Tapestry master exhibits work in 108 Contemporary
BY JAMES D. WATTS JR. World Scene Writer
Thursday, February 28, 2013
3/13/13 at 2:53 PM
This story originally contained an incorrect name. The story has been corrected.
Related Story: 108 Contemporary to feature artwork in fibers, paper, ceramics and more
Jon Eric Riis' life became tangled up in threads at an early age.
"I suppose my earliest experience in textiles was as a kid - I used to like unraveling pieces of cloth, row by row," Riis said, speaking by phone from his studio in Atlanta, Ga.
"My grandparents were from Sweden, and they grew their own flax and made their own towels and sheets," he said. "So I grew up around a lot of the old weaving equipment that was used in the early 20th century."
These days, Riis' fascination with threads is more focused on the ways they can be brought together and made into the tapestries that have earned him an international reputation as one of the modern masters of this art form.
Some 40 examples of Riis' work - from wall-sized pieces that capture the human form in almost photographic detail to stylized jackets combining fine tapestry work with intricately patterned beadwork made of pearls - go on display Friday as the inaugural exhibit of 108 Contemporary, the latest addition to the Brady Arts District.
108 Contemporary is an exhibition space devoted to fine art made from materials usually associated with craft arts - fiber, clay, metal, wood.
"Having a show by Jon Eric Riis is exactly what you would want to open a gallery such as this," said 108 Contemporary founder Myra Kaiser. "His work is so extraordinary that it can't be seen as anything but the highest level of art."
The jackets Riis creates, for example, are anything but wearable. The interiors of these garments are as finely detailed as the outer surface, which can be completely covered in tiny beads.
"Some of those jackets can weigh up for 40 pounds," Riis said.
Riis often uses metallic threads in his work because "it has qualities that ordinary wool thread simply doesn't have," he said. "Of course, it's much more difficult to work with, and it's terribly expensive.
"One odd thing is I recently did a big show in France, and people were saying that my work was very avant-garde because I was using metallic thread," Riis said. "But tapestry artists were using metallic threads as far back as the 14th century - in Asia and in Europe.
"And I've been doing a lot of pieces recently that use pearls," he said. "For a series of images of locusts, I had to use tapestry techniques on leather around the figures, simply because it was the only material that could withstand the weight."
The weight of Riis' work is not simply measured in pounds and ounces. Tapestries have from the beginning been used to tell stories and convey messages, and Riis takes that tradition very much to heart. His work is noted as much for its pointed social and political messages as for its pure beauty.
For example, a piece titled "Congressional Contraints" features images of donkeys and elephants that refuse to face each other and dozens of pairs of tiny boxing gloves.
Other pieces deal with issues of race, the environment, the price of freedom and the cost of greed.
"I deal with all sorts of things in my work," Riis said. "I've done anti-war pieces, the state of the economy, the oil crisis. One of my better known works is a series called 'Babes in Arms,' these larger-than-life sculptures of children with guns."
As textile authority Rebecca A.T. Stevens wrote in an essay on one of Riis' most recent museum exhibits, "He creates visually beautiful works of art that confront us with uncomfortable truths and painful questions. His work weds Beauty and the Social Beast. It is this marriage that sets his artwork apart from that of other artists."
While the thematic content of his works is often contemporary - even the pieces inspired by ancient Greek and Roman mythology, such as the large "Icarus" tapestry, have a modern resonance - the basis of Riis' tapestry draws from traditions and techniques that are centuries old.
"I grew up in the Chicago area, and I would go to the Field Museum every chance I had," Riis said. "I spent hours in places like the Tibetan section, with all those masks and dragons and demons. Anthropology has always been something I've loved.
"Then, when I went to the Art Institute of Chicago, you had to take these orientation courses," he said. "I had one on fiber, and my task was to research Mexican textiles at the Field Museum. And that just sort of opened things up for me, as to the artistic and expressive qualities of this medium. I probably would have gone into design or advertising otherwise."
Friday art walk to feature local artistry
BRADY ARTS DISTRICT ART WALK 6 to 9 p.m. Friday
AHHA, the Arts & Humanities Council of Tulsa's Hardesty Arts Center, 101 E. Archer St. "Site Unseen," exhibit by Eyakem Guiliat.
Blu, 111 N. Main St. Photography by Vlad Railian and paintings by Matt Kupke & Sker.
Brady Artists Studio, 23 E. Brady St. Work by Mel Cornshucker, Donna Prigmore, Teresa Rechter, Connor Wingfield & Murf, and Julie and Box on display.
Caz's Pub, 21 E. Brady St. Live Graffiti Art.
Club 209, 209 N. Boulder Ave. "Tulsa Tom Unplugged" by Tom Clark acrylic on canvas.
Colors of Etnika, 10 E. Archer St. New bazaar collections from Bali & Thailand, along with unique handpicked articrafts.
Corvid Gallery, 10 E. Archer St. Works by Andrew L. Strout.
Glacier Confections, 15 E. Brady St. Custom artisan chocolates.
Gypsy Coffee House & Cyber Cafe, 303 N. Cincinnati Ave. Works by photographer Richard Gorremans.
The Henry Zarrow Center for Art and Education, 124 E. Brady St., Works by the University of Tulsa School of Art faculty.
Living Arts of Tulsa, 307 E. Brady St. Saya Woolfalk's "Institute of Empathy: Ritual Room."
MOCHA Butterfly, 216 N. Main St. Work by designer Nikki Warren.
Polypress Letterpress Shop, 11 E. Brady St. Home goods by Elizabeth & Park, Calligraphy by Mollie Meeks.
The Tavern on Brady, 201 N. Main St., will display works by Tulsa photographer Gaylord Herron.
Tulsa Artists' Coalition Gallery, 9 E. Brady St. "Above, Below, and What Lies Between," new work by Milissa Burkart.
Tulsa Glass Blowing Studio, 19 E. Brady St. Work by guest artist Aaron Tate.
Original Print Headline: Tapestry master on display
James D. Watts Jr 918-581-8478
Artwork by Jon Eric Riis is on display at 108 Contemporary. MIKE SIMONS / Tulsa World