The Meaning Of Green

The Meaning Of Green


Shigeo Kubota; Shape of Green II, 2009; nylon, stainless steel, sisal; 7.2 x 6.2 ft. dia. Photo: Kouichi Nisimura

Green: The Color and the Cause

The Textile Museum
Washington, D.C.
April 16 - September 11, 2011

The Textile Museum's third color-themed exhibition - after "Red" (2007) and "Blue" (2008) - is double-layered. Curators Lee Talbot and Rebecca A.T. Stevens realized that "Green," the show, couldn't be limited to pure formalism, no matter the appeal of green, the color. The word has crept into our vocabulary as an environmental term, not just in architecture and design but in almost every aspect of contemporary life. Yet by focusing on historic pieces for their use of a particular hue and on contemporary works for their sociopolitical implications, they risked turning the show into a random mishmash.

But it's not, because of the strong works they chose, and because many cultures, past and present, have associated green with nature, linking it, however subtly, to environmental concerns. Thus a fragment of Persian cloth from the 16th or 17th century that depicts people relaxing under flowering trees is not so different in its feeling for nature from Jane Dunnewold's more abstracted 2009 Sacred Planet digital print series.

Garments present another ancient/present parallel. The show includes a late 19th-century embroidered woman's coat from China in a green-gone-turquoise and a 19th-century Persian woman's jacket pieced together from other garments. From the 21st century is the Swing Coat (2010-11) by Alabama Chanin, designer Natalie Chanin's couture line; like the Persian jacket, the contemporary coat uses found elements. Alabama Chanin garments are made by a Southern community of skilled needleworkers, so both the handwork and this social commitment speak of "green" purposes.

This is, as is often the case with textiles, a show that rewards slow observation, attention to details, and subsequent thought. That's the case even with works that have striking visual impact at a distance.

Gyöngy Laky's 2008 Alterations is composed of letters forming the words "The Green Issue," fascinatingly complex structures of fastened-together bits of branches. Metaphorically they imply the truth that language is constructed; conceptually it's noteworthy that she created the work for a 2008 issue of the New York Times Magazine devoted to environmentalism. There, "issue" meant that particular week's magazine; here, "issue" refers to the topic or controversy.

Nancy Cohen's huge paper and marsh grass installation Estuary: Moods and Modes (2007) has been downsized in length to 35 feet from its original 53 feet. Its diagonal arrangement suggests flow and enlargement; the ripples of the paper echo water currents, and the color shifts gradually from a pale yellow through green to deep blue, implying change in depth and constituent elements and beautifully suiting the show's theme. It's unfortunate that the absence of natural light in the windowless galleries eliminates another source of visual variability in the piece.

Images and ideas - of reuse, economy, water, vegetation - recur in this densely packed show of 48 works by artists from five continents. It's an optimistic aggregation of caring and beauty, and the historic examples provide another metaphor: Green dye has often been fugitive, just as "green" is hard to sustain.

An interactive online catalog is available at It also documents the growth of a lace-covered arbor embedded with grass seed by Michele Brody, installed in the museum's garden.

Janet Koplos is the co-author of Makers: A History of American Studio Craft (2010, University of North Carolina Press).