BLUE at the Textile Museum, Washington DC

The exhibit, BLUE, at the Textile Museum in Washington, DC was indeed a reflection of its title and location; it was a historical, cultural and artistic survey of the use of blue in fabrics around the world.  The entrance hallway showcased several pairs of jeans, which we learn are original Levis from the turn of the century.  The denim fabric, perhaps the most iconic of all blue textiles serves as an appropriate introduction to the world of blue.
If unknown before entering this exhibit, the virtues of indigo are most certainly engrained into our minds upon exit. It is thanks to indigo, one of the few naturally occurring sources of blue coloring, that ancient peoples were able to recreate scenes and ideas of sky and water.  Through the process of harvesting the plants, fermenting the oils, and dying the fabric we see the intricate process needed to create the vivid patterns and colors found in this exhibit.
The art of textile creation, too often considered craft rather than veritable art, was defended throughout this exhibit.  The seemingly floating Japanese tea room, created from translucent blue mesh, showed a zen balance indicative of the artist’s background.  Although the installation would be put to practical use, its separation from similar cultural artifacts allowed it to be a freestanding sculptural piece that echoed the lightness of the sky with the protection of water.
The kain panjang, hip wrapper, from Indonesia was an excellent example of textile not just being used in art, but art itself.  The abstract cloud patterns, stratified gradients of blue to white are both horizontally and vertically vertical, perhaps encompassing the goal of an artist to control and give form to an otherwise formless nature.  The fractal quality of the batik gave depth and dimension to the flat fabric.  It demands a closer look, as we expect the detail to be painted or printed on the fabric, not dyed.  Even the physical texture of the cloth is juxtaposed against the large repetitive nature of the textile, furthering the never-ending fractal-like quality of the fabric, the dying, and the cloud subject.
While an interesting piece to look at and study against a wall, we forcibly wonder about the beauty that would be generated in wearing this garment.  How would putting the fabric in fluid motion, against a human subject alter our perception of the pattern and color in natural light.
Clothing textiles are in a sense, wearable art. Their creator becomes part of a process introducing a give and take between the ink and fabric, while the wearer forms a relationship wearing and presenting the piece.  Hiroyuki Shindo explored this relationship between creator, product, and user during the video footage of his tending to the mulching of the dye.  Daily, he tended to the mulch much like a parent to a child. He smelled it, he turned it, he watered it, he thought about its future. His worry over the long-term quality of his ink displayed the unbreakable bond between artist and oeuvre.
If nothing else, the gallery full of hand-dyed textiles elicited a degree of surprise and wonder.  We enter the gallery in machine-made clothes without a creation story.  We examine cloth that is hundreds of years old.  We witness the relationship between dye and light, between dye and wear, between dye and artist.  We are opened to the realization that the creation of textiles, a craft and skill now taken mostly for granted, was once a labor of love and genius.  Creating a story or pattern on a piece of fabric was not always as simple as inserting a picture on a website and clicking buy; it was a true process understood and cherished by all those who took part.


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