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June 29 - August 23, 2006 at Sullivan Goss - An American Gallery, Santa Barbara

by Kathy Zimmerer

Squeak Carnwath, "Story of Painting,"
2006, tapestry, 81 x 82".

Chuck Close, "Philip Glass,"
2005, tapestry, 160 x 118".

The inaugural exhibit of this newly expanded gallery focuses on thirty-two tapestries by major contemporary artists such as Squeak Carnwath, Chuck Close, Bruce Conner, Lia Cook, Rupert Garcia, Leon Golub, DJ Hall, Doug Hall, Ed Moses, John Nava, Mel Ramos and William Wiley.  All have turned to an ancient art form to render their latest images.  Created under the aegis of the Magnolia Editions Tapestry project run by artists John Nava and Don Farnsworth, these artists became part of an intricate process whereby their two-dimensional works of art are turned into large-scale woven images.  The initial catalyst for the tapestry project was Nava’s massive commission for the Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels in 1997.  His extensive series of monumental saints was turned from paintings into tapestries because of acoustic concerns in the vast cathedral.  Nava’s extensive research into the famed Flemish tapestry methods, and his collaboration with Farnsworth, who created the complex computer programs needed to recreate the images in fiber, provided the know-how and impetus for this intriguing project.

Lush Gobelins and Beauvais tapestries can be viewed at The Henry E. Huntington Art Gallery in San Marino, and are always an overwhelming experience where image, color and intricate skill converge to form a shimmering wall of fantasy and light.  Picasso also worked with tapestries when he collaborated with the French surrealist painter, Jean Lurcat, who developed a system in the 1930s that simplified the complicated process of weaving, thus launching a revival of the tapestry among modern artists such as Alexander Calder, Fernand Leger, Le Corbusier and Henri Matisse, whose brilliant colors and geometric designs translated well into wool.  

With Nava’s guidance, the tapestries created by these contemporary artists focus on one central image or an overall pattern.  Most striking is Chuck Close’s grisaille portrait of the composer Phillip Glass.  This looming close up of Glass is blown up to a large scale, and his head emerges out of the woven gloom like a modern icon.  

Other key images include Nava’s dramatic portrait of his model, who also takes on a monumental aspect in her spot-lit isolation.  Hall’s sun-kissed portrait of a California girl, “Perfect,” becomes larger than life as hard edges soften and colors become even more luminous in wool.   Carnwath’s idiosyncratic geometrics meander over the surface of her tapestry, the “Story of Painting,” a jewel-like and whimsical abstraction.   Moses’ overall patterns in vivid colors also translate well into the tapestry medium.  They look like a blown-up slide of microscopic images that glisten under the magnifying lens.  Rupert Garcia’s centralized, flowery image is perfectly suited to the tapestry medium, as his drips and splotches glow in brilliant colors that alternately reveal and cover up his organic motif.  Not as effective are the symmetrical pop images, including Hank Pitcher’s “Surfboard,” and Mel Ramos’s “Chiquita” pin-up.  They need the defined edges, brighter colors and flat surfaces of painting to retain their visual impact.

The willingness of Nava, Farnsworth and all the other artists here to translate their works into a new medium is noteworthy, and in the best scenario their work takes on new meaning as their images change scale, their colors become more vibrant, and their surfaces gain new depth.

Bruce Conner, "Double Angel,"
1991/2004, tapestry, 105 x 115".

DJ Hall, "Perfect," 2006,
tapestry, 105 x 78".

Hank Pitcher, "Surfboard,"
2006, tapestry.