Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Jon Eric Riis Tapestries

John_Erci_Riis_catalogue_coverBY JESSICA HEMMINGS

Jon Eric Riis Tapestries at 108 Contemporary

In recent years contemporary textile practice has loosened its firm hold on a number of longstanding values. Materials no longer have to be labored over. Projects invested in spontaneity such as popup shops for mending second hand clothes or the yarn bombing of public spaces with impermanent graffiti exist as ephemeral strategies. Skill, once the touchstone of craft production, is dismissed by some arenas in favor of democratic production values that seek greater recognition for the hobbyist alongside the professional. Online platforms offer all types of makers the opportunity to reach a global audience. Slowness has become trendy and skill unfashionable.

All of this can be seen as a good thing. Egalitarian production values are favorable to elitism. Community engagement, particularly in our current economic climate, is sorely needed. And general admiration for the amount of time it takes to create a textile is nothing to complain about. But trends are odd. Popularity isn’t always as helpful as first glance would suggest. The current best thing tends to give way to the next best thing. Slow won’t stay trendy; community centered will give way to something else. Ideas and objects that coincide with intellectual and creative trends garner a certain amount of attention, but their shelf life (deservedly or not) is short.

Less common, but always more interesting, is the production of individuals who steer paths of their own. These paths are driven by personal fascinations, rather than fashions; chance instead of strategy; the inexplicable rather than the post-rationalized. Paths less travelled, to steal from the poet Robert Frost.

It is fair to concede that tapestry is a road far less travelled these days.[i] Long before tapestry became uncommon within the contemporary textile traditions, the figurative fell decidedly out of favor with the contemporary art establishment. These realities contextualize the work of Jon Eric Riis, who creates tapestries populated by figurative motifs as increasingly rare in a visual landscape driven by trends.

Riis’ engagement with tapestry is a world away from the stuff of fads. Since his education at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Cranbrook Academy of Art in the 1960s, Riis has been a longtime resident of Atlanta Georgia. But the visual references that populate his work are global, rather than local. The cropped kimono shape, for instance, can be traced to his longstanding interest as a collector and, more recently, dealer of antique Chinese textiles; the dense purl embellishment that appears throughout his portfolio is linked to his travel to Russia where his introduction to the visual culture of ecclesiastical and ceremonial art prompted his interest in highly embellished surfaces. (It is interesting to note that the coats encrusted in pearls, such as Night Flight and Frogs and Cavier (2004), Multicolored Skull Coat (2009) and more recently Flying Tiger Coat (2011), ironically start to loose many of the properties we associate with textiles to become stiff rather than pliable under the weight of their embellishment.)

Textiles are an inherently intimate material. Their proximity to our bodies in daily life means that they have long kept our secrets while showing the public another story. Riis plays on this duality through his use of the garment form that often contains an unexpected interior, or what he describes as a “little bit of mystery”[ii]. Organs appear to suggest an interior exposed, as seen in the eight-layered Sacred Heart Coat (2005). Elsewhere the interior conceals symbolic motifs such as found in examples from the eight piece Tiger Coat Series: Banma, Chamdo, Riwoche, Peyul, Mangkang, Dege (2007). The series titles are all place names, while the interior of each coat is woven in a deep red found on monastery walls in Eastern Tibet and the eight tiger motifs are from wall paintings seen in monasteries during his visit to Tibet the previous year.

Tapestry’s original function was to clothe not only the body, but also the home. It is hard to imagine, in the climate of contemporary Atlanta, the drafts and echoes that plagued interiors long before the comforts of central heating (or air conditioning) and fitted carpets. These are functions simply no longer needed in the modern interior. But after insulating warmth and dampening echoes, early tapestries also told us stories. These were visual narratives that did not require literacy, stories that if necessary could be rolled up and transported.

Riis continues this ancient tradition, not by retelling us the wisdom of the past, but by foregrounding uncomfortable concerns of the present. Injustice (Deadly Treat, 2008), politics (Congressional Constraint, 2012), identity (Black to White, 2006) – the stuff of human narratives through time – are all present here. The Locust Tapestry series (2012) epitomizes the powers of visual seduction. How can surfaces so rich and detailed also represent creatures programmed for destruction? These are not the types of stories that comfort and soothe. Instead they are provocations, reminders and what our weavers of the future may look back and see in the traces the culture we are responsible for creating today. This too is not the stuff of trends. It is far too uncomfortable, far too real and, most importantly, far too important.

Professor Jessica Hemmings
National College of Art and Design, Dublin

January 2013

[i] In Britain, the Edinburgh College of Art closed its renowned tapestry department in 2008, citing student’s lack of engagement with anything that could be defined as tapestry and moving instead to a program of study that deals with the production of artwork beyond the conventions of the gallery setting. The Royal College of Art’s postgraduate course in tapestry closed in the mid-1990s.

[ii] Telephone interview with the author and Jon Eric Riis (Dublin-Atlanta) December 12, 2012.