The fourth American Tapestry Biennial includes 29 tapestries: the work of 3 jury members and 26 selected artists from 7 countries. The stated aim of the sponsor organization, the American Tapestry Alliance, was to curate a "truly international exhibition reflecting the depth and breadth of contemporary tapestry." Ambitious exhibitions like ATB 4 are few and far between; they are anticipated with much excitement by those of us in the tapestry field. Often we become so caught up in the pleasure of seeing a collection of tapestries that we forget the overview, we avoid being critical and we do not question what we are seeing or consider how the work relates to or reflects a broader context.
ATB 4 offers an important opportunity to consider and to question the context of the exhibition, to gauge the health and vitality of contemporary tapestry and reflect on the future of contemporary tapestry practice.
Influenced by my experience and perspective as an artist, educator and participant in the exhibition, I will offer a very personal inquiry into the role and influence of ATB 4, and it's position in the expanded field of contemporary textiles and art.
Throughout this paper I will discuss the things that both delight and worry me about the exhibition, the work, and the practice of tapestry making. I anticipate that I will pose many more questions than I am going to answer.
When compared to other artists, textile practitioners and particularly tapestry makers seem hesitant to disavow the influence of historic antecedents and much less willing to see rejection of tradition as an artistic strategy. In saying this, I do not mean to suggest that tapestry weavers are not innovative or that we are not looking for ways to question or reinvent tradition. This is certainly happening. Yet if we look at ATB 4 as indicative of the contemporary tapestry field, then the innovation here is offered in more subtle shifts and interpretations than sweeping changes.