Lialia Kuchma: Tapestries

at the Chicago Cultural Center, through January 25

Because geometrical figures in solid colors often imply a quest for order and balance, I found Lialia Kuchma’s #122–one of 12 fabric pieces at the Chicago Cultural Center–surprising. Nine squares in a three-by-three grid each contain a few appealing geometrical shapes in different, usually off-balance compositions. At the bottom of the left center square, mainly black and deep purple, is a strangely discordant thin green band; in the upper right square, a red shape pierces a gray field diagonally. The center panel–the natural focus–offers no resting point: its attention-grabbing red rectangle hangs from the top. Even more dynamic is #124 Yellow, recalling Kandinsky with its mix of shapes oriented horizontally and diagonally punctuated by a few extremely thin lines.

Kuchma names six painters–Matisse, Kandinsky, Pollock, de Kooning, Klee, and Twombly–as the most important influences on her work. Yet its being made from fabric she weaves herself seems crucial: the colors creating the designs are visibly tied to her medium, as if derived from the fabric itself–in contrast to, say, Barnett Newman’s zips, which seem to descend from on high. Kuchma writes in her statement that she wants to “confront the logic of the line with the pulse of color,” and in fact her colored surfaces do pulse with the rhythms of her weaving–done on her own loom using Australian wool. She seems to take on large issues of meaning yet declines to offer absolutist answers.

Kuchma, who was born in Ukraine in 1943, had a dramatic early childhood. When she and her brother were infants, her parents fled their home when they found that Russian soldiers were planning to shoot her father for resisting their attempts at extortion. A trek across several countries in occupied Europe led to forced labor in Germany and eventually to a displaced persons’ camp after the war; Kuchma came to Chicago in 1949. Always interested in art, and influenced early by German expressionism, she received a BFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1967, specializing in printmaking; attracted to the process of weaving, she began to make textiles in 1973. “I love handling the wool,” she told me. “Weaving is a meditative process.”

Even in college, Kuchma was making both representational and abstract works, and Broder Amarylis combines representation and abstraction: a black outline in the foreground shows an amaryllis, its bud not yet open, while the rest is an irregular blaze of reds, yellows, whites, and blacks in an almost pantheistic swirl. At times, here and in other works, Kuchma’s colors alternate weft by weft, creating blended hues when seen from afar and highlighting the materiality of the yarn, further differentiating these works from paintings.

Kuchma’s father “loved trees and nature,” she says. He’d had an orchard in Ukraine, planted various kinds of trees in their backyard, and would take the family on outings to Chicago parks. Her magnificent triptych, Grove (My Father’s Orchard), consists of three tall rectangles of different widths representing three tree trunks. Each rectangle is covered with curving, wildly colorful bands that appear to pass under and over one another as if they themselves were woven. In this work and others, Kuchma varies the tension of her weave and the angle of the yarn so that the fabric won’t hang flat; here the effect is pronounced, suggesting gnarly tree bark. This technique adds depth to her work throughout the show, enhancing the idea of particularity rather than universality.

The bright colors swirling in these three “trees” don’t come close to the colors of bark. Rather they reflect the influence of the painters Kuchma acknowledges as inspirations. Also influential were the items her mother embroidered in their traditional Ukrainian household, which were “all over the walls and tables–wherever there was a ledge there’s going to be a colorful embroidery.” What makes Kuchma’s works fascinating is their look of both abstract painting and natural forms: the cloth’s raised areas and deep gullies suggest bark or landscapes; vertical shapes suggest both tree trunks and abstract designs.

Many of Kuchma’s works refer to nature, but one of the strongest does not. In Blue a huge stack of irregular diagonal dark lines rises against a lighter bluish background; most of the rest is black or nearly black. The white light that seems to shine from behind the stack gives it a three-dimensional look, as if Kuchma were depicting a tower (it’s worth noting that her brother, also interested in art as a child, became a structural engineer). But if this is a tower, it’s a precarious one whose function is unclear. And though the lines resemble brushstrokes, we know they’re made of fabric. The more I looked at Blue, the harder it was to pin down. This enigmatic quality, combined with its forbidding dark blue, connects it with the great tradition of gnomic abstraction, which Kuchma generally seems to avoid: having no clear explanation in this world, her image is powerful and original enough to create its own.