Last week I covered “Cover Story”, so to speak, which is the hub of The Denver Art Museum’s museum wide exhibition “Spun”. There are, in addition, 11 smaller satellite exhibitions as well. In some cases the works are not presented together but items in the departments’ galleries are marked by a blue tag that says SPUN next to them. One such is in the Old Master Paintings galleries where one of the pictures is by the Master of the Blue Jeans. The picture, “Woman Begging with two Children” is lent by Galerie Canesso. To explain, in 2010 Gallerie Canesso in Paris did an exhibition of the paintings now attributed to The Master of the Blue Jeans. Gerlinde Gruber, curator at the Kunsthistorisches Mueum in Vienna has reattributed these paintings, which all show garments of blue denim cloth, to this newly discovered 17th century Genoese artist. Previously they had been given to other masters of the period. The conclusion being that the original blue jeans were made from cloth made in Genoa.
Another show with a few objects interspersed in the American paintings galleries is called “Western Duds”. We see a painting by E. William Gollings (1878-1932) of a rider in blue jeans next to a vintage pair of Levi Strauss & Co. (1905-1922) Jeans. Here I have a quibble. I would have preferred to see the Levi Strauss jeans with the painting by the Master of the Blue Jeans in order to see how close the colors really were. But this would have crossed interdepartmental lines… a no no!
The most dramatic installation is “Red White and Bold”, an exhibition of Navajo textiles. In this case, I must mention the designer, Tom Fricker of Fricker Studio. I did not recognize the name but when you go to his website http://www.frickerstudio.com you can see that his style very much fits with this installation.
When the curator, Nancy Blomberg, explained to us that the installation was a collaborative effort this also made perfect sense. Fricker is somewhat frenetic in his style and uses very dramatic lighting, while the curator seems totally controlled, knowing precisely where she wished to go with her exhibition, and that is why it all worked so brilliantly.
In galleries in the new angular Daniel Libeskind building that have high ceilings and few vertical walls they suspended Navjo blankets one above the other in all their glory of color and design. By using a few mannequins, they show how the designs work when they are worn. These long flat two-dimensional textiles are worn in a certain manner and the weaver is fully aware of which motifs or symbols will appear where. Their dimensionality is revealed on the turning mannequin showing a Chief’s Shoulder Blanket dating around 1870 from Denver’s collection.
The didactic panel for the show suggests imagining what it must have felt like to wear one of these luxury blankets when you sat on your horse. My first reaction was, heavy! But then I started thinking of words like regal and proud which I guess is an image that comes directly out of the myth of the west.
On the other side of the gallery we found a display of Navajo ponchos. These, like the ponchos we see today, have a large central slit through which the wearer can stick his head. Their purpose may have been more for warmth in winter than to keep the rain off of which there is precious little in Navajo Country. Ponchos were already popular in Mexico influencing the Navajo to make them as well. The Navajo weavings, however, were woven so that the orientation allowed the elaborate bands to accentuate the wearer’s shoulders. One of the ponchos in the show represents an early Navajo pictorial weaving which was lent by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. While as a rule 19th century Navajo textiles have only geometric designs, this weaving has figures including an hourglass shaped figure, which has been identified as a “whirlwind figure” from a Navajo religious ceremony. Since a representation of a religious entity is expressly forbidden by the Navajo this is exceptional indeed and, the earliest one known dating between 1860 and 1865.
It is not that surprising that the Navajo were influenced by their neighbors in Mexico but what is more astounding is that when the British discovered how to make chemical dyes and started to export bolts of red and blue cloth in 1856 within a decade the Navajo were buying it from the traders. They took the cloth apart strand by strand for their ornamental weavings. Heretofore they had used plant and animal dyes to color the wool they spun. Since the process took lots of water and again that was not available in abundance they were delighted with access to the British fabric.
I have touched on a show, which has far more riches to see, so I can only encourage you to visit the Denver Art Museum and see it’s many treasures.