WOMAN OF THE CLOTH: For more than 20 years, Barbara Brandel has been a fiber artist, weaving fine art out of cotton, silk and wool. She leads a rather solitary artistic life, working out of her eastside home in a studio that has a dazzling view of the Rincons. Apart from the huge loom in the center, the space is floor-to-ceiling yarns, making the walls of a kaleidoscope of yellows, lavenders and deep fuschias.
The room presents a charming picture: You can just see it as an illustration for a fairy tale about a kindly weaver. But that kind of cultural baggage may be part of the problem Brandel and other fiber artists face. In many quarters, they're seen as female needleworkers, nothing more, nothing less.
"I've been beating my head against the wall for years, working in the fiber realm, making feminist statements," Brandel says. "Most fiber artists feel they're fighting a battle. What makes it all difficult is that it's considered a 'woman's' art form, even though the field isn't exclusively women. It's often devalued because of that. If a man's working in fiber, he gets recognition because he seems to be doing something totally new. He's not just somebody doing a little needlework at home."
Things seem to be looking up for Brandel's art form this month, at least in Tucson. Two of her pieces will be in a major show opening this week at the Tucson Museum of Art, Fiber Celebrated '95. Two exhibitions of work by her fellow weavers, Small Expressions and Arizona Tapestry Today, will open at the Tohono Chul Park Gallery. The shows are timed to coincide with a major weaving conference to be held in town at the end of the month. The Intermountain Weavers, a regional group representing the western states, will hold workshops, sell work and offer an address by Norman Kennedy, a celebrated folklorist of weaving and spinning.
All this is good news for Brandel, of course, who also shows her pieces regularly at the TMA shop and at Obsidian Gallery. But she still sounds weary as she talks about people who consider her less than an artist because her medium is fiber instead of paint. It gets even more complicated because she fashions her woven art into women's garments that can be worn.
"What I'm trying to tell people is that my art form is fiber. The form it takes is art to wear, or tapestries to put on the wall. The form it takes isn't as important as what I say and how I say it. The fact that it's clothing, people can't see beyond that."
Brandel is still smarting from a negative review she got when she exhibited in a three-woman show of fiber art at Dinnerware last winter. The critic, she says, misunderstood the work completely, calling it expensive clothing that ran the risk of getting ruined with sauces at parties. The reviewer "was devaluing the work and considering it just a commodity, just women's clothing, not art."
Such an attitude, Brandel says, puts the "fine arts" of painting and sculpture at the top of the art hierarchy, with craft, and especially women's traditional crafts, way at the bottom. "Even though there are people who are serious (fiber) artists working through a lifetime and having relatively successful careers, they're never going to be in art history class. The powers that be want to maintain the hierarchy of what's real art and what isn't. It's pretty sexist."
Brandel didn't fling herself onto the lowest rung on the official art ladder on purpose. She says that as a child she always expected to be a painter when she grew up, but when she was studying art at the University of Iowa something about fibers got to her. What she has been trying to do ever since is push the traditional materials of the weaving craft into the fine arts realm of greater meaning. Her two pieces in the TMA show are typical of the kind of work she's been doing in recent years.
"Under Checkered Skies" is a tapestry work fashioned into a coat. Woven in lavender and black, it's full of checks that dissolve into zigzags and circles at the bottom. If the piece doesn't exactly have a relationship to landscape painting, it does suggest skies and clouds and all their metaphorical meanings. "The checks are sort of falling away," Brandel says. "It's sort of about the same old mixed outlook, about good and bad in life." The other piece, "Fake Fur," is a magenta and purple jacket that critiques the use of animal fur in clothing. Shaped like an animal skin that's worn over the shouldelers, it features teal "drawings" of cavemen throwing rocks at animals.
The works, as she says, are about something beyond themselves, whether people choose to wear them or put them on a wall. Often the works, fashioned into garments that women wear, are oblique portraits of women or even of herself. Brandel sums up her intentions this way in her written artist's statement: "(My) tapestry work, some wearable, some unwearable, uses the imagery (of) visual puns and personal hieroglyphics" to deliver "symbolic portraits of the woman/artist/ mother/daughter in western civilization." --Margaret Regan
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