Art Institute brings tapestry into the 21st century

June Wayne’s expertise in color organization and expression of singularly captivating images imbues her exhibition with a relaxing beauty which is often difficult to capture.

By Rob Underwood

In popular culture, tapestries are thought of as representations of Old World wealth, tucked away in some sort of crumbling castle. They bring to mind wall-sized battle scenes, coronation ceremonies, and ancient mythology, making the dissonance between the medium and the spirit of contemporary culture seem insurmountable. In her new exhibition Narrative Tapestries: Tidal Waves, DNA and the Cosmos at the Art Institute, Chicago native June Wayne produces just what the title says: a series of eleven rug-sized tapestries which seek to frame man’s relationship to himself and his environment as a narrative, capable of providing form to our chaotic history. If it perhaps falls short of a coherent thematic perspective, Wayne’s expertise in color organization and expression of singularly captivating images imbues her exhibition with a relaxing beauty which is often difficult to capture.

Although Wayne has centered her artistry around lithography (a printing process using chemical separation methods), this exhibition does not signal a departure from her standard medium so much as an extension of the process. All these works were based on her own lithographic designs (one of which actually accompanies its woven counterpart), which were incorporated into the weaving process to help make the tapestries.

The piece that features both the tapestry and model lithograph, “La Journée des Lemmings” (Lemmings’ Day), is a depiction of humans tumbling off a cliff amidst a black-and-white landscape. One can discern immediately that some detail is necessarily lost in the weaving process. However, the grandiosity which the larger tapestries evoke—not only because of their size, but also because of their historical connotations—more than make up for the sacrifices of detail. These tapestries also place some weight on the strength of connective motifs through the other pieces.

The titles, images, and subject matter throughout the exhibition are somewhat disparate, but immediate connections can be drawn among them. We are assured of the two clearest motifs from the very title of the exhibition, as tidal waves and DNA figure into almost all of the pieces. The pairing of “Grande Vague Noir” (Large Black Wave) and “Grande Vague Bleue” (Large Blue Wave) presents the destructive/beautiful dichotomy found so often in nature. Others juxtapose clearly delineated images of strings of pearls (meant to signify the double helix) with waves or more abstract figures.

Although their subject and theme is straightforward, it is in these works that the general theme of nature’s penchant for chaos and disorder, in communication with the certainty of the human genome and its instructions, is clearest. I say “in communication” rather than “in contrast” because some pieces actually seem to equate the two: “At Last A Thousand”, though supposedly referencing Wayne’s thousandth piece and prolificacy, depicts the Hiroshima bombing from what one could interpret as the view from the Enola Gay bomber. Wayne not only pairs catastrophe and destruction with human predictability and achievement, but seems to claim that they are actually a result of this human influence.

Though these themes can be extracted from each piece in one way or another, one cannot go much further in interpretation. However, while this may be a simplistic view of artistic achievement, the range of significant emotion conveyed, the structure and organization of color, and a willingness to revive what many view as an antiquated art form, raise the exhibition as a whole to a considerable aesthetic height of accomplishment. Tucked away just off and below the Indian and Southeast Asian Art section of the Institute, in the quietly intimate textile gallery, Wayne’s tapestry work proves to be a worthwhile extension of her familiar artistic repertoire and an opportunity to consider some formative themes of human experience, if only briefly.