Loom­ing large


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The art of me­dieval tex­tiles gets a con­tem­po­rary update in the work of Kiki Smith, whose large-scale Jac­quard ta­pes­tries are on ex­hibit in Wo­ven Tales, open­ing Fri­day, May 13, at Peters Projects. Smith, an artist with an in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion, draws from his­toric sources such as the Apoca­lypse Ta­pes­try at the Château d’Angers in France, to cre­ate a set of 11 ta­pes­tries that com­bines fig­u­ra­tive and ab­stract im­agery into nar­ra­tive com­po­si­tions. On the cover is a de­tail of Smith’s Guide, a piece from 2012; all Kiki Smith images courtesy Peters Projects.

ew York-based Kiki Smith saw the Apoca­lypse Ta­pes­try ,a set of late-14th-cen­tury French ta­pes­tries de­pict­ing scenes from the Book of Rev­e­la­tion, as a young adult on a for­ma­tive visit to Angers. Me­dieval ta­pes­tries like the Apoca­lypse Ta­pes­try are hung un­framed but con­tain borders, de­lin­eat­ing com­po­si­tions that con­flate mo­ments from myth or his­tory into a sin­gle, co­he­sive scene. The nar­ra­tive and al­le­gor­i­cal im­agery of these his­toric tex­tiles in­spired a set of con­tem­po­rary ta­pes­tries by Smith, an artist with an in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion, par­tic­u­larly renowned for her sculp­ture. Her ex­hibit Wo­ven Tales opens at Peters Projects on Fri­day, May 13. She took an ap­proach sim­i­lar to artists of the past in her own work, fill­ing it with em­blem­atic im­agery and ref­er­enc­ing the com­po­si­tional com­po­nents of his­toric weav­ings. “A lot of ta­pes­tries have these dec­o­ra­tive and ar­chi­tec­tural borders,” Smith told Pasatiempo. “If you look at a large-scale ta­pes­try, it’s not just a pic­ture. There is, quite of­ten, this dec­o­ra­tive space. It’s rare that you don’t see it. It works as a fram­ing de­vice. I try to keep some of the al­le­gor­i­cal el­e­ments, nar­ra­tive el­e­ments, and dec­o­ra­tive el­e­ments.”

The 11 large-scale ta­pes­tries in Wo­ven Tales were pro­duced in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Mag­no­lia Edi­tions, a fine art stu­dio lo­cated in Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia, that spe­cial­izes in ad­vanced dig­i­tal print­ing tech­niques and Jac­quard weav­ings. Wo­ven Tales is the largest show­ing of Smith’s ta­pes­tries to date. “I have shown several to­gether be­fore, but I keep adding new ones,” she said. Smith’s show runs con­cur­rently with an­other ex­hibit open­ing at Peters Projects, Mag­no­lia

Edi­tions: In­no­va­tion & Col­lab­o­ra­tion, a se­lec­tion of works by artists who have worked with the print­ing stu­dio, in­clud­ing En­rique Chagoya, Bruce Con­ner, Mag­no­lia co-di­rec­tors Don­ald and Era Farnsworth, and Deb­o­rah Oropallo. The Jac­quard loom, de­vel­oped in the early 19th cen­tury by Joseph Marie Jac­quard, is a ma­chine that reads per­fo­rated cards that cor­re­spond to warp threads. The punch-card tech­nique in­flu­enced the de­vel­op­ment of com­puter tech­nol­ogy in the 20th cen­tury, and Jac­quard looms today are dig­i­tized. Mag­no­lia sends com­pleted con­tem­po­rary de­signs to a small, fam­ily-owned mill in Bel­gium, where they’re wo­ven on a Jac­quard loom, match­ing color for color, de­tail for de­tail, the orig­i­nal de­sign. “The whole thing about a Jac­quard loom is that you can make thou­sands of copies if you wanted,” Smith said. “The card pro­gram tells the loom when to move. There’s a lot of per­sonal in­ter­ven­tion be­fore, dur­ing, and af­ter, and a lot of de­ci­sion-mak­ing, but it’s still a ma­chine do­ing the weav­ing.”

Smith’s ta­pes­tries can be read as nar­ra­tive pieces, but their im­agery sug­gests open-ended mean­ings with vari­able in­ter­pre­ta­tions, not un­like the il­lus­tra­tions on a set of tarot cards. In Earth, a fig­ure rem­i­nis­cent of Eve in the Gar­den of Eden is framed on one side by an an­gu­lar, leafy branch, and on the other, by a ser­pent. All of Smith’s ta­pes­tries are di­vided into hor­i­zon­tal, banded sec­tions, with the top sec­tion sug­gest­ing the fir­ma­ment, the mid­dle sug­gest­ing ter­res­trial space, and the bot­tom sec­tion sug­gest­ing the un­der­world. The tri­par­tite com­po­si­tions echo the ear­li­est works in the se­ries, which are ti­tled Earth, Sky, and Un­der­ground. “I pre­tend they’re some­thing like

RKO movie mar­quees or posters. In my fan­tasy life, they’re some­thing between 1920s and ’30s glam­our, spec­ta­cle, and pageantry, and the Mid­dle Ages, and the hip­pie move­ment.”

A mo­tif of an­i­mal im­agery runs through­out the se­ries. The an­i­mals’ pres­ence is some­times sub­tle, as with the but­ter­flies in Sky or the rab­bit in Un­der­ground. But of­ten, an an­i­mal form is the cen­tral fig­ure, such as the wolf in Cathe­dral, the eagles in Guide, and the deer in For­tune. “The an­i­mals are mostly an­i­mals from where I live,” Smith said.

His­tor­i­cally, ta­pes­tries ful­filled a util­i­tar­ian as well as dec­o­ra­tive func­tion. “They are pri­mar­ily about warmth, liv­ing in stone build­ings against cold walls,” Smith said. “They were like a con­ceit. Peo­ple gave them as presents.” Her own ta­pes­tries re­tain a size be­fit­ting the state­li­ness of their fore­bears: tex­tiles that hung on cas­tle walls or large es­tates, or that or­na­mented the high-ceilinged in­te­ri­ors of churches and cathe­drals. Mag­no­lia’s ta­pes­try pro­duc­tion be­gan in 1999, when West Coast artist John Nava was com­mis­sioned to do a se­ries of works for the Cathe­dral of Our Lady of the An­gels in Los An­ge­les. Nava worked with Don­ald Farnsworth to de­velop the ta­pes­tries, af­ter his orig­i­nal plan for sand-blasted re­lief sculp­tures was aban­doned when it was de­ter­mined that the sculp­tures would neg­a­tively im­pact the acous­tics of the space. Ta­pes­tries were an ac­cept­able so­lu­tion, and they had a legacy as nar­ra­tive art.

Since then, Mag­no­lia has worked on ta­pes­tries with artists Hung Liu, Dan McCleary, Lewis deSoto, Squeak Carn­wath, and dozens of oth­ers, in ad­di­tion to Smith. “I met them five or six years ago, maybe even more,” she said. “They worked with Chuck Close. Chuck Close shows at Pace Gallery, and he had made a group of large-scale black-and-white images from da­guerreo­types he had taken of peo­ple.” Smith also shows at Pace Gallery, and was work­ing in black and white at the time Mag­no­lia in­vited her to do a project. She saw it as an op­por­tu­nity to ex­plore color. “You get an enor­mous va­ri­ety of color and in­for­ma­tion in a Jac­quard ta­pes­try even though it’s what we would con­sider a very low dpi. We’re used to see­ing about 300 dpi in print and the ta­pes­tries are at about 25 dpi. There’s a tremen­dous amount of col­ors that can to be re­pro­duced. I’m also very fond of Jac­quard looms be­cause I’m on the East Coast and there was a great his­tory of itin­er­ant weavers here in the 18th and 19th cen­tury. Peo­ple spun their own wool and flax, and itin­er­ant weavers came around and wove it for them. It’s a rich his­tory in New York and Penn­syl­va­nia.”

Smith be­gins each ta­pes­try by mak­ing what is called a car­toon, a full-scale model of the de­sign. “For me, that was very important. When I first started mak­ing them, I wanted ev­ery­thing re­ally one-to-one. They’re all made pri­mar­ily from col­lage. I start by mak­ing a draw­ing and then turn the draw­ing into a photo-litho, then col­lage el­e­ments to­gether. From con­cep­tion, the draw­ing of a car­toon, pho­tograph­ing that, send­ing that, work­ing on that in the com­puter, and re­work­ing it by hand, there’s a lot of trans­la­tion that hap­pens. Even af­ter that, I of­ten change them. Some­times we hand-color them, too. It’s about a year or two of back and forth. The peo­ple at Mag­no­lia put in a lot of time pon­der­ing it all. It is a real col­lab­o­ra­tion. They have a lot of tech­ni­cal ap­ti­tude and tech­ni­cal pas­sion. They’re re­ally push­ing what print­mak­ing and edi­tion-mak­ing is.”

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