To Dye For

A World Saturated in Color

To Dye For: A World Saturated in Color, now on display at San Francisco’s de Young Museum, is an exhibition to see up-close. The more than fifty textiles on view, largely from the museum’s permanent collection, are connected through the shared technique of “resist dye”, whereby parts of a work are tied - or blocked, bound or stenciled - in order to prevent applied dye from extending over the entire creation. Looked at from a distance the pieces can be observed like paintings, their compositions formal or whimsical, abstract or pictorial. But it’s up close that you can better sense the often awe inspiring expertise required to create the ikats and batiks, shiboris, tie dyes and block prints that have been integral to the decorative and ceremonial histories of cultures around the globe.

Three among many exceptional pieces outline the breadth of the exhibit and underscore the technical prowess required to make each work. A ceremonial mat, acquired by a voyaging sea captain in the Vanuatu Islands in 1897 and donated to the museum in 1905, is just now being displayed for the first time. Its straightforward two-tone coloration and rhythmically geometric appearance belies the daunting requirements of fabrication. Made of pandanus leaves, the completed mat is soaked in salt water for four days and then dried in the sun before an intricate dying process begins. The mat is first tied to the harvested trunk of a small tree and then decorated with strips of banana bark that are fixed into place with a cord penetrable by dye. Next, the entire trunk is sunk into a canoe-shaped vat filled with boiling water mixed with pigment from the bark of an indigenous tree. It sits for four hours before the dying process is complete and the banana leaves - serving as stencils - are removed to reveal the finished work.

Another piece, an 18th-19th century Indian silk ceremonial wrap dominated by a vibrant red, is a delicate example of the double ikat technique. Unlike most ikats, where resist dye is applied solely to either the warp or weft threads, the pattern of double ikats emerge from looms in which designs are prefigured on both the warp and weft. The mathematical thinking required to build and execute such works says nothing of its other feats, including the artistry of the overall composition or the science behind preparing pigments for the dye. In examining such a work up close it’s easy to imagine the obsessive interest pre-industrial European mills brought to deconstructing the secret techniques behind Indian textiles arriving in their seaports.

One of the show’s few works with a patently Western influence is Yoshiko Wada’s “Coca Cola Kimono” from 1975. Wada, who is a master dyer and an advocate for the preservation of traditional textile techniques, immigrated to the United States from Japan in 1967. Her Coca Cola Kimono has the traditional totemic shape of other kimonos on display but is woven with ten finely crafted rows reading “Coca Cola” in its characteristic cursive script. The quality of the garment (also incorporating an ikat technique) and the meditative repetition of the brand is strategically disjointed; Wada’s intention was to create a satirical statement about growing markets between Asia and the West. In the context of the exhibition her kimono also speaks to trade as a reality affecting every object displayed.

The perimeter of the De Young’s textile gallery can be encompassed in one sweeping glance and this exhibition is designed to evoke comparisons between geographic regions, cultures and time periods. It also invites metaphysical questions, especially where exploration and trade can’t readily account for similarities of technique between one culture and the next. The exhibition includes works from Nigeria, Indonesia, India, Borneo, Uzbekistan, Bolivia, Tunisia, New Guinea and Japan. Each culture has formulated their own approach to resist dye and each has elevated the craft to a status worthy of revered decorative and ceremonial use. For Jill D’Alessandro, the Museum’s exuberant textile curator, the cross-cultural connections can be accounted for in a number of direct ways but they can also be ascribed to instinct and evolution, commonalities in thought process that lead to similar artistic conclusions.

D’Alessandro’s own college-age epiphany about the depth and breadth of textile study speaks to the many avenues of interest leading to and from an exhibition like To Dye For. It came in a ceramics course at Scripps College when Professor Paul Soldner, known as the father of American Raku, was describing his own journey into a life absorbed in clay. “When you’re in school all your professors want you to study what they study,” he said. “Your chemistry teacher wants you to become a chemist, your art teacher wants you to become an artist, your history teacher wants you to become a historian.” For Soldner ceramics was the perfect solution: all fields of interest were applicable to their study. Put to her so directly, D’Allesandro immediately knew that textiles (a lifelong interest fostered by the fabrics, buttons and notions overflowing from her grandfather’s East Coast clothing factories) could do the same for her. Like ceramics, the medium is a gateway into a universe of far-reaching and endlessly fascinating study.

As shown in To Dye For, resist dye techniques can be admired through both historic and contemporary examples. The entrance to the show is punctuated by a striking ikat coat by Oscar De La Renta and an ethereal tie dye dress by Rodarte is shown within the gallery’s interior. As D’Alessandro puts it, “tradition never goes out of style”.

To Dye For: A World Saturated in Color opened July 31st 2010 and is on view through January 9th 2011. Arcadia Smails works as an interior designer in San Francisco and keeps the textile blog www.fibercopia.com.

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