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Richard Tuttle, an artist I hold with deep regard, loves textiles. A few years ago he was asked by curator Mary Hunt Kahlenberg to put together a show of 25 Indonesian ceremonial textiles. His choices as well as the commentary captions he wrote—referred to by him as “love letters” to each of the pieces—were published in a small book called Indonesian Textiles.

The conversational style of the book’s text is refreshing, and I am moved by the passion both Tuttle and Kahlenberg bring to the topic. For Kahlenberg textiles are numinous, with spiritual and aesthetic qualities:

Is it the preparation of the materials, the spinning and dyeing of the yarns, the stretching of the warp and interlacing of the weft, the individual motifs, or the overall composition? Brought together, these elements of process and design produce a construct that is not immediately recognizable to many in our western culture…But how does this laborious process lead to a manifestation of spirituality of feeling similar to those expressed in western art? Do our preconceived notions of manual skill, along with its integral repetitive and obsessive aspects, preclude emotive and spiritual expression?…

The textile’s motif is the most apparent communicator with the spirit world, translated in the form of ancestors…constrained by the grid of weaving, these complex characters and ideas are simplified and become abstractions. In this process they are reduced to their essentials.

Tuttle’s insights wander into, around and through the making of these pieces. He points to how many contemporary artists have been influenced by handwoven textile design including Carl Andre, Eva Hesse, Fred Sandback and Kiki Smith among many others.He feels that their interest in the process and the product reflects an almost political message, finding in these pieces an emotion that would be silenced or lost otherwise. “At the very least,” Tuttle writes, “they bring awareness to a structure that becomes more and more invisible as it transfers the physicality of the hands to the cerebrality of the head.”

I also was stopped by this metaphysical aside, suggested by Kahlenberg’s Indonesian mentor: “The warp is what is given in life and the weft is what happens in life.” Well played.

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