PRINT October 2008


Craigie Horsfield and Tapestry

LOCATED JUST OUTSIDE GHENT in Belgium, oil painting’s Northern Renaissance site of origin and, coincidentally, one of the prime centers of modern machine-made carpet production, there is a place called Flanders Tapestries that specializes in weaving jacquard tapestries from photographs: scanning ambitious photographs by contemporary artists and creating digital files that guide the weaving of large modern wall hangings that are then exhibited as artworks in galleries or museums, rather as medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque tapestries used to adorn palace walls, combining the function of high-ambition pictorial representation with that of the decorative warming of large, cold interiors. Flanders Tapestries is not the only contemporary tapestry works ever to have done such a thing, but its photo-tapestries are different from other desultory efforts in this direction in that they are remarkably—and paradoxically—high-resolution.

Among the artists who have taken advantage of Flanders Tapestries’ new technical procedure so far are Ed Ruscha, Chuck Close, and Craigie Horsfield. These are very different artists: What is it that drew them, in common, to the paradox of the photographic tapestry? Indeed, what would possess any self-respecting contemporary artist to turn to such a medium, with its atavistic associations with the High Renaissance? (Raphael and Rubens come most immediately to mind.) In short, tapestry hardly seems the medium of the moment. And joining it to photography, that quintessentially modern medium, all optics and no haptics, all instantaneity and no time-intensive factural process, seems somehow oxymoronic. Surely no two media could be more deeply at odds with each other.

Ed Ruscha’s photo-tapestry, an edition of grainy clouds with text inscribed over them, was a one-off affair arising out of a commission by Philadelphia’s Fabric Workshop and Museum. (And I cannot really imagine an artist whose photographic work is less suited to such an enterprise, given his attachment to the small snapshot image.) Chuck Close’s more active involvement with Flanders Tapestries, on the other hand, is in keeping with both his long-standing attachment to transforming photographs into large-scale pictures via gridded matrices that lend themselves to digital translation, as well as his current interest in the photograph’s most retardataire form, the daguerreotype. Perhaps the logical contradictions were among the paradoxical attractions of making a furred, tactile object out of the uncanny visual precision of the old-fashioned daguerreotype. But the boundary-crossing haptics of tapestry seem so deeply contrary to the estranged optics of Close’s close-up yet strangely distantiated attention to the human face that I wonder if he was not simply drawn to the idea of being one of the first out of the gate to attach his reputation to this new technique, half innovation, half anachronism, in its state-of-the-art aspect.

And what about Horsfield? I have written of his work in these pages before, so it will come as no surprise that I am biased toward it. There are reasons for that bias, however, that I would like to explore here, by considering several of his photo-tapestries that were recently exhibited at Frith Street Gallery in London, together with some of his portraits, which he expressly did not turn into tapestries. The photographs he did make into tapestries for this exhibition consist of one medium-size cloud; one big, brooding, darkly romantic landscape; two twinned, monumentally scaled, separately caged rhinoceroses; and one large “genre” scene of people milling about on a shopping street in Madrid. In addition, he has made tapestries out of another cloud photograph and several Madrid disco scenes, the latter photographed in relation to one of his ongoing “social projects.” (His “social projects” began in 1993, in Barcelona, and consist of registering and honoring chains of relationships from person to person in a given place. He is currently engaged in two such projects, one in Madrid and the other in Naples.)

Horsfield has worked between media before, and continues to do so, producing sound projects and film installations as actively as he makes large still photographs. In the Whitney Biennial of 2004, he exhibited a four-screen film installation that was also a “social project,” on the Canary Islands location of El Hierro. Again, I speak as a partisan, but in my view, it was the best thing in that Biennial. In his retrospective of 2006 at the Jeu de Paume in Paris (which traveled to the Gulbenkian in Portugal and then on to the MCA in Sydney), he exhibited a beautiful four-screen installation, on the Lower Broadway scene of people slowly stirring about as they attempt to take in the literally awful hole that was Ground Zero: the most democratically moving and considered visual meditation on the ramifications of that event that I know of, escaping both the jingoism and the easy political critiques that characterized so many efforts on this subject on either side of the political divide. Neither of these installations quite fit into the rooms provided for them—the ambitions of this artist always seem to outstrip the available conditions of space, time, and money, and some of his repeated circumstances make one think of the Pope and Michelangelo all over again—but even in their restricted confines they managed to confer something of the grandeur and stateliness of old history-painting cycles onto their slow-time treatment of contemporary subject matter with both apocalyptic and everyday meanings, both at the center of the late-capitalist world and at the ends of the Western earth.

Thus what is “new” about the photo-tapestries is neither their large ambition nor their multimedia, installation-specific use of the photograph, both of which are thoroughly current. What is “new,” rather, is what is old about them: their apparent archaism. So we might say that the same material and temporal contradictions that characterize Close’s photo-tapestry work mark Horsfield’s turn to this new-old medium as well. But in this case there is a specific logic to the turn.

To begin with the first contradiction: the material paradox of making something haptic out of photographic opticality, not to mention something skill- and labor-intensive out of the anyone-can-do-it immediacy of the photograph as it is normally conceived. (The factory making of the photo-tapestry could tally with the supposed industrialism and anonymity of photographic manufacture—and I suppose it does so in Ruscha’s and Close’s efforts, which were conducted at a great distance with limited input from the artists. But in Horsfield’s photo-tapestries, whose design is undertaken as much as possible on the spot and in dialogue with the Flanders Tapestries weavers, and with complete commitment to the material production of the tapestries, that factory making is more of a piece with the history of tapestry weaving, in which artists and workers are mutually engaged, in which factory production is heir to a long tradition of artisanship, and in which industry, craft, art, and skill are not opposed.)

Horsfield has long sought to counter the putative transparency of the photograph with an insistence on the photographic surface that is not self-reflexive, but rather part and parcel of the subject matter and meaning of whatever is pictured in the photograph. That is certainly evident in his portraits—two of which were included in the Frith Street Gallery exhibition in January and February of this year—which he produced as lushly inked prints on watercolor paper. There, the textured materiality of ink on paper doubles as the skin of male faces, whose beauty resides, not in a photogenic formula, but in the warmth and depth of flesh visibly animated by human spirit, by the livingness of the anima. There, that is to say, the surface of the photograph is neither transparent to its referent, nor self-referential. Nor is it a container for its human subject, as a glass holds water, a body its homunculus soul, or form its content. Rather, the surface is of a piece with the subject; it is its substance, in the senses both of its physical and its “spiritual” density, its “objective” and its “subjective” presence, its exteriority and its interiority. Moreover, that surface brings the viewer close and seeks to transform its own function as a boundary into the effect of a threshold, something with which one may literally be in touch. That is the sense of its phenomenological joining of the haptic to the optics of the photograph, and in this regard it could not be at a further remove from the surface of Close’s portraits, be they rendered as daguerreotypes, prints, paintings, or tapestries.

Yet so far Horsfield has chosen not to render his portraits as tapestries, feeling, perhaps, that the tactility of the woven material of the tapestry will interfere, no matter how high-resolution Flanders Tapestries’ technical achievements might be, with the affective specificity of the human face. Nevertheless, like the watercolor-paper portraits, the subjects he has chosen to render as tapestries—from the thick, cottony lightness of his dark, imploding storm clouds, as different from Ruscha’s text/cloud as his faces are from Close’s physiognomies, to the monumental heaviness of his two tragic rhinoceroses, their penned-up primordiality inextricable from their confined physical weight—garner their affect and their significance from the patently tactile stuff of which they are made. The choice of tapestry in these cases is merely a further step down the road Horsfield has already been on for some time, for it gives these atmospheric and animal subjects their substance, speaking that substance in such a way that we too may feel the heft of it.

The photo-tapestry of the Madrid street scene is a somewhat more complicated matter, for the comings and goings rendered in it are less substantial, less up-close, and less obviously of a piece with the materiality of their weaving. Moreover, this tapestry opens onto the question of temporality as it is woven together with materiality and vice versa. On the one hand, it is more “modern” in its subject matter. On the other hand, it evokes several manners of old-style “genre” subjects: Both Bruegel and Goya come to mind in the slight clumsiness of some of the human encounters in it (not only, but most especially the central anecdote of the lumbering young man looming pleadingly over his unforgiving sweetheart), in the silhouetted shortening of bodies produced by the overhead view, and in the flattened-out spatial effect of the whole, all of which is redoubled in the subtle awkwardness of the woven treatment of the scene. And, perhaps because the place depicted is Spanish, the breaking up of the gray areas and dark parts of the scene, such as the face of the rightmost figure in the shadows, recalls Goya’s prints quite specifically.

How are we to understand the choice of tapestry in this case, in which the material and temporal contradictions loom larger than elsewhere? How indeed: not by attempting to resolve the contradictions, but by comprehending their logic. And by grasping the ways in which this artist, together with the Flanders Tapestries weavers, joins the technical to what we call the “theoretical” and vice versa, essentially thinking his and their way through the making of the photo-tapestries; more than that, rendering artmaking a form of material thought that refuses the pregiven delimitations of the old modernist medium categories. Looked at in this light, the photo-tapestry of the Madrid street scene works expressly to slow “modern” time, and to thicken its material relations among people and place. The effect is to bring the paving and detritus of the street right up to the low relief of the carpet, thereby suggesting an allegiance to the ground upon which we as viewers stand, and to make us think through the relations—not of identity or opposition but of distinction and connection—between gallery and street, wall and floor, art and the everyday, not to mention tapestry and photography. Moreover, by bringing Goya and Bruegel into the picture, the work deliberately confounds one other modernist precept: that of the requisite and unbridgeable dividing line between past and present, (art) history and modernity, one period style and another. In the meantime, whatever we thought the photograph was in its medium-specificity—document, instant, index, icon, de-skilled Kodak-icity (“you press the button, we do the rest”), realist transparency, machine-made objectivity, small banality, punctum, analogue—is made over into a categorically unrecognizable entity, a crucial step, but merely a step, in a much longer factural process that forges an alliance between the old and the new, the mechanical and the manual, the conceptual and the phenomenological, the aesthetic and the quotidian.

I want to make clear: This is not pictorialism by another name. Nor does it fit the ill-defined rubric of the “postmodern,” whether that refers to an empty, uncritical eclecticism or to a critical neo-avant-garde stance. Nor, for that matter, do I think a notion of the “post-photographic” covers the logic of these photo-tapestries very well, for the medium-specific teleology suggested by that is plainly not relevant to this work. Rather, Horsfield’s collaboration with Flanders Tapestries asks that we finally think hard—and anew—about our models of time and medium, and move on, at long last, from (post)modernism and the corpse of the nineteenth century that trails along behind it, in the form of the historical century’s linear, progressivist, periodized ideas of time, and its totalizing, teleological concepts of medium, not to mention its Hegelian oppositions between form and content and their ever-advancing dissolution. To put it more positively, Horsfield’s photo-tapestries take a quantum leap backward and forward, weaving together past and future into a series of large, wall-covering statements about the long present of material thought.

Carol Armstrong is a professor of art history at Yale University.