Precision to SoftnessWeavings by Rachel DuVall
The design loses its exactness in the hand-weaving process. I really enjoy seeing how it transforms from this precise drawing to something soft that has its own kind of life.
In the studio of textile artist Rachel DuVall, plants are propped up on the worktop, and the windows pour great scoops of sunlight into the space. Everything is neat, minimal and dusky, like her weavings. Along the walls hangs an array of handwoven works completed during a recent residency at the Josef & Anni Albers Foundation in Connecticut, part of her series named ‘Off the Grid’, which is showing at the Lief Gallery in Los Angeles in June 2021.
The diptychs and tapestries are executed in the muted palette that characterises much of DuVall’s art. That and their grid-like geometry prompt me to ask if Agnes Martin is an influence. “I’m definitely influenced by Agnes Martin,” DuVall smiles. “And I think perhaps her work was influenced by weaving. She knew Lenore Tawney, who was a weaver. I love her subtlety. I also love Ad Reinhardt and Donald Judd; I think that by their nature, textiles relate to minimalism.”
Two floor looms sit in the centre of the room and I am reminded of spindles, pricked fingers and fairytales. Weaving, after all, has its own mythology, and one of the richest and oldest histories of craftsmanship. It is often used in storytelling as an emblem of resourcefulness and assiduity – Arachne challenging the goddess Athena to a weaving match, or the miller’s daughter in Rumpelstiltskin tasked with weaving straw into gold. DuVall points out the warp, the weft, and the boat shuttles that unspool the linen and thread. “My mom did a lot of things from scratch, and that has always appealed to me: starting things from the beginning of the process and building it up. I’ve always been interested in the complete process.”
DuVall started weaving in 2006, during her time at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where she initially wanted to specialise in drawing and painting. She still incorporates aspects of that expertise into her practice. “For the past few years, I’ve been making prints that are evolutions of the preparatory drawings for the weavings,” she tells me. “The prints are woodcuts, and the wood grain adds this natural variation that the final weaving would have, just in a different medium.”
Texture is incredibly important in DuVall’s work, complementing the graphic beauty of her compositions. Her creative process is meticulous, but also lends itself to fluidity. “Before I do anything, I make a drawing on gridded paper – I need to know the measurements so I can set it up on the loom. But the design loses its exactness in the hand-weaving process. I really enjoy seeing how it transforms from this precise drawing to something soft that has its own kind of life.”
Departing from the plain weave technique she has perfected over time, DuVall has recently begun to try out different hand-manipulated patterns, where each bundle of thread is not wound on the loom, but rather wrapped by hand. The delicate, lace-like weavings in her ‘Off the Grid’ series have painted linen stretched behind them, in colours that emerge softly through the naturally dyed woven threads. While DuVall is adept at mixing her own colours – indigo for blue, sage for yellow, matter root and sometimes cochineal for red – she is also interested in how different textures layered upon each other can function like a dye. Her work demonstrates how changes in the weave structure can create new colours, and how subtle differences between textures and layers can change an entire palette.
DuVall’s textiles urge you to look closer, lean in, and notice the intricacy behind their deceptively simple forms. “It’s not just the final product; for me, it’s the process of weaving,” she explains. “Weaving each line is very meditative, and I hope that translates when the viewer sees the work, that the quiet repetition of each line invites some kind of meditation.” Subtle and effortless as they appear, her works tell the stories of how they came into being, like straw spun into gold.