"Reweave: 2021" at the Elisabet Ney Museum
With her exhibition, artist Jade Walker entwines viewers in the future of the planet
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., July 23, 2021
"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood."
Like Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken," Jade Walker's art installation Birdsong brings us to a place where one path splits into two and a choice must be made about which way to go. The place created by the Austin sculptor is apart from nature, in a room inside the Elisabet Ney Museum, but she has filled it with limbs from trees, each one forked like Frost's road, with many wrapped in various kinds of yarn and rope, strips of cloth and twine, with most of them in shades ranging from pale lemon to bright canary, so that in a sense, we are in a yellow wood. This wood is divided, though, by a number of large limbs standing on the floor, some leaning toward the right wall, some toward the left, with a cat's cradle of yellow twine connecting them, almost as if the two sides were engaged in a tug of war.
And indeed, they are. As Walker explains in wall text outside the room, the installation speaks to the world's ecological threats and potential demise, as well as the political unrest and "posturing of Americans" today. On the far side of the room, almost no forked limbs are wrapped in yellow, and the exposed string threaded through their arms gives them the appearance of slingshots. Combined with the branches of honey locust trees suspended above them, long and thin and bare, hanging down like some sinister villain's fingers and sporting thorns like spikes, that side suggests conflict and its ruinous aftermath – what lies ahead if we fail to care for our planet. On other side, though – the side of the room we're in – the aggressive potential of the slingshots is neutralized by the fabric wrappings, and they're given a sunny, hopeful air by the hues of amber, honey, mustard, corn, and gold. There are still the threatening thorny branches up above, but they're balanced by a wall on which hangs a horizontal band of woven pieces: sideways ribbons of patterned cloth looping in and out of vertical strands of yarn, rope, bandages – their linkage suggesting unity from variety: out of many, one. For her part, Walker likens the interconnected weaving to "a friendship bracelet or a shawl to be wrapped around the body for protection and warmth." Here, this is what lies ahead if we join together to repair the damage being done to our world.
Walker has constructed Birdsong so that viewers will see the side that points to a future of ruin but will only stand on the side that points to a future of recovery. She admits that the work is a way of doubling down on the efforts to restore our environment and on getting us to listen more carefully for the signals that birds send us that this world is safe and can sustain life. But the fact that we hear no birdsong inside the room where Walker's work is installed – and the day I went, there was none audible outside the Ney, either – may tip us off to which side of the room we're actually standing in right now. So if we wish to move from the barren side to the "yellow wood," we need to act.
And Walker has created an opportunity for us to act. The other half of "Reweave: 2021" is Mire + Mend, a work in which signage on the museum's north lawn has been wrapped in ropes, cords, and lines of vivid colors: hot pink, cherry red, turquoise, emerald green, butter yellow, and so on. It's of a piece with Birdsong – the message about fixing the environment, the colors and diverse materials representing hope – but the key difference here is that the work is not solely Walker's. She invited friends, neighbors, and community members to collaborate with her. Moreover, since the exhibition opened, she's held community weaving events in which anyone can bring materials to weave into structures that will remain in place until the show closes. It's only a simple and symbolic effort to mend the Earth, but in taking part we might get a feel for how easy it is to join in the real fight to restore the planet. So why not do it? Think of it as choosing the road less traveled by, as Frost puts it in his poem. It's the one his protagonist took, "And that has made all the difference.""Reweave: 2021"
Elisabet Ney Museum, 304 E. 44th, 512/974-1625
Through Oct. 24