FULL DISCLOSURE: I don't particularly like flowers or shiny metallic thread.
Which makes my recent visit to the Textile Museum to check out two exhibitions -- the new "Floral Perspectives in Carpet Design" (whose title pretty much says it all) and the about-to-close "By Hand in the Electronic Age: Contemporary Tapestry" (a show with more than its share of fiber bling-bling) -- potentially problematic.
See, I've been conditioned by exposure to contemporary art to mistrust the decorative. Floral art -- unless it's a stand-in for sex or death, as it so often is -- is not my cup of tea. And glints of gold thread woven through textiles remind me, I'm sorry to say, of Liberace.
So I was heartened, not to mention somewhat surprised, by the fact that in addition to flowers and lame, there's something to chew on in both shows.
Content, unsurprisingly, is in greater supply in "Contemporary Tapestry," a roundup of work by 12 Hungarian artists and two North Americans, the latter of whom use the medium of tapestry weave to explore some pretty interesting ideas.
Jon Eric Riis, an American artist who uses as much metallic thread here as anyone, contributes some of the more conceptual pieces to the show. His glittering gold jackets, for instance, depicting stylized naked male and female torsos on the outside and opening to reveal woven pictures of intestines on the inside, comment succinctly on cultural notions of concealing and revealing, physical adornment and inner beauty.
Canadian Marcel Marois brings a painterly aesthetic to his "Rain" series of small tapestries, Rothko-like abstractions with an environmentalist subtext underscored by his use of rich color fields and textural echoes of the natural world. And his "Space -- Combustion," which represents the photographic freezing of an ephemeral moment (fire), creates a nice tension in its contrast between instantaneous destruction and the labor-intensive and time-consuming act of creation.
Of the Hungarians, I particularly liked Eleonora Pasqualetti's "Cloister," a sculptural installation of tapestry-wrapped columns that evokes decaying urban architecture, and Ibolya Hegyi's "Aquamarine," a Japanese-screen-like triptych that's one part landscape, one part seascape and one part skyscape.
Katalin Zelenak's "The Pattern of Passing" is equally strong, with its implicit critique of not just figuration, in its computer-pixilated facsimile of a classically painted nude, but of the limitations of tapestry technique itself. Its self-deprecating wit and awareness of what it is -- and is not -- are its strengths.
No such ironies are to be found in "Floral Perspectives," a small and straight-arrow show of the type that appeals to textile connoisseurs.
Still, my tour of "Contemporary Tapestry" had opened my eyes to "Floral Perspectives" in a way I was unprepared for. I was suddenly able to not only appreciate the musical rhythms and traditional symbolism of flower patterns -- lotus blossoms equal purity, peonies equal riches and honor -- but to newly "deconstruct" floral carpets as things of both beauty and, bear with me now, subtle meaning.
It was Riis's gaudy shirts that had got me thinking about the semiotics of ornamentation: Why flowered rugs? Why Hawaiian shirts, for that matter? How deep, in other words, does decoration go?
The merely pretty carries us only so far. When it comes right down to it, that's its failure. But when the use of flowers in beautiful design is able to connect us, in a tiny way, not just with a sense of harmonious proportion, but with something that makes us feels more alive (and hence more in touch with nature) than we are -- as you may discover it does in a visit to the Textile Museum -- that power can turn fragments of centuries-old rugs from China, Egypt, India and Iran from musty old artifacts in a museum into magic carpets.
FLORAL PERSPECTIVES IN CARPET DESIGN -- Through Feb. 6.
BY HAND IN THE ELECTRONIC AGE: CONTEMPORARY TAPESTRY -- Through Sunday.
Both at the Textile Museum, 2320 S St. NW (Metro: Dupont Circle). 202-667-0441. www.textilemuseum.org. Open Monday-Saturday 10 to 5; Sundays 1 to 5. Admission is by suggested donation of $5.