Magazine article Sculpture

Gabriel Dawe: Light Threads

Magazine article Sculpture

Gabriel Dawe: Light Threads

Article excerpt

The Toledo Museum of Art's classically inspired Great Gallery, home to a muscular collection of Baroque masterworks by artists such as Rubens and Poussin, might seem a daring place to install a massive contemporary fiber art installation. But during a preparatory site visit, Gabriel Dawe was immediately drawn to the space and responded with Plexus no. 35 (2016), a temporary, site-specific work. (He's also done commissions for TED, the Courtauld Institute, and the Smithsonian Institution's Renwick Gallery.) Dawe engages in apparent visual alchemy, transforming substance into light; despite the magical effects, he is willing to divulge some, if not all, of his secrets.

Born in Mexico City, Dawe has been working with fiber since childhood. His grandmother taught his sister how to embroider; but, believing it to be an exclusively feminine pursuit, she wouldn't teach Gabriel, who stole string and worked out the process on his own. (Some of his recent works question the very notion of gendered professions.) While pursuing his MFA at the University of Texas, he created his first "Plexus" work, which began as an experiment in his studio, when he threaded a translucent veil of fiber to cover a barren, 50-foot wall. To make that work, he climbed up and down a ladder roughly 300 times a day for several weeks.

A plexus is a network of branching blood vessels. For Dawe, the image offered a suitable concept to guide the series, and he has used it to title these works ever since. Another important milestone came in the form of a group show, curated by Charissa Terranova at CentralTrak in Dallas. This exhibition, which explored clothing and its relation to architecture, sent Dawe's career on its meteoric rise and gave shape to subsequent "Plexus" works. Both architecture and clothing, Dawe explains, protect and conceal us. Following this parallel, he wanted to take textile art and apply it at an architectural scale. His submission for the show, Eye II (For Transitive Pairings) (2010), consisted of an elliptical framework threaded with sea-green fiber that swooped from the wall into the space like a protective awning. Like all of his subsequent works, Eye II was imposingly large - Plexus Ai (2015), which was included in the Renwick Gallery's blockbuster "Wonder" exhibition, used 60 miles of fiber.

No one will ever know how many miles of thread went into the formation of Plexus no. 35. At a public lecture hosted by the TMA, Dawe explained why he's stopped answering that question. He likens it to asking a painter how many tubes (or strokes) of paint were used in a painting: Would knowing the answer really influence or change our appreciation of the finished product? For the same reason, he no longer reveals to inquisitive viewers how long it takes to install his work. After giving the lesson, he smiled and quipped, in the spirit of playful mischievousness, that he gets much enjoyment from withholding the secret. Dawe's alchemy performs visual, if not material, transformation, and, like a magician, he's certainly permitted to maintain the mystique. (Anyone who absolutely must know how long an installation takes to create can approximate an answer by following Dawe's photographic updates on social media.)

During the week before the unveiling of Plexus no. 35, curious visitors could wander into the Great Gallery and watch Dawe on his scaffolding as he hooked industrial thread (one strand at a time) through tiny metallic rings arranged in a long row on the ceiling, then lowered each length of fiber to his assistant with a hooked telescoping rod. …

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