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The thread of art
Francisco Calvo Serraller.
catalogo: Tejidos marroquíes. Teresa Lanceta

The thread of art

FRANCISCO CALVO SERRALLER

How can I begin to weave this tale of Teresa Lanceta? To start with Velázquez's Las Hilanderas may invite (unjust) accusations of resorting to the obvious. But let me lay that aside. I find I cannot do without Velázquez's famous painting to say what I want to say about Teresa Lanceta. I should warn, though, that the issue is not that Velázquez has painted a workroom and weavers with this or that undertone, but rather what he hints at in his canvas about the ambiguity of art, and how this ambiguity has much to do with Teresa Lanceta.

In any case, this is a complex matter best taken by parts. Firstly the subject of Las Hilanderas, a popular title invented long after the painting was made, is the myth-fable of Arachne, daughter of the weaver Idmon, from the Lydian town of Colophon in Asia Minor. According to Ovid, this magnificent weaver dared to challenge and outdo the goddess Athene herself, who, as punishment, turned her into a spider. In the laconic manner so typical of him, Velázquez places the fable in the background of the painting, as if it were depicted on a woven tapestry stretched out at the back of the workroom, while in the foreground he shows us the industrious workwomen engaged in their task. This way of speaking of what lies beyond by what lies near, while avoiding all separation between the two, is also very Velazquean and very baroque. But if any lesson is to be drawn from this story, I would second the view that it as a staging of the conflict between the mechanical and the liberal arts, a burning issue returned to obsessively by the art of modern times, and which was of huge and dramatic significance to Velázquez at the time Las Hilanderas was painted, precisely when he was settling his application to be named Knight of the Order of Santiago.

There is much to be said about this theoretical debate and its repercussions in the life of Velázquez, but I will try to be brief. The question of whether the plastic arts and architecture in general, and painting most particularly, were properly liberal disciplines -in other words, superior in that their essence was intellectual not manual- was one that the painter's whole destiny hung on. Art, then, had to be separated -opposed to- craft skills. And it was to a goddess, Athene, that the appeal was made to settle this vital debate. But what is the moral of the story in its Las Hilanderas version? Velázquez, for a start, did not oppose tapestry to painting, as we might expect from the above, but rather mere human skills to divine inspiration.

Before looking further at this matter, allow me to digress a little: to recall what Gaspar Gutiérrez de los Rios wrote in this "Notes on the Consideration of the Arts, and the Manner of Distinguishing the Liberal Arts from the Mechanical and Servile", a treatise published in Madrid in the year 1600, not long after Velázquez's birth in Seville. And specifically Chapter V of the third book of the treatise, entitled literally "In continuation: on the rank of teachers of painting taking in the arts of tapestry and fine embroidery, which stand beside it", where we read the following: "Let us now consider the arts conjoined with painting in design and in colouring. What can I say of the miraculous art of tapestry, where all things in nature are imitated as real and as brightly as we see them? Let others esteem it worthy or otherwise, I, as I said, am a lover of this art. Witness, please, the rich, inventive tapestries owned by his Majesty, who would easier win a kingdom than secure others of their like. And may not the fame of fine embroidery rest equally on the marvellous figures and histories of the adornments housed in the glorious temple of San Lorenzo el Real? Should we not take Cato as our guide and say that he who cannot paint cannot practise?"

Velázquez, over half a century later, would be the first to subscribe to the nobility of these arts of the yarn and, naturally, to the tenet that those who cannot paint cannot practice them. The moral, then, is not the fabric and the yarn but the way they are conceived, with or without imagination, with or without thought, with or without intention.

Where does the ambiguity reside, then, and above all what has it to do with Teresa Lanceta! My erudite circumlocution was needed, I believe, to demonstrate that the error of separating painting from the textile arts does not belong to the time of Velázquez, nor as we know to Goya's, but to our own. And it is not just the conflict between what we now understand as the high arts -painting and low arts and craft or industrial skills like tapestry and embroidery- that is erroneous, but also that between arts of individual authorship and collective or popular arts. And it is amid these conflicts that Teresa Lanceta insidiously pitches her camp as an ambiguous and deliberately ambiguous artist, the weaver of error, rebellious spider, flamboyant creator, and so very liberally demands that we turn our artistic attention to the worth of what today is conventionally considered mechanical and popular.

In this mission, Teresa Lanceta could have settled for being in fashion, following the dictates of modernity, the last word in the politically correct in the cultural terrain. I mean here that Teresa Lanceta could easily have opted to vindicate the anthropological or, dare we say it, multicultural. But she is so radical and exigent, so deliberately ambiguous and out-on-a-limb, that she has decided to her peril to vindicate art. Careful! Not to resuscitate the tired adage that the popular too deserves artistic consideration, but to refute the would-be artistic charisma of art! To state it provocatively once and for all: what Teresa Lanceta wants to destroy is art! And that, without doubt, is a revolutionary, an explosive proposition!

Like any revolutionary worth the name, Teresa Lanceta has pursued her incendiary purpose as a theoretical and practical struggle in which no front is left uncovered. In doing so, she has abandoned art history, not only what it stands for as tradition but also what it speaks of modernity. She has claimed a different space for art, and with it a different content. Teresa Lanceta, however, is no postmodernist, capitalising on the broadening of the artistic sphere which modernity has brought us, but careless of its commitments. Nor is she a late modern, anachronistically authentic. She is, in reality, a timeless force rejecting all safe corners, for what she seeks to exploit is precisely the ambiguity that today's art has become, something few are willing to accept. What I am getting at is that Teresa Lanceta has questioned her identity as an artist, reflecting on what is being done today and what she herself can do that matches what art was and might become in any age or place: but without preconceived roles, without modern formulae, heedless of institutional arguments like those of the novelty market. So when asked who she is and what she does or, more concretely, whether she is painter, weaver or whatever, she replies with laconic disinterest, because, deep down, she neither knows nor cares.

I have said that Lanceta has carried through her revolutionary mission without neglecting any front, theoretical or practical. As regards the theory, she has conducted some extremely interesting research and critical work on repetitive structures in traditional textiles and in 20th century art, which she successfully defended in her doctoral thesis at the Universidad Complutense. Aside from the documentation and analytical effort this kind of project requires, what counts most in her essay is its equivocal standpoint: a comparative analysis of repetitive structures as used by traditional craft workers, and therefore "non artists", and those of well-known professional artists of the avant-garde. But her reasoning goes beyond the mere recording of formal similitudes and what these might reveal of "coincidences", "borrowings" or "influences": what matters, she argues, is these repetitive structures per se, and not who practises them. In other words, the meaning and value of artistic production, not the personality or importance of the producer. Teresa Lanceta puts this powerfully in the form of two questions, in the first paragraph of her thesis: "Is it not strange to be back in the place of lines, rhombi and squares? Is it not strange for us to be back in the place we left centuries ago, close now to the other art and other cultures?".

The relationship of avant-garde art with the artistic forms of today's primitive peoples has been affirmed to the point of exhaustion. As has the link between the art of our contemporary age and outlying cultures or civilisations. It is not surprising, then, that many western contemporary artists have taken up the geometrical structures characteristic of other civilisations, most particularly the Arab, so rich in these motifs on account of its iconoclastic religious conception. But, I insist, Lanceta's interest does not lie in confirming the mere fact of this fertile contact, nor defining its specific use by certain artists, but in what we might call the life of forms, in this case a series of repetitive structures, particularly the highly characteristic structure of the rhombus. A figure Mediterranean in origin which has come down to us most intensely in the traditional textile production of certain groups in the Moroccan cultural area.

In her doctoral thesis, Lanceta points out how the rhomboid figure was all but vetoed by the geometrical vanguard, with its almost exclusive devotion to the right angle. Perhaps the most famous instance of this is the polemic between Mondrian and all those artists who dared use the diagonal, the triangle instead of the square. But historical controversies apart, the fact is that the historical vanguard has nearly always opted for the square or the rectangle, the defined over the non defined, the finite over the infinite.

I should say here that for Teresa Lanceta the rhombus is not a motif, but a landscape, just as painting is not a canvas, but a fabric. What do I mean by saying the rhombus is a landscape? For a start, that the user of this figure conceives space as a limitless place, without borders, because the rhomboidal mesh, the lattice, never squares. Whoever takes up this form of occupying space is, therefore, an inhabitant of the immense and limitless plain, a dweller of the desert, of the horizontal, the perpetual wanderer who survives by dint of his flexibility, his capacity to fold in with the landscape. And his belongings too must be foldable, that is portable. The nomad does not create figures which square -architectural forms or painted pictures- but rhomboidal meshes, diamond lattices. This is why the rhombus is a landscape.

Teresa Lanceta has travelled Morocco from top to bottom in her investigation of traditional textile forms, which, true to the place, to that landscape, repeat rhomboidal structures. She has not stopped, however, at cataloguing the work found there, but has used this experience for her own artistic creation. Let me now underscore what I have hinted at before: in this investigation and practice she has not treated the rhombus just as a characteristic geometrical motif, but as a life form, the essential underpinning of any true art. Teresa Lanceta, in short, has not used the rhombus but stepped inside it, motif, fabric, thought and action. This is her true story.

We tend to talk lightly and unthinkingly about fabric. Perhaps we are still too tied to the bourgeois use of painting as picture, the square which no longer even pretends to be a window to the unknown, but conducts itself like a simple pendant -a valuable jewel or medal- displayed on the wall, as if art was something proper to the starchy cells of a house. I call this a bourgeois obsession because that's what it is. We have only to recall the splendid paraments and vaults illuminated by painting, the fine wooden altarpieces, the translucent stained glass with its iron nerves, the endless strings of Egyptian vignettes or the daubed-on gods of Greece. We don't need to look at today's installations to know that painting has been many things, above all the force that brought light to our caverns. But who says caverns have to be rock caves? Are they not, even more, our own tattooed skins, all that covers and conceals us? The first nomads, hunters predators or shepherds, carried their portable caverns with them, with the Arab jaimas as their most direct expression.

I have often tried to exemplify the randomness of the artistic sign by asking what would happen if we threw the Las Meninas canvas amid one of today's primitive tribes, uncontaminated by our values. When I have used this example, it has generally been to highlight the otherwise obvious fact that artistic appreciation is not something natural and spontaneous. This is true of course, but I also use it here to point out not just that the primitives in question would undoubtedly appreciate the usefulness of the cloth painted by Velázquez to cover themselves or their huts, but also to confess that this apparent silliness actually restores my trust, my faith in art, for I don't believe the cultivated person of today could make such radical use of what, after all, is a piece of smeared fabric.

I am not looking for shock value here. What I wish to stress is that there are more historical truths in a fabric than we are prepared to admit, trapped as we are by our self-proclaimed historical importance. Hence my particular admiration for Teresa Lanceta's endeavours: she has restored to the fabric its historical depth. I pointed out before that Lanceta's relationship with fabric was not constrained to the rhombus as a simple motif, but encompassed a personal and profoundly historical experience, a journey through time back to the eve of ages, the search for primary truths, fundamental and radical. The skins and fabrics of tents are, in reality, rhomboid structures, and not just because they take the form of a rhombus, but because they are foldaway cells. What we so reductively call carpets are actually much much more: they are walls, ceilings and floors; they are cushions, they are capes; they are, last but most potently, an explosion of colour and warmth; luminous corridors lighting up the infinite vault of a starry night, the desert night where the earth's roundness is revealed like nowhere else.

With the profound gaze that penetrates not elongated but vertical time, Teresa Lanceta has perceived the warmth which imbues fabrics with meaning and transforms them into downy coloured skins which protect and lighten the often uneven path of human wanderings. Her work instructs us in the versatile use and rich symbology of folds, the possibility of interweaving fragments to build out of patches a wide, limitless avenue. Like the weavers of the Atlas mountains, Lanceta can use folds to create widely differing objects of warmth, but she can also stretch fabrics into strange architectural planes, celestial stairways.

I look at her work and am moved. It moves me that these pieces can be mixed in with the work of women weavers able to create masterpieces without the least artistic consciousness. I imagine that when her fabrics are spread out over the aseptic spaces of a museum, they will produce an effect at once deep, complex and transfiguring. I imagine that they will bring the warmth of memory, the sense of dwelling, the light of the pathways, the throbbing of life, without which art is nothing or, at best, a remote reflection of our own uprootedness, nearer and nearer the surface. I am moved because, thanks to Teresa Lanceta, we are illuminated by something infinitely more important than art: the beauty of the world. I am moved that this ancient beauty is perhaps not entirely forgotten. I began this text referring to Velázquez's Las Hilanderas, a fabric with weavers painted on, whose fable speaks to us of the protean complexity of the artistic, a secret only the gods can handle. At times, the sacred slips free of our conventions, out of reach of our laziness. Beauty is always further away than we think and must invariably be searched for. The tale must be woven, some truth knotted into its rhombi. In this endless journey which rakes up the arid dust of the path, the tracks of Teresa Lanceta shine out, restoring to the fabric its most profound artistic truth, the thread that conserves the primordial meaning of art. And so things renew.