Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Art Tapestry 2


Art Tapestry 2: European Tapestry Forum

Nordjyllands Kunstmuseum, Aalborg, Denmark (November 7, 2008-January 11, 2009)
West Norway Museum of Decorative Art, Bergen, Norway (February 7, 2009-April 13, 2009)
Musée Jean Luçrat et de la Tapisserie, Angers, France (December 15, 2009-May 15, 2010)
Konsthallen Art Museum, Luleå, Sweden (August 28, 2010-September 26, 2010)

Textile exhibitions can be notoriously difficult to display, but tapestry might be the one technique that gets off lightly in this regard. Originally intended to occupy large walls, muffle noise and block out draughts, tapestry just looks comfortable on the wall. This fact provides a place for tapestry, but is also a bit of a trap for contemporary practice. What does tapestry do when it gets bored with the wall?

Few of the thirty-three artists in this juried exhibition felt it necessary to take their work away from the comforts of the wall. Norwegian Anne Stabell’s Watercourse contrasts areas of unwoven warp with densely packed areas. In Bergen, the work was cleverly displayed in the middle of the room so that its reflection was visible in the mirrored gallery wall nearby. Nearby The Shape of Time by Hungarian Ibolya Hegyi is made of a beautiful piece of cloth, but its twisted configuration protruding from the wall was far from magical. The limited exploration of format here suggests that for many contemporary tapestry artists, the wall continues to provide the most comfortable mode of expression.

Instead of interrogating the format of tapestry, scale defines this exhibition. This is apparent both in terms of the size of individual works and ability of the group show to occupy a vast gallery space so confidently. The opportunity to see such a range of work constructed of such ambitious proportions suggests that, when working with tapestry, size does matter. Size provides impact. And it confirms the considerable commitment of time on the maker’s part. While time and labour do not alone make engaging work, it is unusual for textiles to be successful without them. The West Norway Museum of Decorative Art in Bergen, where I was able to see the exhibition, provided the room to view many of the sizable works from a distance, which was crucial.

Scale here ranges from the impact of metres of hand-constructed material to details evoked by a single thread. Norwegian Brita Been’s Reconstruction, uses big simple threads to great effect and, in Bergen, enjoyed the benefit of display on a grey wall that brought out the vibrant purples in the huge work. In contrast, Resonance, by the Norwegian Ann Naustdal, bravely uses a red field of flat colour sliced with a line of decorative detail at eye level. I’m not suggesting big is always better. Czech artist Renata Roszívalová’s Heaven, for instance, lost visual interest over such a large surface. But on the whole big, when made skilfully by hand, is inspiring.

In amongst an exhibition dominated by bold statements, Finnish artist Aino Kajaniemi’s Decoration series of five smaller tapestries provided a refreshing shift in approach. Incorporating unusual materials such as hair on the heads of the figures in her portraits, Kajaniemi’s whimsical works are strangely confident in their rejection of clean edges and a tight flatly woven surface. Similarly, German artist Irina Kolesnikova’s Identification does not conform to the expected solidity of tapestry. In passages, the construction is miniscule, using what looks to be sewing thread to weave areas of dense colour set against softer colours that bleed as though left in the rain.

It is hard not to compare some of the works in this exhibition to paintings. This is not to suggest that tapestry’s purpose is to reproduce fine art, but because when tapestry is used to reproduce painted marks the effects can be stunning. Danish artist Kari Guddal’s Darkness Walking uses a Rothko-like palette, while Belgian artist Carmen Groza captures the energy of mammoth brush strokes in Memoire de cendre. One of the highlights of this show is Danish artist Ane Henriksen’s huge work Trembling. Measuring 242 by 322 centimetres the visible woven grid evokes the contemplative minimalist work of Agnes Martin, so near to perfection that each imperfection creates an absorbing beauty.

The exhibition catalogue is a poor substitute for seeing the real thing. Textiles are difficult to photograph and much goes unrecorded in the catalogue images, including the absence of materials mentioned in the captions. The extensive touring calendar will hopefully allow for as many European viewers as possible to experience these works first hand. With artists from fifteen European countries represented, this exhibition confirms what many of us already knew: there are living tapestry artists in Europe after all [see Jilly Edwards letter to the editor Crafts, March/April 2009].  Rare tapestry may be, but it is not extinct.

Crafts Magazine (July/August 2009: 70-71)