Tapestry: Changing Concepts (a crabby review)

Tapestry: Changing Concepts at the City Art Centre, 2 Market Street,  Edinburgh EH1 1DE, Scotland

13 Nov 2021 – 13 Mar 2022

Artists include: Jo Barker, Archie Brennan (1931-2019), Gordon Brennan, Sara Brennan, Henny Burnett, Amanda Gizzi, Linda Green, Stephen Hunter, Fiona Hutchison, William Jefferies, Tessa Lynch, Fiona Mathison, Jo McDonald, Susan Mowatt, Ann Naustdal, Matteo Rosa, Cristina Sobrino, Joanne Soroka and Lesley Stothers.

I called this a crabby review in the title; perhaps it was the terrible cold I’ve developed, or the fact we are in a city gripped by new-variant covid fear, or my fear that something will happen to prevent us from returning home to Minnesota (although we did just get our pre-return-flight negative covid tests). I was so happy to see this show, but I felt it could have been better.

The show is hung on two floors of the City Art Centre, which gave more than ample space for each work to be highlighted. On the other hand, for most pieces it was not an intimate viewing experience.

I absolutely hated the wall color, something I would call “dead white sheetrock.” It lent no spark to any of the tapestries. Sarah Brennan’s Tree Line 1 has an expansive background of cream-colored yarn. The color behind it did not pull the viewer into its texture and liveliness; I needed to work to understand its beauty.

What a joy to see tapestries by Jo Barker in person! But even the magnificent colors of her work struggled against the background color, in my opinion.

Fiona Mathisen’s Hold on Tight was so absorbing, a tiny orb in the center of the wall, which turns out to be a tightly-wound ball of thread gripped by tiny tapestry hands.

I’m glad I could visit the show twice to see the charming tapestries of Amanda Gizzi. (Sorry for the glare from the glass in my photos.) Do you see how the selvedge line by the bird head is not completely straight? It seemed to make the image even better. And aren’t her woven fish wonderful?

Fiona Hutchson’s blues and her beautiful technique! Here is her tapestry Shifting Tide, along with some delectable details.

I loved a very long skinny piece woven collaboratively by Douglas Grierson, Fiona Mathison, and Susan Mowatt. Here is the wall label describing their weaving performance, which included a projected image of their hands as they wove.

I found the theme of the show, Tapestry: Changing Concepts, confusing. All of the artists were educated in the tapestry program at the Edinburgh College of Art. Many graduates of the highly regarded art program have found artistic success in media away from textiles. Why were the pieces that are not tapestries in the traditional definition included? Was the artist influenced by solid tapestry training? There are no clues in the signage or catalog. For example, Tessa Lynch’s Handhelds are crisp, precise and interesting. But how do they relate to tapestry?

I found one clue in an article from The Skinny, “Fresh Fruit of the Loom: Tapestry Makers Talk,” by Adam Benmakhlouf.

Or take Tessa Lynch’s Handhelds, smaller scale aluminium sculptures, “based on buildings in plan that I moved through on my commute, then I made them into perforated net type shapes.” Lynch mentions as one potential parallel to the tapestry process, the “very methodical [and] mathematical way of making them.

I also really enjoyed seeing Gordon Brennan’s shiny enameled plywood abstract pieces. But would any changing concept of tapestry include them? There is no signage with an explanation.

Here are some links to tapestry for the Brennan piece from the Benmakhlouf article noted above.

Gordon Brennan’s works on show are the latest in his materially experimental practice which extends several decades back to his seven-year apprenticeship in Dovecot Studios. When he went to study in ECA, he applied principles of tapestry to casting and sculpture, namely that the work doesn’t need a “backdrop” and instead – as Joanne Soroka already mentions above – “the form, the surface and the colour is all cast into one thing.” In his exhibited work, he shows some of his experiments with works that have a base and skin, but also perforations that allow the wall to be seen behind. He suggests in a way this makes for a shared characteristic with tapestry, “which is draped, it’s not flat,” namely that “you’re aware of the wall behind.”

I don’t find the analogies compelling. “The form, the surface and the color is all cast into one thing”–doesn’t that cover almost all of pottery and glassmaking? And the fact that it appears draped, not flat–doesn’t that cover a great percentage of sculpture?

In the past few years, there have been recurring attempts to create a clear definition for tapestry, and to educate the public about what is NOT a tapestry. Joanne Soroka, whose beautiful tapestries are in this show, wrote a blog post about the topic, “Is it a tapestry. No.” American Tapestry Alliance members worked hard to create a definition: What is tapestry? A beautiful embroidery is not a tapestry. This polyester thing for sale on eBay is not a tapestry.

This exhibition theme seems to move in the other direction, as if we’ve been too narrow in our concepts of tapestry. We need to change our concepts?

In the introduction Curator Lesley Millar notes the excellent training of students from the Tapestry Department at the Edinburgh College of Art: “Such training gave the students confidence to fly wherever their ideas took them, sometimes into different areas of practice. Using what has since been categorized as ‘textile thinking’, alumni have produced mixed media installations, performance art, video, etc., alongside challenging and beautiful tapestries.” I wish we could have learned more about just how their ‘textile thinking’ influenced the non-tapestry works in the show. By calling the exhibition Tapestry: Changing Concepts, viewers might think that the items on view should all be considered tapestries.

Overall, the show suffers from a lack of explanation, on the walls of the exhibit and in the catalog. But you should go! It’s so worthwhile.

2 comments

  1. I see what you mean about the wall color. The first two tapestries in particular would benefit. It’s like putting a beautiful painting under fluorescent lights!

  2. Again, thanks for taking us along to see this exhibit. I don’t think you’re crabby as much as thoughtful and skeptical. I’m a fan of enlarging the field of what we call tapestry, but pieces made entirely of wood or metal seem like a stretch, even if they do involve “textile thinking.” The debate continues—thanks for advancing the conversation.

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