June Wayne (1918-2011) co-founded the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles in 1960 with Clinton Adams in an effort to revitalize the art form in the United States, where interest in lithography was flagging. Ten years later, Tamarind became part of the College of Fine Arts at the University of New Mexico under the name Tamarind Institute.
After the move, Wayne began working on a series of large tapestries based on her original lithographs. They were made in collaboration with three separate weaving studios in France and first exhibited in the Galerie la Demeure in Paris in 1974. She continued to create tapestries until late in the decade.
According to David Eichholtz, curator of The Tapestries, Wayne was known for her exacting demands, matching the textiles’ colors to the original lithographs as closely as possible and throwing out works that were not up to her standards. Photographs of Wayne and the French weavers are included in the exhibit, and one image shows Wayne working on a textile that no longer exists. Eichholtz said that, of the original body of work, only 18 tapestries remain. David Richard Contemporary managed to procure all but two of them for this show. That’s five more than were on view at the Art Institute of Chicago’s 2010-2011 exhibition June Wayne’s Narrative Tapestries: Tidal Waves, DNA, and the Cosmos.
The tapestries are essentially abstract works that blend rich color and overlapping patterns with figurative imagery, and each is unique. Today’s Jacquard looms are computer programmable and can develop textiles from digital files, allowing for faithful reproductions and editions, as with prints, but Wayne fabricated her textiles using older loom techniques. Nubby, built-up sections stand out from flatter material with a pronounced textural component.
The imagery in the exhibit falls along the same three themes as in the Chicago show. Verdict, for instance, contains abstract renditions of genetic material. A chromosomelike X motif runs through the lower portion of the piece. Wayne was fascinated by the idea that our genetic makeup predetermines aspects of who we are. Fingerprintlike imagery, apparently made from rubbings of a patterned floor, appears in several of the tapestries. One, called Visa, has an image of Wayne’s thumbprint, floating like a celestial body above a horizon. Below that line is a suggestion of water.
Wayne’s bold imagery references landscapes, too. The horizon line is suggested in several pieces through Wayne’s use of banded colors. It is more explicit in the tidal-wave imagery, some of which is reminiscent of the stylized ocean waves in prints by 18th to 19th-century Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. The Japanese woodblock-print influence is evident in Grande Vague Bleue, for example, and in Grande Vague Noir. More cosmic visuals are suggested in the galaxylike imagery of At Last a Thousand and La Cible.
Wayne’s black-and-white textile La Journée des Lemmings appears, at first glance, wholly abstract, but a grouping of human figures (apparently the lemmings) lends it another interpretation, and it resolves itself into a landscape.
The Tapestries is shown in conjunction with Judy Chicago’s Woven and Stitched, also a series of textiles. Though advertised as solo exhibitions, the two are arranged to complement one another. The gallery mixes it up rather than presenting the exhibitions in separate spaces. Both artists employed different techniques in their textile work, but the imagery, across the board, is graphically strong, and both bodies of work relate to each other, especially with regard to the linear patterning. The photo documentation of the artists’ processes while creating the textiles reveals the collaborative nature of what, particularly for Wayne, was a departure from her earlier work. That Wayne’s imagery transitioned successfully from lithography to tapestry is evident, but still one wonders what gems may have been lost because of the artist’s dissatisfaction with the result. Forces of Nature is a rare opportunity to see these tapestries. It’s unlikely that so many of the surviving works will be exhibited together again any time soon.