I step into Oliva Gallery where I am to see the work of Jason Kriegler in his exhibition, Symbolic Totems. The walls are cloaked with ranges of neutral hues: subtle transitions between shades of black paired with stark, bright contrasting creams providing a notable dichotomy. This dichotomy introduces a pleasant push-and-pull effect as I walk between each piece. Not quite textiles, not quite drawings, I am befuddled at how to classify the pieces. Strong strokes of Sumi ink and delicate loops of tightly wound thread trickle through each piece. I meet with Kriegler to discuss these works.
Ally Fouts: These works feature a variety of elements including hand embroidery, paper, linen and ink. How do you classify the medium of these pieces?
Jason Kriegler: People have the idea that these are paintings or drawings, but they’re all hand-embroidered works. I do all the sewing myself. A lot of the stories that are told through my works are from my deep interest in the history, education, and knowledge of historical textiles around the world. I’ve traveled in West Africa, India, South America, Mexico, and Europe, with deep knowledge and passion for textiles. What I research is how the people are making the textiles, the stories that are told through textiles, and the forms, lines, and shapes within the textiles.
I’m extracting those ideas into a modern interpretation of contemporary art. I only use raw found materials; a lot of the works are made using kraft paper, found objects or cardboard, and go through a layering process. The work is informed by my travels: the encounters, shapes, line, form, or a discussion that I’ve had with people that I’ve met along these travels.
The idea is that I’m researching comparative pueblos and the people in the villages that are making textiles: men versus women, whether they’re ceremonial, traditional, or for everyday purposes, and the stories that are told from these textiles. The reason why this show is called Symbolic Totems is because in the 18th century, the lines, forms, and shapes in historical textiles are called totems. It’s very meaningful to me because of how I research textiles and how I travel and explore different regions of different countries, the interactions that I have with the tribes or people informs the embroidery and the stories that are told through them.
AF: When you collect these bits and pieces from different places, do you mix them into one piece, or does each piece represent only one specific place or memory?
JK: Each piece includes different stories and memories. While in West Africa three years ago, I spent a month and a half traveling through Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Burkina Faso. I travel really rough, as my focus is to research and find antique textiles, and then have discussions about the people that have created them or the lineage of the people that have created them.
AF: It seems you approach each piece as a research opportunity rather than a preconceived final product.
JK: Exactly. It’s more of a layering process. There’s no preconceived notion going into an idea. It’s a feeling or an idea that I’ve extracted from a moment, a conversation, an interaction, or something that I saw and made notes or drew in a sketchbook.
The pieces are extremely fragile. It’s all perforated paper. These three pieces [pictured above] have newer forms that were extracted from my trip to Burkina Faso. When I was backpacking through there, I came upon a village where they were embroidering large format textiles, including both ceremonial wear and for everyday usage. I extracted the organic shapes and forms that were memorable to me using raw paper, Sumi ink, and puncturing holes through paper. The reason why I show my work without glass is because I want the viewer to know that these are hand embroidered. I want to engage the viewer and I want the work to evoke a sense of curiosity.
AF: What does your process look like?
JK: It’s more of a sketchbook. For example, there are forms that were part of architecture, as well as this one woman that I met that was wearing an incredible textile with all these shapes and organic forms all around them. I extract ideas out of that to inform the embroidery, but there’s no preconceived final image. A memory or a moment will then inform the shape of the embroidery and the final result.
AF: I noticed you have a selective color palette, limited to neutral tones and ranges of blacks and whites. What is the reason behind this choice?
JK: I am very fond of juxtapositions. I see a lot of depth, despair, and emotion within the color black. Whenever I use black, it evokes something within me to create this emotion within the moment that I was impacted by hearing these stories. The light colors are the complete opposite, which is a euphoric event that has happened.
I’ve been impacted by a lot of death during my travels. Visiting India and West Africa, I have witnessed death, despair, and poverty. There’s a huge caste system within each of these countries. In these governments, there’s no obvious middle class: the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. When I’m talking about textiles and stories with the people, they talk about this caste system a lot; power, family, lineage, etc.. It is this juxtaposition of the strength and the mighty and the poverty and who these people are.
AF: Are there artists working in a similar way as you that you feel inspired by?
JK: There’s a lot of artists that I’m inspired by. Robert Rauschenberg, who is a collage artist, Ruth Asawa, who does a lot of hand embroidery with wire structures, Lissy Funk, who is a fiber artist. My work is not textile-based or fiber base.
I like leaving it without necessarily describing it and fitting it into a box. I want the viewer to really be a part of the work and really understand that there’s a lot of depth and despair and heart and dimension entwined in the work.
AF: It feels like you are collecting these memories and moments and putting them on a wall. As you talk about your travels in tangent with your art practice, it sounds like you can’t separate the two. To me, I see a collector’s soul in your desire to capture these moments, but taking a photograph doesn’t quite scratch that itch. Do you collect anything?
JK: Thank you, I have never heard my work described that way. I do collect textiles. I have a stack of antique textiles from my travels. I seek vintage textiles while traveling. Some have holes in them or are really worn, but I search for the stories that are told through them and the memories that I captured from ones that I take with me.
AF: How has your art practice developed or changed? Did your interest in textiles come before you began your practice of embroidering paper, or after?
JK: I originally began as a painter. I went to art school. I didn’t have access to certain materials in Mexico when I moved here 7 years ago. The raw linen I use is from Poland, and it’s really hard to come by materials such as that. I started embroidering in traditional linen. Then, I changed focus into more raw, natural, organic materials, such as paper and cardboard, out of necessity, and then it turned into a complete body of work. These raw, found materials resemble and reference the ideas surrounding the caste system and hierarchy of these people in many countries, including Mexico, where I live right now.
AF: When you use organic forms, there is a lot of room for them to take a unique shape in the viewer’s mind. Looking at any specific form, do you remember what exactly you were referencing when you made it?
JK: Oh, sure. For example, these are the roads and the people that live in this particular area called Tibule in Burkina Faso. They use handmade materials. That’s why this is made out of cardboard which more or less represents the architecture of their buildings. The cut paper pieces are representative of homemade objects that they use in their everyday use in their household. The embroidery is based on the textiles that they’ve used.
AF: The embroidery is so tightly wound, there is no gap between each lap of string. Do you pre puncture holes before embroidering?
JK: No, every single hole is blind. I have to flip the paper over every time. I’m flipping it over hundreds of times, holding it with one hand, flipping it over, and poking the next hole. I made five pieces specifically for this show. Making these is about a 3 to 6-month process to hand embroider, depending on size.
AF: Can you tell me more about these pieces? [pictured above]
JK: Those are hand-painted gauze. Actually, that was one big piece that I did, but had ripped it. Of course, you’re gonna rip it at some point. I started building on that and then I cut up the older hand embroidered piece, and that’s what then became these two pieces.
I’m constantly using found objects. This gauze I found and stained using Sumi ink. The embroidery was from a larger detailed and intricate piece. But I made it way too complicated, and then I just let it sit there. One day, I started playing and I started cutting it up.
AF: Where does your interest in using found objects come from? Is it to eliminate waste, or because those objects have a backstory?
JK: It is about waste. I don’t like using new materials. I come from and currently live in Mexico, and there’s a lot of poverty in Mexico, because of the juxtaposition is this caste system that I despise so much. There are these levels of despair. These pieces, yes, they are pretty, but I don’t think of them as pretty. I think of them as these raw thoughts, these engagements, these ideas that tell other people’s stories through these contemporary forms.
AF: After hearing more about the stories behind each piece, I really agree with your decision to use a selective color palette. Adding random pops of color almost feels indulgent, and would shift too much focus onto aesthetics. Having this specific color palette allows their voices to just be heard and not embellished.
JK: That’s a good way of looking at it. Like Richard Serra only working with black on black. This is telling the story of these people, the engagements and these memories, and trying to give them a voice that they cannot communicate on their own in a way that is not exploitative.
AF: It feels like each piece is a paused conversation that you had in a different place, and brought into the gallery for us to continue.
JK: Exactly. I want viewers to interpret what they want based upon reading a story such as this or reading the bio. I want them to extract some sort of a moment. They don’t need to know the whole story of what you and I are talking about. It’s got to be a moment that really resonates with them and evokes a visceral reaction.
Symbolic Totems is curated by Kate Roth and is on view at Oliva Gallery (3816 W Armitage Ave, Chicago IL 60647) until June 12, 2021.
Jason Kriegler is a mixed media artist with an emphasis on hand-embroidered contemporary works on paper and linen. He is from Miami, Florida, and currently resides in Merida, Mexico. More of his work can be viewed on his website and Instagram.