Because they take such extreme technical skill to create, and historically, they were commissioned by patrons, tapestries exist in a weird netherworld between art and craft. Additionally, tapestries are lived with differently than paintings. There's a reason that teenage boys (or guys who collect asian weapons and still live with their parents) decorate their rooms with big Bob Marley or Three Wolf tapestries instead of paintings. The tapestry is a classy way of warming up a wall.
The owners of The Rug Company in London know this. They've been selling high-end rugs for many thousands of Pounds by designers like Vivienne Westwood and Diane von Furstenburg for over a decade. Their rugs range from tasteful and minimal home accents to bold intrusive designs like Westwood's "Rubbish", a wool rug whose surface is decorated with an extreme close-up of a garbage pile.
Chris and Suzanne Sharp, the owners of the Rug Company are astute businesspeople, but they also seem to have restless, creative minds. The Sharps were thinking of the way that artists and workshops worked together in the Renaissance to create tapestries when they created "Banners of Persuasion", a collaboration that paired fourteen artists from the fine art world with a workshop in China that creates luxurious, detailed tapestries from wool and silk.
Among the artists that the Sharps persuaded to collaborate were Kara Walker and Grayson Perry, two artists known for combining historically craft-based processes with their own shocking contemporary images.
Kara Walker produced "A Warm Summer Evening in 1863", a combination of an old engraving showing a mob burning down an orphanage for black children with an image of a lynched pigtailed child in period dress hanging from a bow.
Turner Prize winning transvestite ceramic artist Grayson Perry has always found clever ways to blend historical forms, craft processes and his own worldview, which makes his tapestry a natural progression for his artwork. "Vote Alan Measles for God" appears to be a riff on Afghanistani rugs that date back to the Soviet Invasion of the 1980's. More current war rugs tend to show the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, as well as American weaponry.
Perry's rug shows his teddy bear, Alan Measles (who is often used in his work) scaling the burning twin towers with plastic explosives strapped to his body. Oil wells, stealth fighters, crosses and Osama Bin Laden lie beyond the twin towers and Pentagon in a walled-off war zone. In another historical layer, Mr. Measles appears to be depicted in Aboriginal X-Ray style, showing his inner structure.
Today's Sunday New York Times contains a great article (with accompanying interactive slideshow) about Banners of Persuasion. The workshop that created the tapestries didn't just translate two-dimensional images from the artists--they worked carefully with the artists to develop different stitches and details to make certain brush strokes or implied objects stand out.
Fred Tomaselli's "After Migrant Fruit Thugs" was developed from a canvas that included collaged photographic elements, paint and other materials. The leaves were embellished with tiny gold threads that Tomaselli sees as "imparting a life force" in the piece. When faced with the range of technical possibilities that working with master craftsmen offers, many of the artists appear to have adapted their ideas and concepts accordingly.
Thirteen of the banners are currently on view at the James Cohen Gallery in Chelsea through February 13th. I would love to be able to see the details in person. If only I had enough cash...I might consider replacing the "Three Wolf" banner in my room with a Grayson Perry.