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Tucson Weekly Trippy Tapestries

Ann Keuper weaves a little bit of everything into her fascinating new works.

By Margaret Regan

MAY 11, 1998:  AS A GRAD student in fine arts at the UA, Ann Keuper exhibited extraordinary tapestries. Woven out of pig gut--yes, hog innards--a substance that was both pale blonde and gossamer, the works more than once graced an Orts dance concert, dangling above the stage, fluttering in the breezes generated by passing dancers. Part weaving, part sculpture, the delicate works proved over and again that a person of Keuper's artistry can indeed make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

Graduate school ended seven years ago for Keuper, and now, sadly, so has the pig gut, more or less. In a new solo show, Woven Together: An Exhibition of Tapestry, Keuper fills the entire gallery of Dinnerware with wall tapestries concocted of everything from balloons to goat hair, and from ribbons to silk cocoons, but she makes only a few passing references to her beloved pig gut of old. You have to look carefully to find it, but it's there on a tapestry called "Place of Emergence." Fashioned into dainty leaf shapes, the gut clings to an earthy Keuper cloth rough-woven of goat's hair and feathers; the whole thing is lashed to a length of scratchy sisal.

Much as we may mourn the passing of the pig gut, it's clear Keuper has not lost her knack for weaving all manner of odd things into cloth. The kick in her work comes from the combination of traditional weaving techniques with wildly untraditional materials. "Roses and Stones," from 1992, is made out of, well, silk roses and stones, knotted together in an extravagant tapestry of coconut fiber, sisal and a touch of gut. Some of the newest, and loveliest, pieces are made out of the detritus of the natural world, painstakingly entwined together: shanks of human hair, bits of budding wheat, silk cocoons dyed in splendid jewel colors.

"Silk Crystals" is a subtle amalgam of a dozen such cocoons stitched onto a backdrop of silk hankies and gold leaf; this 3-D construction is tacked to a swathe of shiny earth-green cloth. This piece isn't the only one in which Keuper makes a visual pun on her materials. The cocoons, left in their natural hues of beige and eggshell, seem to be inhabited still by their original occupants, silkworms now appearing as mummified corpses. These industrious little worms and their fellows have spun the fine silks that Keuper so enjoys weaving, and she wittily includes both producer and product in her own work.

Keuper has fun experimenting with color too. A series of three small wall works, "Green," "Red" and "Yellow," are the closest her tapestries get to painting. They all have the same geometric format. A small central woven square is at dead center of a cloth backdrop that's been stretched like a canvas. The colors of the big and small rectangles reverberate against each other as much as they would in a respectable abstract painting, and the flat texture of the backdrops, dyed in intense shades, plays against the three-dimensional weavings at center. "Green" is a deep green-black, with the central square a strangely puffy cloth in yellow-green, topped by turkey feathers. "Red" is blue-black with a puffy pink-red center, showcasing a single cocoon, dyed red, and proffered like a jewel. For "Yellow," Keuper rolled up monoprints and wove them with goat hair; the resulting black-and-yellow-and-white square is set against a luscious maroon-black.

These fine works have a talismanic power, located somewhere on a grid bounded at one end by abstract art and at the other by primitive magic. So it's a mystery why an artist of Keuper's refined aesthetic would also display works on the hokey lines of "Moon Baah." Woven of thick velvety fabrics and silks, punctuated by random zippers, this piece pictures a landscape beneath the waxing moon; mountain peaks in green stand beneath three gold moons floating in a deep black sky. Obviously, a lot of care has gone into its weaving, but its aesthetics are more akin to a discount rug mart than they are to Keuper's abstractions. Similarly, a series of narrative weavings picturing human figures are seriously intended, but come off as schlock.

Another Tucson weaver, Barbara Brandel, who shows around town occasionally, has managed to pull off the trick of figures woven-into-cloth. The paired-down people and animals in Brandel's weavings wield the same kind of charisma that Keuper's abstractions do. But for the most part, commercial weaving, with its mass-produced kachinas on rugs and puppies on towels, has rendered the whole realm of narrative weaving permanently suspect. It's just too kitschy for serious artists.

Keuper notes in an artist's statement that she's working to preserve an ancient art form that's been "practically lost because of the time and patience required." She doesn't shirk from the tradition's time requirements (she'll be slowly recreating a fragment of a medieval tapestry in the gallery during the show's run) and yet she dares to go where traditional weavers feared to tread. By and large her works are a wonder of discipline and vision. But she should stick to her gorgeous cocoons and feathers (and gut), and leave the people and landscapes behind.

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