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Susan Martin Maffei, Black and White Cows in Snow and Night, 8″ x 29″, 1993

In a series that Maffei wove while living on Maui cows are distilled into geometric, interlocking shapes. The level of abstraction reflects her interest in exploring the interaction between an image and the woven grid. The geometric style and the high color contrast flatten the image so that even the division between land and sky in Cows in Triangles seems to be a compositional decision, rather than an illusion to a landscape. However, the idea of space is not rejected. The foreshortening of the cows’ bodies as they face either towards, or away from the viewer suggests the three dimensional space that they occupy. The ambiguity introduced by simultaneously affirming space through the foreshortened bodies and denying space by reducing the images to flat blocks of highly contrasting colors, reminds us that the struggle between the flatness of the textile and the representational illusion to three dimensional space is an ongoing question for Maffei. Her approach suggests that it may be more interesting to explore the question rather than declare an answer. Her process of distillation comes to its ultimate in Black and White Cows in Snow and Night, in which the cows are reduced to a series of calligraphic marks on a blank field, each tapestry being a color and directional reversal of the other.

Fragment Middle Horizon, from De Bolle, Marc G., Rediscovery of Pre-Columbian Textiles. Antwerp: Lamandart Publishers, 1994.

Maffei’s use of strongly contrasting, flat colors and her interest in abstracted images reflects her study of, and admiration for, pre-Columbian textiles. Pieces such as this small fragment and the Intermediate Period tunic on the right are examples of the sophisticated pre-Columbian aesthetic which reduces images to geometric units and repeats them across the field. The patterns, however, are not static. They are enlivened by shifting hues, values, asymmetrical patterning and the introduction of intentional irregularities. The dynamic, contrapuntal rhythm produced by these variations and the shifting positions of foreground and background transform these patterned images into lively, compelling designs.

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