Tapestry artist Diedrick Brackens weaves a dream for Holloway House
As the Los Angeles-based artist’s new tapestry is exhibited at the Holloway House, he speaks to Osman Can Yerebakan about the multiple creative merits of weaving
Saturday 26 August 2022 By Osman Can Yerebakan
When I ask artist Diedrick Brackens to describe the experience of weaving for long hours at his Los Angeles studio, he replies that it’s ‘either like time travel or a long road trip’. Brackens has been working on the loom since he started weaving in 2008, during his undergraduate degree, and notes that hours can often pass like minutes when he’s in the zone. ‘My mind expands and builds a slippery relationship with time,’ Brackens explains. His painterly wall-hung tapestries often depict Black bodies in poses that sit somewhere between dance and acute stillness. ‘Weaving an inch may feel like an hour, but then there are moments where I don’t even know how long I have been sitting here, because the sun is in a very different place, or even down.’
The sense of physicality in the Texan-born artist’s work can be found both in the practice and the outcome. On the one hand there’s his own dance with the loom — a balanced waltz and an unpredictable duello — while the figures he creates, often depicted in the act of undefined labour, seem both elegant and determined. Brackens’ work is heavily influenced by figures in ancient art ‘in which bodies are depicted in profile’, and his tapestries are also impacted by his home, the American South, and its troubled relationship with the Black body.
‘While weaving, I’m thinking about how the silhouette can abstract the body,’ he says. ‘But there’s always a negotiation with the poses: I can’t hide this arm here, because otherwise the limb would look locked off.’ He works hard to maintain a balance between ‘dynamic’ and ‘sorrowful’. ‘Communicating the tougher emotional registers while pushing against a lyrical fluidity is a hard one.’ Brackens usually places his subjects to the forefront of his loose tapestries, alongside occasional appearances of animals or domestic objects. Of the human figures he says, ‘I am aware that they seem to be largely based on my own silhouette, but I don’t consider them as self-portraiture.’
There’s a sense of mystery about Bracken’s tapestries – one of which has recently been hung at Holloway House in Los Angeles. Indeed, at first glance, it’s difficult to know whether you’re looking at a painting, a sculpture, or a weaving. The figures are often left with pieces of thread sprouting from their limbs. The act of leaving his tapestries – many of which take months to complete – unfinished is, in Bracken’s words, a response ‘to that final act of separating from the loom […] I let the contemporary artist impulse kick in. It’s the moment I break with the tradition because I am not making a rug or a table runner – what I do may not even be “pretty”,’ he explains.
The slightly unravelled nature of Brackens’ work has become something of a signature, for which he has amassed a wide following in only a few years. From gallery shows with his New York dealer Jack Shainman Gallery and Various Small Fires on the West Coast, to numerous museum exhibitions across the country including New York’s New Museum, his creations play neatly into the art world’s current (and arguably long overdue) reappreciation of craft. ‘I've been taught in the same spaces as painters and sculptors, but then I chose this medium that has its own set of histories and concerns,’ he says. ‘I’m always thinking about how to get the threads to be in conversation with the craft of weaving, while trying to balance my other concerns or interests like Matisse, or how colour and light move in space.’
The tapestry, which has been newly installed in Holloway House’s lobby, ‘Dance Tame, Tender Feat’ (2022), is typical Brackens. Two figures with one arm lifted up each pose like ballet dancers, and in the background a figure of a horse adds a sense of disquiet to the scene: the beast is wild, the dancers determinedly still. Further proof that it’s a Brackens piece come in the form of bits of cotton protruding from the surface of the four sections of the tapestry.
This pairing of human figures with animals is not new for Brackens. In his recent solo exhibition, Heaven Is A Muddy Riverbed at Craft Contemporary museum in LA, the artist showed works that delved into the cultural connotations of catfish. A key food staple in the American South, he used the fish as visual metaphors for his ancestors who were so mistreated in his and their homeland. ‘The perception of these animals as bottom feeder scavengers that are less desirable became a way for me to consider them as “spirit animals” that I could use about my cultural identity,’ he explains.
Questions of identity feature elsewhere in Brackens’ work, most notably in the way that none of the figures in his tapestries are discernibly gendered. The artist leaves the bodies in his work ‘as vague as possible’, and he sometimes goes back to his initial sketch and erases any potential hints of genitalia. ‘I am curious about what the viewer invents with that lack of information, not just about the figures’ sexualities but also their actions,’ he says.
Brackens’ process of creating a tapestry starts with a sketch. Usually, he commits between 60 to 80% of the drawing to cotton, but he also writes poetry to help him prepare for the loom. Before art school, he thought he might become a poet, and today piles of journals litter his Los Angeles studio. ‘I definitely feel a similar act of creation when I write and weave – something about the mental space I go to and my body is sustained in silent meditation.’ He titles his works with lines from his poems, but also sometimes exhibits his written work as part of his shows. The recent catalogue for Craft Contemporary, for example, included eight poems printed alongside the images of his tapestries. One of the poems, titled They Have Grown Gills, says, ‘I suffer with the departed waters chores’, alongside a tapestry featuring two bodies engulfed by water, grabbing at catfish.
Brackens has called Los Angeles home since 2015. ‘From a young age, even before I was destined to be an artist, I was always attracted to California,’ he says. The slow place and warm weather are great, he tells me, but the city’s cultural landscape and the community he has built over the years are really what keeps him here. On the 10th floor of a downtown building, his 2,500 sq ft studio looks out at a freeway. ‘I watch cars run like a river,’ he says. There is ample room for looming, sewing, meetings, and mostly importantly dying, which allows the artist to create his own shades. He starts with bleached white cotton yarn and sinks them in nocturnal blues and dusky reds to create hues that are no one’s but his.
Brackens spends much of his time outside of the city in nature, and animals, especially horses, occupy his imagination. ‘I think about the forced choreography their movements are put into by people and how they’re made to behave in a certain way,’ he says. Brackens tells me that he has heard about some wild horses living free somewhere in North East California, and that he’s ‘determined to see them one day.’