The contemporary eye often has a hard time absorbing the slow process and deliberate quality of textiles. Attuned to mass production, we now turn to specialized craftsmen for artisanal and handmade products instead of learning from tradition. We have lost the ubiquitousness of legacy, of skills passed through generations.
Two exhibitions currently at the Textile Museum offer a glimpse of traditions that persist, from the works of a 500-year-old silk workshop in Japan to the creations of a group of contemporary artists looking to the museum’s backrooms to build a new heritage.
Consider “Woven Treasures of Japan’s Tawaraya Workshop,” curated by Lee Talbot. It’s an exercise in adjusting that eye so acclimated to machine-made goods. It’s easy, walking into this exhibition, to interpret the bolts of fabric as commercially produced. The fine details and elaborate patterning seem too precise and consistent to be otherwise. Yet each of the 37 works was woven in the Tawaraya Workshop in Kyoto, which has been producing silk for more than 500 years at the hands of 18 generations of the same family.
The workshop’s claim to fame is its connection to the Japanese Imperial Household, for whom it makes yusoku orimono — the silks used in coronations, weddings and other aristocratic ceremonies. Although the imperial family rarely exhibits its garments, the workshop always creates extra bolts of the fabrics, which now fill its archives.
In the exhibition, there are a few of the many fabrics worn by Crown Princess Masako for her 1993 wedding to the heir apparent, Crown Prince Naruhito, including one with medallions of orange phoenixes floating on a sunny yellow background of abstracted pine branches. Fabrics for the prince are more minimal, such as a bright-orange bolt made for his winter robe. Dyed with gardenia fruit, the textile is decorated with nesting mandarin ducks, a design used for princes since the 12th century. (The term for mandarin duck, oshidori, also means “take authority” in Japanese.)
In addition to weaving fabrics for the imperial family, the workshop makes costumes for Noh theater and votive offerings for the Ise Grand Shrine. It also restores ancient textiles, for which the workshop’s current head, Hyoji Kitagawa, and his father, Heiro, were named National Treasures by the Japanese government. Heiro Kitagawa received his title for reviving a thin gauze, ra, which fell out of production after the eighth century. The undulating fabric created by interlacing vertical threads by hand is such laborious work that a skilled weaver could only produce four inches per day, spending years making one bolt.
To the untrained eye, many of these details can be overlooked; it requires a patient viewer to discover the unrivaled possibilities of a centuries-long tradition.
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After the precision of the Tawaraya Workshop, “Sourcing the Museum” feels fresh and raw, if a bit uneven. For the show, 11 textile artists were invited by Jack Lenor Larsen — arguably one of the most important American designers of the 20th century — to pilfer the storage rooms of the museum for inspiration, digging up carpets, textile fragments and costumes as springboards for new works.
Jon Eric Riis embraces the partisan nature of Washington politics, taking inspiration from a 13th-century Peruvian tunic to create his “Congressional Constraint Tapestry,” a sort of political straitjacket decked with donkeys and elephants in garish red and blue, surrounded by boxing glove fringes. Though the imagery is comical, the execution is refined, woven with silk, metallic thread, horsehair and crystal beads for luminous effect.
Other artists exploit the formal details, such as Helena Hernmarck, who depicts a corner of a ninth-century Egyptian fragment in an almost painterly landscape of loose, interlacing weaves. Polly Barton captures the iridescent colors found in a 16th-century Egyptian rug with her ultra-thin silk panels, while Lia Cook stacks enlarged cartoonish figures appropriated from Syrian and Egyptian narratives from around the sixth and seventh centuries.
As a result of these pairings, however, the contemporary works feel vibrant and relevant, while their counterparts seem simply dusted off and rolled out for the occasion. The items from the collection often lose their historic fervor in this context.
Of course, this might be necessary for the sake of contemporary art. Such is the case in Archie Brennan’s conceptual jab, as he illustrates three items chosen at random from the collection — an oriental rug, a Bhutanese dress and Mexican fiesta pants — redesigned to overlap in a “pseudo-collage.” Or in Warren Seelig’s funnel; inscribed with red fishing lines, it reaches up into an atrium space and was inspired by fragile and lacy 19th-century Philippine pina cloth made with knotted and woven pineapple plant fibers.
Such connections are loose, and maybe fleeting in the grand scheme of a textile tradition. But the strength of “Sourcing the Museum” lies in its premise, as it challenges contemporary practitioners to consider a history of traditions, and maybe even embrace lost legacies.
O’Steen is a freelance writer.