In the summer of 2009, artist Gabriel Dawe and architect Gary Cunningham were invited to collaborate on a work of art as part of an exhibition titled “Transitive Pairings: Body Objects.” Organized by Dr. Charissa Terranova at CentralTrak, the University of Texas at Dallas artists’ residency where Dawe practiced, “Transitive Pairings” was inspired by — and it expanded upon — the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s 2006–2007 exhibition, “Skin + Bones: Parallel Practices in Fashion and Architecture.” The Los Angeles exhibit examined themes of shelter, identity, and creative process, as well as the parallel stylistic tendencies found between fashion design and architecture. The Dallas exhibit built on these themes to examine how collaborations between artists and architects might lead to hybrid forms that elucidate the relationship between the human body and inanimate objects.
Terranova’s invitation represented a fortuitous opportunity for Dawe. At the time, he was an MFA candidate working primarily in textiles. He was interested in expanding the scale of his practice, and his collaboration with Cunningham became the catalyst that propelled his work from a focus on small, intimate objects to the large-scale environmental installations for which he is now best known.
No matter its scale, much of Dawe’s work is an exercise in precision. His early work involved painstaking stitchwork, thread, pins, and articles of clothing sourced from the artist’s own closet as well as from local used clothing stores. Works from this period include the “Pain Series,” for which the artist pushed hundreds of pins through shirt cuffs and collars, creating garments whose two sides — one glossed with a pinhead sheen like protective armor; the other prickly like a medieval Iron Maiden — represent the painful ways in which fashion informs identity. Other pieces from this era include “Selective Memory,” “Fear Series,” and “Identity Series.” All utilize thread and embroidery and explore the artist’s feelings of inadequacy about working with the domestic tools of needles and thread traditionally wielded by women.
The installations that emerged from Dawe’s collaboration with Cunningham represent the most ambitious expressions of his meticulous attention to form and detail. The first of these, the “Plexus” series of architectural thread installations, began as a formal exercise. Working in his CentralTrak studio to develop a method for expanding the scale of his work in preparation for the “Transitive Pairings”
exhibition, Dawe created a screen of intricately woven, multicolored thread that covered an entire wall from floor to ceiling. With this installation, Dawe discovered a way to weave the thread to create a subtle yet brilliant gradient of color. He also developed the anchoring mechanism that would be used in the circular eye form he planned for “Transitive Pairings.”
For the exhibition, Cunningham and Dawe created “Eye I” and “Eye II”: A large eye designed by Cunningham appeared on the exterior of the gallery and was echoed by one on the inside, designed by Dawe. The two versions connected via a window box that allowed light to pass through the outer eye pupil to the inner eye pupil. The installation incorporated sound and projected video playing on the “pupils,” which were screens. Cunningham was inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film, “A Clockwork Orange,” and he took a more literal approach to his form, with dramatic eyelashes appended to the upper and lower eyelids. Dawe’s inner eye, composed of a circular wood frame and woven thread in shades of green, was a more abstract meditation on the form: It sprang away from the gallery wall, activating the negative space.
Exposure to architectural practice allowed the artist to reconsider his textile pieces in terms of their sheltering nature and to transform them into immersive installations that call attention to negative spaces and the way our bodies move through them.
In the years since the exhibition, Dawe has continued working on installations that combine his interest in space, light, architecture, and fashion. In creating architectural installations with the most basic component of cloth — thread — the artist ties together the two seemingly disparate disciplines of fashion and architecture under the overarching theme of shelter. Dawe’s monumental thread installations relate not only to the body and the complexities of our designs, but also to the structures that cover and protect our bodies from external elements.
Leigh A. Arnold is assistant curator at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas.
Originally published in the May/June 2015 issue of Texas Architect.