Fruit of the Loom

When Barbara Brandel stopped weaving and turned to painting, she didn't leave cloth behind

For years, Barbara Brandel bent over her loom, laboriously twisting bright silken threads into glossy one-of-a-kind jackets and capes.

Her handwoven clothes were like paintings in thread, with bolts of lightning and pointy houses and abstract designs darting through the warp and weft. Since they were made to be worn, they occupied a niche between functional art and fine, a nebulous region sometimes confusing to gallerists and the public alike. Still, Brandel's works were fine enough to win her a certain renown.

After a quarter-century, though, the Tucson artist gradually discovered that the curved posture demanded by weaving, picturesque though it might be, is not so easy on the back. Nor is the threading motion gentle to the fingers. Brandel eventually turned away from her loom and found her way back to the paints and brushes she had used as a fledgling art student years before. But her time at the loom gave her a ready-made subject: handwoven cloth.

A suite of mixed-media paintings from her Antiquities series is now on view at the Alliance Bank of Arizona. Strewn along a corridor, outside offices where 21st-century bankers wheel and deal on the phone, Brandel's 24 brightly colored works pay homage to traditional weavers and rug makers from around the globe and across time. She's painted a bridal garment from pre-17th-century China, an Anatolian rug from 13th-century Turkey, a piecework poncho from sixth-century Peru.

The works on paper, crafted with acrylics, pastel, oil stick and pencil, are fairly faithful renditions of the original textile pieces. (Brandel gets some of the images out of art books.)

"Mang Ao (Dragon Jacket)" is a sumptuous painting of an orange wedding gown, once worn by the bride of a high-level official in China. A golden dragon, rendered in glossy paint, gleams on the garment's chest. Two fellow dragons scamper in opposite directions near the blue-striped hem.

"Chichi Castenango" represents a huipil, the traditional embroidered blouse worn by indigenous Guatemalan women. Woven by hand in recent times on a backstrap loom, this huipil is a kaleidoscope of thousands of diagonal stripes and lines, colored in purples, pinks and golds.

The marvelous "Nazca Poncho" is a patchwork of dizzying geometries, with patterns of crosses and squares repeated in sage and orange. It's a detail of a larger piece hand-made in early coastal Peru.

Despite her attention to authentic detail--and her obvious respect for the sophisticated aesthetics of "traditional" artists--Brandel still has fun with her new fluid media. "Tibetan Patchwork" is a loosely painted swathe of maroon and gold against a textured blue-green base. A bold black background makes the purple Guatemalan huipil seem to leap out into space. The colors in the Peruvian poncho slide from pale orange to red to maroon, and from light green to earth.

In "Mang Ao," the brilliant orange dress reverberates against a deep blue background, and painted whimsical flowers curve up against the cloth. (This painting, especially, and the similar "Outer Robe With Embroidery," inspired by a Japanese kimono, suggest another homage. Their affectionate portrayal of pattern and plants is reminiscent of the mixed-media works of Tucson painter Cynthia Miller, with whom Brandel recently studied painting.)

Brandel, who's also made sculptures of buttons, wire and cloth in recent years, sometimes pulls in found objects. Real buttons join the painted buttons on a series representing cloth skullcaps from the Congo. And in "Mirror Cloth--Pakistan," cutout pieces of shiny Mylar sub for the tiny, real-life mirrors you'd find sewn into these elaborate textiles.

Less successful than the exuberant cloth paintings is a series depicting masks and pottery. These group together diverse objects from far-flung locations, such as the Mayan jaguar mask and Japanese Shintoriso mask that bookend a Congolese feathered cap in "Drama Queen (2)." She's drenched each of the four paintings in this group with a single color family--chalk blue for "Drama Queen (2)," leaf green for "Drama Queen (3)," which pictures a mask from Mali with another Congolese hat. They feel more like color studies than finished paintings. And the groupings are an incongruity, like an archaeological museum turned upside down.

In an artist's statement, Brandel notes that her work honors not only the ancients who once made "textiles, utilitarian and ceremonial objects and sculpture." She also hopes to bring attention to artisans living and working in traditional cultures today, and still managing to "make and use hand-crafted items."

"Mayan Weaver" highlights the long tradition in Guatemala. In the painting, the artist has positioned a pottery sculpture from 900 A.D. that depicts a weaver at a backstrap loom, the same kind of loom you can find women laboring over today in Guatemalan town squares. The backdrop of the painting highlights one of their contemporary weavings in the traditional style: dazzling stripes in white and red careen down the center, below jumping diamonds and squares, pink and red flowers. A complicated geometric multicolor border bristles in triangles spirals and figure 8s.

But even while Brandel celebrates the continuing traditions, some crafts are changing or even disappearing. Hand-crafted clothes worldwide are giving way to cheap factory-mades. Even in Guatemala, where villages could long be distinguished by the characteristic patterns of the women's huipiles, some towns embracing Protestantism and modernism have given up traditional dress wholesale.

Still, enterprising traditional weavers are finding new markets in the tourist trade, and adapting their wares to what travelers will buy. Even Brandel helps the metamorphosis, deftly translating thread and floss into paint on paper, and clothing into art.