Arguing against beauty isn't easy. But things of beauty can be hard to hang onto — they're elusive and often aloof to social, economic and political realities.
And showing beautiful work in a museum has its own complexities. As African-art historian Susan Vogel once wrote, "Almost nothing displayed in a museum was meant to be seen in one." In museums, we see objects such as masks, historical textiles or sarcophagi completely divorced from their original uses. And that's OK — otherwise, why even have museums? The trick is in the installation and presentation.
Fortunately, the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art offers plenty of help sorting through the issues raised by Unfolding Tradition: Rio Grande Textiles. It's a two-pronged exhibition that provides context by showcasing both historical and contemporary textiles — it's often hard to tell the two apart, which suggests the deeply rooted traditions from which these contemporary works emerge. Anecdotal and informational wall labels help orient us to the economic and social conditions of the times. It works.
The term Rio Grande in the exhibition's title essentially covers the textiles made by Hispanics in New Mexico. Records dating back to 1840 illustrate the importance of the textiles in commerce: Traders exchanged tens of thousands of weavings. Many of the antique textiles here are made of two pieces sewn together vertically, suggesting the narrow width of preindustrial looms. And the exhibition provides examples of two distinctive looks: the Saltillo style, typified by a bordered rectangle with a serrated diamond shape in the center, and the Vallero style, which adds an eight-pointed star to the mix. One of the early Vallero weavings, "Rio Grande — Five Vallero Stars," made sometime between 1885 and 1895, is an elegant study in pinks, oranges and yellows.
Continuing those traditions are Irvin and Lisa Trujillo of Chimayo, New Mexico; the National Endowment for the Arts recognized Irvin with a lifetime honor in 2007, awarding him a National Heritage Fellowship. He began weaving in 1965, having been taught by his father. As a seventh-generation artist from Chimayo — a place known for its stellar weavings — Trujillo embraces and expands upon traditional ideas and techniques, experimenting with other cultural influences. Among those is ikat, a pattern that originated in Indonesia and is now hot among high-fashion designers. The broken-looking pattern renders a stuttery and soft effect in the textiles.
And though these works rely on patterns rather than images (there is one figural work exhibition), the Trujillos' narrative titles suggest a path to understanding them beyond their craftsmanship and beauty: "Prayer for Peace," "Jelly Belly" and "Lotus" are a few of Irvin's titles.
Lisa Trujillo's 2002 "Carnelian" is one of the most gorgeous pieces here. Carnelian is a reddish stone, historically used by Romans to make signet rings. Trujillo's colors — reds, pinks, blues and grays alternating in stripes and eight-pointed stars — are so perfectly suited to one another that the effect is mesmerizing.
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