FEW MODERN ARTISTS have exploited the ancient art of tapestry so successfully as Australia's John Coburn. No fewer than 16 of Coburn's richly figured and boldly colored works are currently on view in Washington.
Although Coburn, 66, counts himself as principally a painter, he's one of the leading practitioners of his "sideline" of tapestry. His nine-piece "The Seasons" collection, on temporary exhibition in the lobby of the Australian Embassy, brings Coburn's tapestry total to 80. His "The Seven Days of Creation" is permanently installed in the South Gallery of the Kennedy Center.
Coburn's best known for his splendiferous "Curtain of the Sun," commissioned for the Sydney Opera House. Dominated by his signature sunburst motif, it's 23 by 46 feet and said to be the second largest tapestry in existence.
Scale is critical to Coburn's designs, which seem rather cluttered when seen in small illustrations but at full size (6 by 9 feet to 9 by 8 feet in the case of "The Seasons") create a sense of depth and texture that beggars description.
Unfazed by the tedious and hideously expensive process of tapestry weaving, the personally modest Coburn conceives his groupings as grandly as Picasso, whom he acknowledges as one of his major influences, along with other moderns such as Braque, Calder, Matisse and Miro. Coburn's images are also evocative of the "dreamings" of Australia's aborigines, whose art, mysticism and reverence for nature he absorbed while growing up in Queensland.
Most of Coburn's tapestries are loomed in Aubusson, France, in a process that, except for the use of modern dyes and photographic blowups of guide drawings, is essentially unchanged since medieval times. Working from the artist's painted model, or maquette, the echantilloneur, or colorist, dyes skeins of wool that a weaver painstakingly crafts into patterns while bending over a horizontal loom. A journeyman weaver may produce something over a square yard a month.
The wool is always Australian in Coburn's case, and in any case the yarn is twisted almost as fine as cotton thread, which gives the Aubusson tapestries a painterly precision of detail. The faithfulness of the translation of the shapes and colors from one medium to the other is astounding, which embassy visitors will be able to appreciate after the maquettes are installed in the exhibition on Monday.
Conceived over a span of more than a decade, "The Seasons" set consists of four pairs depicting the natural and spiritual seasons and a single summary centerpiece. "Summer" (1987) and "Paradise Garden" (1986) share the exuberance of Australia's fecundity and hard, clear light. In "Autumn" and "Tree of Life" (both 1987), the flame-colored leaves of the trees are echoed by a menorah, the branched candlestick of Judaism. Christian symbolism links "Winter" and "Death and Transfiguration" (both 1987); oddly, the former is perhaps the most, and the latter the least, successful of the nine works.
"Spring" and "Resurrection" (both 1987) pair most powerfully, partly because the hues contrast so cunningly that glancing from one work to the other and back again results in a kaleidoscope of afterimages overprinted on each other in complimentary colors. "Hozanna," the larger centerpiece, would make a stunning stained-glass altar window, never mind the rectangular shape.
Contemporary though Coburn's imagery may be, the tapestries are done in the flat heraldic style of the Middle Ages, with little shading of colors and no shadow-modeling. Yet the effect is at least three-dimensional and sometimes more, suggesting the variable, ambiguous timelines of relativity theory.
Religious imagery is central to Coburn's work, but it is a nonsectarian iconography that ranges from near-animism to near-mysticism, reflecting Coburn's search for the new religion he says must attend the new culture evolving along with modern technology.
The exhibition is sponsored by the Christensen Fund, founded by American austrophile Allen D. Christensen to encourage, collect and promote the art and artists of the Far Country. It'll stand you on your head.
JOHN COBURN: "The Seasons" Tapestries -- Through Oct. 4 at the Australian Embassy, 1601 Massachusetts Ave. NW. 202/797-3000. Open 9 to 4:30 Monday through Friday. Good wheelchair access.