Spun weaves together several standout textile exhibits at the DAM

When former director Lewis Sharp piloted the effort to expand the Denver Art Museum, the goal was to mount more temporary exhibits. This led to the construction of the daring Daniel Libeskind-designed Hamilton Building, which joined the landmark Gio Ponti tower in 2006. Two years later, Christoph Heinrich was hired as curator of Modern and Contemporary Art; he rose quickly through the ranks to become deputy director and, in 2010, the museum's director. But he had already begun to make his mark.

In the summer before he became director, Heinrich orchestrated an installation show, filling the seemingly hard-to-fill spaces of the jagged Hamilton. This multi-part exhibit, Embrace, was the first of what would become a series of extravaganzas mounted during alternating summers. Marvelous Mud, staged in 2011, involved several departments in addition to Modern and Contemporary and resulted in no fewer than eight exhibits at the DAM, all sharing the topic of ceramics.

This summer, Heinrich has encouraged every curatorial department to present an exhibit related to the theme of fabrics, with around a dozen shows joined together under the umbrella title of Spun: Adventures in Textiles.

With so many things going on at once, however, it's impossible to make sense of it all with just a quick once-through, so I've been taking it in a little at a time — and that's what I'd advise you to do. I've already written about the Bruce Price solo, so this week I'll focus on two keystone exhibits.

The anchor for the entirety of Spun is Cover Story, which is being presented in the newly configured textile galleries on the sixth floor of the Ponti. Alice Zrebiec, who has been a consulting curator of textiles at the DAM since 1996, was named the Avenir Foundation Curator of Textile Art last year, with Avenir providing financial support for the endeavor. Zrebiec, who divides her time between Denver and her home in Santa Fe, began to oversee the transformation of a storage area into an exhibition space that's many times larger than her former gallery, and to conceive of this exhibit. "The things I asked for were great lighting, great ceiling, great floors, great walls — because the rest you can all make happen," she says.

It came together "seamlessly," she adds, noting how common unintentional puns were in describing the components of Spun. "Textile puns keep coming up, but that's part of the concept of Cover Story — all the ways that textiles envelop our lives." Cover Story also allowed her to look at all of the collections in the Textile Art area as a whole, including Asian, Pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial, along with American and European textiles. (But not Native American textiles; more on that in a minute.)

Zrebiec has divided Cover Story into ten sections, including one on bed covers, one on shawls and one on hats. A genuine connoisseur, she has chosen some of the most beautiful things in the collection to lay out her ideas, often placing familiar items like the Amish "Sunshine and Shadow" quilt by Annie J. Peight not far from unfamiliar ones, like the "Yogi," a nineteenth-century Japanese bedspread that looks like a kimono.

Every piece is a gem, but a few standouts need to be mentioned. There's the gorgeous 1870s French shawl in an array of vivid reds, and, next to it, a 1920s shawl by Raymond Duncan, an American in Paris. Not to be missed are the traditional Japanese fireman's coat and hood, which look like an ensemble used for Madama Butterfly rather than the functional articles they really were. Among the truly eye-dazzling works are the Manchu court robe from China and the Roman Catholic vestments by Gaspard Poncet French. Though they are as different, from a design standpoint, as night from day, both were made in the nineteenth century using silk and metallic threads.

Although the pieces I've cited are just the tip of the iceberg in Cover Story, I'm going to turn my attention to another show that is conceptually related but much more focused. As I noted, the textiles in the Native Arts department aren't included in the Textile Art area, but are instead overseen by curator Nancy Blomberg, who's a world-renowned expert in American Indian weavings. Her entry into Spun is Red, White and Bold: Masterworks of Navajo Design, 1840-1870, which looks at Navajo blankets. Blomberg's narrow focus is the exact opposite of Zrebiec's universal approach.

As you enter the Martin and McCormick gallery, on the second level of the Hamilton, the included pieces — not to mention the stunning exhibition design by Tom Fricker — will take your breath away. Inside the entrance of the soaring space, Navajo blankets are hung several courses high, with one hanging above another. The effect, Blomberg points out, is something like a cross between a canyon and a cathedral, which was the designer's intention.

Blomberg explains that the Pueblo people of New Mexico had been weaving cotton for a long time before the Navajo picked it up from them. But when the Spanish brought sheep, which weren't indigenous, to the continent, the Navajo began to weave with their wool. Originally, only women wove, but that has since changed. Red, White and Bold looks at Navajo blankets and other wearable articles, and makes the distinction that they are very different from rugs, even if they are sometimes seen as being essentially the same thing by viewers. The key distinction is that these blankets were to be worn, so the designs were often conceived by the weaver as being three-dimensional despite being woven flat.

Using bars and zigzags as their principal motifs, Navajo weavers created visually striking blankets that wound up being widely disseminated among the other tribes, and eventually to European-Americans via trading. As the show's title indicates, the Navajo liked to use vivid red as a chief element of their palette, yet they rarely dyed yarns themselves, Blomberg points out, because that requires water, and they lived in arid country. Instead, they traded for woven red fabrics made in Europe and then unraveled them in order to reuse the threads. The amount of effort this suggests is astounding.

Blomberg has been a pioneer in recasting the art of the Native Americans. Whereas items like these blankets were formerly regarded as anthropological artifacts, she maintains that they are works of art made by technically accomplished and aesthetically gifted artists — and looking at Red, White and Bold, it's impossible to argue the point with her.

Try to see as much of Spun as you can — like Sojourn, the over-the-top Nick Cave blockbuster that opened last weekend — but don't skip over Cover Story or Red, White and Bold.

Cover Story and Red, White and Bold

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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