Morris Museum opens major exhibition of works by leading contemporary tapestry artist

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Morris Museum opens major exhibition of works by leading contemporary tapestry artist
Largest presentation of the artist's work in the U.S. And his first solo exhibition in the northeast. Photo: Chris Jorda.

MORRISTOWN, NJ.- From November 20, 2020 through May 2, 2021, the Morris Museum presents an exhibition of works by contemporary tapestry artist Jon Eric Riis (b. 1945, United States). Active for nearly six decades, Riis is celebrated for his intricately handwoven, representational textiles that strike a balance between social commentary and virtuoso craftsmanship. Art, history, world cultures, and topical issues serve as inspiration to address provocative subjects—such as race, religion, war, beauty, spirituality, humanity—through the medium of woven silk and metallic thread. Often they are embellished with freshwater pearls, gemstone and gilt glass beads, and crystals. Dating from 2000-2020, the 58 works on view include large mythological tapestry panels, Riis’s signature coat and robe archetypal forms, and experimental anatomical tapestry strips, making this the largest presentation of the artist’s work in the U.S. and his first solo museum exhibition in the Northeast.

“Jon Eric Riis turns the age-old art of tapestry on its head, bringing it into the present by exploring contemporary issues and personal narratives,” said Ronald T. Labaco, the Morris Museum’s Chief Curator. “Traditionally, tapestries and other woven luxury textiles were commissioned by the wealthy and powerful, not only as magnificent works of art but also to uphold and communicate their privileged status. They would engage a prominent artist to devise the imagery, which would then be executed by skilled weavers to exact specifications. By contrast, as a contemporary artist Riis conceives of the content, creates the design, and weaves the tapestry entirely himself. These works serve as an extension of his thoughts, values, and internal dialogues—the threads of his consciousness—sublime in concept and execution.”

Riis weaves each piece on customized vertical looms, ranging from 2 to 10 feet tall, that he has owned since the early 1970s. Depending on the particular tapestry, he may assemble together multiple smaller elements to create a larger composition. Riis first gained recognition for his woven work as a college student in the mid-1960s at the onset of the fiber arts movement. After teaching at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, he accepted a position as head of the Crafts program at Georgia State University in Atlanta, where he established his studio. Early success came from commissions for public spaces by modernist interior designers and architects from the southeast, such as John C. Portman, Jr., who favored abstractionist weavings. In the early 1990s Riis made a decisive break from abstraction and transitioned to figurative imagery with strong visual references to the real world, celebrating tapestry’s rich tradition of pictorial narrative. These social and cultural investigations distinguish Riis’s approach from other practitioners of this genre today. “My more recent tapestries question the issues dealing with the quality of life in the States,” stated Jon Eric Riis. “Especially in the areas of education, racial and religious inequalities, and our declining political standing in the world.”

The exhibition begins in the Museum’s Pavilion lobby with Riis’s monumental Icarus II (2003). Nearly 5-feet high and over 14-feet wide, the tapestry portrays a double-portrait of the tragic character Icarus, from Greek mythology, in the heavens against a ground of blue silk. Golden feathers, each individually woven from metallic threads and applied by hand, form his wings and the golden frame. The installation continues in the galleries with Icarus III (2003), over 5-feet high by 8-feet wide, depicting the character’s fall, lying on the blue-silk shore of the Aegean Sea with crystalline waves lapping against his lifeless form. Other works inspired by antiquity include fanciful interpretations of classical and neoclassical figurative sculpture encountered by Riis during his travels. Sculptor Antonio Canova’s early 19th-century white marble idealization of male beauty, Paris, is rendered in woven silk and metallic thread as Golden Boy (2000) with a chest tattoo and golden body hair.

In addition to his artistic practice, Riis is a collector and purveyor of antique costume and textiles that sometimes serve as sources for new ideas. Back then, as is today, clothing served as an indicator of one’s social status, religious devotion, or ideological conviction. Riis first conceived his archetypal coat form in 2002 and it has remained an important element of his oeuvre ever since, with 19 coats featured in this exhibition. The earliest, Triad Coat (2002), depicts three images: the artist’s self-portrait, a second portrait of African-American model Ken Moody based on the iconic photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe, and a third hybrid portrait that combines the physical facial characteristics of the two. Riis explores this meditation on racial similarities and differences again in his five-panel work Black to White (2006).

Sometimes Riis treats the coat interior differently than the exterior so that—when open—a hidden image is revealed. Freedom’s Price II Coat (2002) features a desert camouflage military uniform pattern on the exterior, and a blood-red interior with the phrase “Home Sweet Home” in the style of an antique American cross-stitch sampler. In Ancestors Pearl Coat (2013), the exterior depicts an abstracted genetic tree connecting the faces of people of different ethnicities, while hidden on the interior is an image of humankind’s evolutionary relative, the chimpanzee, with whom we share 99% of the same DNA.

Growing up in the Chicago area, Riis often visited the Field Museum of Natural History where he nurtured his interest in the natural world and artifacts from different cultures. Feathers, insects, and amphibians are repeating motifs in his work, as seen in Peacock Coat (2011), Emu Feather Coat (2017), Night Flight Pearl Coat (2004), Locust (2020), and Frogs and Caviar Pearl Coat (2004). Flora and fauna are the subject matter of several tapestries inspired by botanical prints and paintings, with horsehair incorporated into the weave to create textural surfaces.

Riis’s spiritual investigations are drawn from his travels to Asia and his admiration for non-western societies, with the culture of Tibet having made a strong impression on his psyche. Three large tapestries, over 8 feet wide and comprised of overlapping layers of smaller woven panels—Floral Kesa, Tiger Kesa, and Skull Kesa (all 2008)—are elaborate depictions of the kesa robe form worn by Buddhist monks and nuns. The tiger motif recurs in four Tiger Coats (2007), each depicting stylizations of tiger images found painted on Tibetan monastery walls; also in a pair of colorful, 7-feet tall Tiger Banners (2006), representing antique rugs in the form of flayed tiger pelts that were made as gifts for Buddhist lama spiritual leaders. The grinning skull motif, drawn from images found in 19th-century Tibetan medical illustrations, also appears in Dancing Couple Coat (2007) and Multicolored Skull Pearl Coat (2009).

The exhibition concludes with Riis’s reflections on the materiality of the human body through a series of experimental anatomical tapestry strip compositions depicting cross-sections of internal organs, inspired by 19th-century Japanese anatomical medical dolls. More of a concept piece, Anatomy Tapes: Blondes, Brunettes, and Redheads (2009) imagines three 2-inch wide, 8-foot long strips of flayed skin, with the external features represented on one side complete with body hair, and the internal organs on the other.

Threads of Consciousness: The Tapestries of Jon Eric Riis is organized by Ronald T. Labaco, Chief Curator; with the assistance of Sara O’Connor, Preparator; Gillian Suss, Registrar; Michele Marinelli, Curator; Jere Ryder, Guinness Conservator; and Kayla Leiton, former Curatorial Assistant.

Born in Park Ridge, Illinois in 1945, Jon Eric Riis is a tapestry artist living and working in Atlanta, GA. He earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts from School of the Art Institute of Chicago, IL in 1967; his Master of Fine Arts from Cranbrook Academy of Art, Bloomfield Hills, MI in 1969; and a Fulbright Grant to study at Viswa Bharati University, Santiniketan, West Bengal, India in 1970. Riis’s work has been widely exhibited in museums and galleries in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. His work is in the permanent collections of Art Institute of Chicago, IL; Cleveland Museum of Art, OH; Columbia Museum of Art, SC; High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA; Indianapolis Museum of Art, IN; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Minneapolis Institute of Arts, MN; Museum of Arts and Design, New York; Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.; Southwest School of Art and Craft, San Antonio, TX; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT; and numerous private collections.

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