In a 1986 essay, Jean-Hubert Martin, the future curator of the Centre Pompidou’s “Magiciens de la Terre,” complained that “too much art today is given over to intensive production that obscures any spiritual value.” Julia Bland avoided this pitfall in “If You Want to Be Free,” her first solo show in New York. The exhibition’s five intricate, handcrafted painting-textile hybrids (all 2014 or 2015) reject modern Western ideas of materiality and manufacture, instead embracing Islamic customs of resplendent ornamentation and drawing on mystic traditions and philosophies.
During a 2008 fellowship in which she studied Islamic art and Sufism in Morocco, Bland encountered the centrality of weaving and embroidery in Moroccan culture. Derived from mathematical formulas, the webbed, woven elements of her works are inspired by the Sufi notion that geometric rhythms and patterns reveal cosmic processes and the vibrations of the universe. Well-known Arab and Sufi tales featuring flying carpets or prayer rugs, notably One Thousand and One Nights and Shaikh Muhammad ibn Yahya al-Tadifi al-Hanbali’s Necklaces of Gems, epitomize beliefs that textiles carry magical properties.
In the works on view, each approximately 7 feet square, rope, canvas and fabrics such as silk, wool and velvet are brought together in complex compositions. Braiding, stitching, gluing, crocheting and weaving fill out the designs, and the varied surfaces are painted in oil. The needlework in particular showcases Bland’s technical prowess, and the haptic results accomplish what any good painting should: namely, the ability to engage and move the eye. Spring Shadow, for example, with its strong arcs and triangles, recalls Georgia O’Keeffe’s Brooklyn Bridge (1949), a painterly show of strength and beauty, function and form in a scene of sweeping steel cords.
The pieces reflect on experiences with nature—as evidenced by their titles (in addition to Spring Shadow, there are A Cold Sun A Burning Tree and Winter) as well as the mountainous forms in their compositions—while also making a case for the power of decoration. Islamic art and design is generally characterized by its material richness. The elaborate ornamentation of mosques is meant to translate the sense of awe produced by magnificent architecture into a similar awe in response to God. In Arab culture in particular, the repetition of prayers and visual motifs is meant to summon a kind of metaphysical trance. To successfully elicit such a state, Bland’s work would require a space much larger than what On Stellar Rays offered. While the works’ grandeur was apparent here, the small upstairs gallery greatly limited the effect.
Though Martin’s essay is almost 30 years old, his criticism of shallow materiality applies to many process-driven artworks produced today. Such works rely on impressive technique and fleeting aesthetic satisfaction in place of prolonged and nuanced contemplation. Bland’s work could have easily fallen into this category, but her application of unconventional methods to the painting medium and her engagement with mystic traditions beget paintings that are able to marry the earthly and the divine.