Monday, August 23rd, 2010

Where contemporary art can get knotted: Kathmandu

BravinLee Programs, in association with Meredith Rosenberg, present contemporary artist-designed carpets woven in Kathmandu.

Rug after a design by James Welling, Courtesy of BravinLee Programs
Rug after a design by James Welling, Courtesy of BravinLee Programs

“Color Your World!” proclaims the headline of the February 2010 Connecticut Cottages and Gardens, typed over a detail of Nina Bovasso’s limited-edition, vivacious floral carpet. Though I am neither a resident of Connecticut, nor possess a home or bank account suitable for the purchase of such a rug, I am seduced by its exuberant Pop sensibility and relentlessly bold, cheery hues. Inside the magazine, in an article cheekily titled “Art Under Foot,” it shares a page with other kaleidoscopically bright, geometric rugs, but it is likely that this is the only rug commissioned by a commercial art gallery that also represents such artists as Mequitta Ahuja, Thomas Nozkowski, and Amparo Sard.

In just under a year, John Lee and Meredith Rosenberg of BravinLee Programs, a Chelsea gallery, have commissioned artists Peter Halley, James Siena and James Welling, as well as Bovasso, to create lush designs for rugs made of hand-knotted, tightly woven wool or silk. “Each rug is one of a kind and has been crafted by weavers in the Kathmandu area, whose skills have been passed down through many generations,” says the website, and each rug displays “rich texture and subtle color variation.” Lee and Rosenberg selected the weavers, based in Nepal, for their high-quality production and laws against child labor, after several test runs with rugs made in India, Morocco and Mexico. They made it a priority to join GoodWeave, a certifiably child-labor-free program that donates part of its profits to educating children in Kathmandu. Each rug is artist-signed, and bears an individually numbered GoodWeave label as a symbol of ethical business.

The process of creating the rugs always begins with the artist’s design, which can be either drafted completely anew or adapted from a previous work—most often a painting, drawing, or photograph. The design is then sent to Nepal, where yarn color samples are chosen and shipped back to BravinLee for approval by the artist. While the original design concept belongs to the artist, it is up to the weavers to interpret the designs, resulting in a process that is ultimately collaborative and dependent on the stellar, by-hand craftwork of the weavers. The weaving process itself takes about three months—with each rug measuring around 6 x 9 feet, this seems no small endeavor—and rugs are usually produced in editions of fifteen with two artist’s proofs. In this way the process is not unlike printmaking, in its scrupulous repetition and production of editions, and in fact Meredith Rosenberg describes it as “the alternative to an editioned print.” Right now, she says, the rugs range from $4,000—$12,000, in an attempt to keep them at a competitive price with other high-quality rugs in the design market. So far the clientele has mostly included the collectors with whom the gallery is already familiar, but interior designers and decorators have been showing interest as well. The ultimate hope is, of course, that even those who have no previous interaction with art galleries will be interested in purchasing the rugs, and interested in the BravinLee Editions project.

Rosenberg, who has a Masters Degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology, says she is fully committed to opening up the often esoteric and insular (not to mention expensive) world of contemporary art to a larger audience, as well as further breaking down the boundaries between fine art and design. She discovered the project through Lee, her thesis advisor at FIT, and it coincided with her particular field of study at the time: “I was doing my thesis on marketing conceptual art,” Rosenberg explains, “and how to take something conceptual and make it into a commodity.”  The partnership that became BravinLee Editions was formed not long after, and the “commodity” point of departure shifted from conceptual art to work that is, perhaps, more easily marketable. The website for BravinLee Editions echoes Rosenberg, in that the mission is very much to “explore and experiment with other ways in which fine art and fine art imagery can be utilized as the basis for a design platform.” In exploring the rugs, their strong graphic sensibilities and vibrant colors, I was faintly reminded of a certain strand of modernism that embraced the world of industrial design, that strove to emphasize the purity of materials and craft. The legacy of the Bauhaus seemed nigh—or perhaps it was just the lingering ghost of the recent MoMA exhibiton—but especially that of Anni Albers, whose vivid, austere, and texturally complex formal influence can be found in the bold grids of James Siena’s rugs and the stark, black and white abstract rug by James Welling.

Rug by Nina Bovasso,, Courtesy of BravinLee Programs
Rug by Nina Bovasso,, Courtesy of BravinLee Programs

There is, needless to say, a long modernist precedent of artwork that complicates the distinction between visual art, architecture and design, from the Bauhaus, to De Stijl, to Russian Constructivism. If the overarching aim of the BravinLee Editions rug project seems to be to create a utilitarian object that channels the blue-chip aesthetics of artists like Halley and Welling into a completely different medium, this begs the question of why textiles at all? Why not chairs, tables, light fixtures, kitchen appliances? How do the selected artists’ practices, which range from painting to photography, translate into the textile medium? Does this reveal more to us about the depth of their artistic practices; does it actually challenge or inspire the artists to adjust how they view their own work?

Within the last five or ten years, New York in particular has seen the growth of a certain textile zeitgeist and a resurging interest in the “tapestry fetish object,” as Rosenberg put it, in addition to interest in the rich history of the medium. This all was perhaps ushered in with the magnificent tapestries shown in the 2002 Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition “Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence,” so popular it spurred the 2007-08 sequel “Tapestry in the Baroque: Threads of Splendor.” There was the moment early in 2010 when James Cohan Gallery mounted “Demons, Yarns & Tales: Tapestries by Contemporary Artists,” just across the street from the BravinLee gallery which, at the same time, was showing the rugs created by Bovasso, Siena and Welling. Such exhibitions have revealed the relative lack of textile work by contemporary artists, the end product of which, in its labor-intensive and detailed process from the wool-dying to the loom, can be quite stunning. It is often the warmth of textiles—of woven materials, carpets, throws—the tactile, tangible sense of presence and handmade craft, of home, that makes this medium come alive. Perhaps these qualities are what make the prospect of owning a unique, artist-designed rug so compelling.

Most of the artists selected by Lee and Rosenberg work in the two-dimensional mediums of painting, drawing and photography, making their work easier to translate into the carpet format. Rosenberg says, “We’re really interested in [taking] the painting off the wall and living with it on the floor.” This gives the notion of living with artwork on a day-to-day basis a slightly different meaning, when it is a work on which one must constantly worry about spilling crumbs or red wine. Bovasso’s Flowers on a Walk (2009), which runs at a cool $8,000, seems to have garnered the most press attention, with the Connecticut Cottages and Gardens cover, and brief features on the Apartment Therapy and Better Living Through Design websites. The rug does not stray far from Bovasso’s paintings and drawings, which are filled with rich colors and swirling with spastic, orgiastic patterns. The rugs of James Siena—Global Key (2009) and Nine Constant Windows (2009)—also echo and eagerly transcribe his complex, rigidly formal geometric paintings and drawings, which visualize mathematical formulas and sequences. James Wellings’s New Abstraction #1A (2009) seems to channel Franz Kline; based on an abstract photograph, its beautiful, graphic swaths of black seem ready-made for a room composed of clean lines and modern architecture. The vital strength of each rug chosen by BravinLee is the utter translatability, the enhancement of each deceptively simple design in this flexible, heavily-textured medium. The rugs are incurably modern, but this is their strength too, knowing full well that, in the end, each rug must easily match the color scheme of the rest of the parlor or living room they will eventually inhabit.

In the preface to her book On Weaving, Anni Albers wrote: “Though I am dealing in this book with long-established facts and processes, still in exploring them, I feel on new ground. And just as it is possible to go from any place to any other, so also, starting from a defined and specialized field, can one arrive at a realization of ever-extending relationships”. Albers was able to constantly comprehend and learn anew as she pushed her textile practice to the limits, even when it fell out of fashion. One could argue that the artists and weavers who produce rugs for BravinLee Editions are doing the same but with different stakes, producing an object that is tricky to define, skimming the line between fabulous decorative art object and pragmatic design piece.

Rug by James Siena, Courtesy of BravinLee Programs
James Siena