethora of exhibits right here in our own back yard — for example, Patsy Krebs at Sandy Carson Gallery.

Krebs is a nationally known painter who lives in the San Francisco Bay area. She received an MFA in 1976 from the prestigious Claremont Graduate School and is a past recipient of grants from the Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation and the Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Her work has been collected by a number of museums, mostly in California, notably the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

The show at Sandy Carson is something of a retrospective featuring works done between the 1980s and 2000, but there is one recent painting as well. Despite the many older works — especially from the early '90s — the show wasn't installed chronologically, so it's hard to discern the artist's stylistic development. It's also difficult because Krebs has been so consistent over her career. All of the pieces here are chastely conceived and simply executed, and it's hard to distinguish between her earliest paintings — those from the early-'80s "Scroll" series — and the newest, from this year's "Hibernation" series.

Although Krebs uses straight edges and flat surfaces like the doctrinaire minimalists, you could call her a post-minimalist, because her compositions are fairly complicated. She also creates diminutive, easel-sized paintings along with large-scale works, which is distinct from the classic minimalist approach as well.

Many of Krebs's paintings would be difficult to reproduce, as she sometimes uses colors that barely differ from one another or have the same depth of shading or identical values. Others, though, include clear distinctions between the different shades, as in "Untitled (Interlocking series)," in which she uses the tried-and-true combination of black, white and gray. There's something precious about this painting — and I don't use the word as a pejorative, but rather as a compliment and an acknowledgement that this piece literally glows under the gallery lights like some precious gem.

Krebs is not as well known here as she is on the West Coast, but take my word for it, her solo at Sandy Carson is an absolute must-see for anyone into contemporary painting. Not only that, but Santa Fe Drive is a lot closer to home than Fort Collins.

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