Sunday, May 19, 2013

Spun: Adventures in Textiles

I received an invitation for the media preview of “Spun: Adventures in Textiles”, the new multi-exhibition at the Denver Art Museum (affectionately known as DAM).  It sounded promising. The Museum’s extensive textile collection has inspired a dozen small exhibitions under the one title heading. The most intriguing titles were “Cover Story”, “Western Duds” about the importance of textiles in the history of the American West.  “Red, White and Bold: Masterworks of Navajo Design, 1840-1870” and Fashion Fusion: Native Textiles in Spanish Colonial Art”.

Having travelled to Denver let me tell you the exhibition is much more than promising, it is fantastic.  Many “encyclopedic” museums have tried to do exhibitions that encompass all the departments but very few succeed.  This one certainly does.  Some years ago DAM did an exhibition called “Mud” using clay as the basis.  But we can go through a day or two without the aid of clay if we don’t insist on coffee mugs but you can’t get away without putting on a shirt and pants or dress in the morning!

Our main motivation for coming up to Denver for this exhibition was our good friend Alice Zrebiec, the Avenir Textile Curator for DAM.  She helped to facilitate the donation of 3 million dollars from the Avenir Foundation which not only allowed the museum to fund the textile curatorial position but also allowed them to retrieve 7,500 square feet of storage area and turn it into exhibition space for their 5,000 piece textile collection.   There are also separate collections of textiles in the contemporary and the Native American Collections.

One large donation often encourages others to give and in this case several individuals added to the textile department’s riches.  A matching grant from the Mellon Foundation allowed the museum to fund a full time textile conservator, an intern and a textile lab which has windows so visitors can peer in to see what is going on and once a week even go inside to ask the conservator and assistants questions.

The Museum’s Director, Christophe Heinrich, who came up with the idea for the show kicked off the media event by introducing each of the 14 curators of the 12 exhibitions.  He mentioned that the Metropolitan Museum will soon do a huge exhibition on the textile trade but that Denver has done it first.

The shows are not all large and one even has only two works of art.  Our friend Alice, however, has a major exhibition in the new textile galleries to walk the media through.  She started out with a mind-changing point.  She said that we take textiles for granted these days.  We don’t think where our every day apparel comes from but years ago, particularly in the U.S., one had to wait for the ship to come in and then get down to the docks and pay dearly for that apparel or material to make it.  Aside from the time involved the cost of a making the material and then shipping it with crews of many men would add greatly to the expense.

Alice’s show is called “Cover Story” and has over 50 textiles from 20 countries around the world.  The show is organized by function and going through it we learn to think about all the ways that we use textiles in our every day lives. The title is cute but also important. 

Textiles are used to cover up our bodies and protect them in one way or another.  They are also used as decoration as in table covers and wall covering. They serve as covers to keep us warm, covers in which to wrap and carry things, covers for ceremonial uses and covers to decorate our walls.

The piece that intrigued me the most was a Japanese Fireman’s jacket from around 1900.  Most of us think of a fireman’s jacket simply as a protective covering for someone who has a very dangerous job to do.  When we see them marching in a parade they are in their firefighting garb.  Not in Japan, for special occasions such as a parade or visiting the families of those who died in a blaze they have more decorative gear so this coat is reversible!  Today, the Japanese firemen have much better protective coats than the cotton one shown here which had to be soaked in water before going into the fire.  They are made of the latest protective material and they are not reversible but they still have separate coats for special occasions.

Alice’s grandparents were from Poland and her tribute to her heritage was the inclusion of a 20th century tapestry called “Spring”.   It was designed by Stefan Galkowski (1912-1984) and woven by the Wanda Cooperative in Krakow circa 1961.  If you look carefully you can see that everyone is coupling including the fish, a true sign of the arrival of Spring.

There is so much more to see in this exhibition and the other 11.  There is no way to cover “Spun” in one Missive so I am going to allow myself another for next week concentrating on the Navajo weavings.

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