Detail from the tapestry Pozo Azul (2013) by Olga de Amaral
Textiles are a specific medium in the arts. Its revival in the 20th century was driven by the major artists of the time who enthusiastically explored the medium’s versatile qualities.
What was going on in the textile art between the 1920s and the 1960s relates to pushing the boundaries of carpets and tapestries in visual and functional terms. The visual language reflected the styles of the time while in functional terms carpets were seen as murals or “paintings in wool” and were therefore freed from domestic floors and exhibited on the walls side by side the oil paintings.
The New Tapestry Movement during the 1960s saw textiles as tools of socio-political expression but the messages interwoven in tapestries still take no precedence over aesthetics. In large tapestries of Olga de Amaral, a renowned Colombian textile artist, the fiber is used to express socio-cultural dichotomies of her native Colombia.
Amaral is one of the textile artists who first turned textiles from a primarily two-dimensional representational form into three-dimensional sculptural works that integrate craft, language of Abstract Art and reflections on the history and culture of Latin America. Her technique incorporates fiber, paint, gesso and precious metals (gold or silver leaf) turning tapestries “into golden surfaces of light."
In the eighties, textile art becomes more conceptual as it was influenced by postmodernist ideas. The famous German artist Rosemarie Trockel took textiles as a means of addressing issues of sexuality and feminism and questioning socio-political systems and established aesthetic notions. Wool has been considered one of Trockel’s signature materials. Her "knitting paintings” are composed of lengths of machine-knitted, woolen material stretched onto frames. The material is patterned with geometrical motifs or with recognizable logos, such as the communist symbol of the hammer and sickle or the Playboy rabbit head.
During this period, the carpets have found a place in the works of many installation artists, most notably in the works of the American artist Michael Mike Kelley. His work involved found objects, assemblage, collage, textile art, performance and video. In the 1980s Kelley became known for working with crocheted blankets, fabric dolls and other rag toys found at thrift stores and yard sales. This body of work included Kelley’s most famous piece “More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid and The Wages of Sin”, a big messy wall hanging from 1987.
The medium was at this point finally integrated in general fine art practice. Beginning with the new millennium, carpets and tapestries have grown even more in popularity. Contemporary artists like Caroline Achaintre, the Franco-British duo Daniel Dewar and Grégory Gicquel, or young Franco-Swiss artist Vidya Gastaldon, to name just a few, intertwine conceptual and material worlds, figurative and abstract language, and traditional and innovative techniques to create one of a kind textile sculptures/objects.
Caroline Achaintre considers her work as part of a tradition of tapestry. She translates diverse influences ranging from the early 20th century Primitivism, German Expressionism to the post-war British sculpture into woven illusions that represent multilayered multi-personalities. Her “Moustache Eagle” object from 2008 is both a man and a bird, abstract and yet figurative, suggesting that everything holds more than one truth.
The artistic pair Dewar and Gicquel was particularly drawn to the medium because of its physical qualities. For them, working with wool “was a means of exploring soft and furry imagery.”
In Vidya Gastaldon’s hands, minimalism accesses sensory and mystical properties. For him, knitted objects have a fetishistic quality.
These are just some of the contemporary artists who work with textiles and merit further thought. Some of them are dealing with visual and textural aspects of the craft; others use threads and fibers to convey philosophical ideas and socio-political statements. Together they embody today’s Neo-Craft Movement, a phenomenon that continues to shape the future of textile art.