SEWN to the Sky

As a child growing up in Mexico, Texas-based artist Gabriel Dawe was exposed to machismo, the idea that males should act manly and self-reliant. He was also surrounded by vibrant color and interesting architecture. Utilizing the environment of his youth and the rejection of socially imposed gender identity, Dawe has spent the last seven years creating installations for his Plexus Series. Started in 2010, Plexus is a series of large-scale installations consisting of thousands of miles of multicolored thread used to create three-dimensional rainbow patterns. Dawe’s work, which has been exhibited from Miami to Montreal, creates optical illusions; the viewer’s perception changes with each angle. For his 37th Plexus installation, Dawe comes to Jacksonville for MOCA’s Project Atrium series, on display July 15 through Oct. 29. And in conjunction with Dawe’s installation, an array of events are being held at MOCA.

Folio Weekly and Gabriel Dawe spoke about his upcoming show, the vulnerability of working with thread, and growing up in Mexico City. Here’s part of that conversation.

Folio Weekly: How did this MOCA Jacksonville show come about?
Gabriel Dawe: I was approached by Jaime [DeSimone], the curator, for the possibility of doing something for the Atrium Series. She sent me documentation of the space, like plans and photos and it looked like a great space, so I did a proposal for them and they accepted it.

A portion of your installations is designed on the computer. Tell me a bit about that.
The pieces are not computer-generated. I just have renderings of the space with plans, elevation and architectural drawings. I don’t use any algorithms to generate what I do. I don’t do any 3-D renderings. I just draw the design on the computer as I would with paper—meaning that I just draw lines. It’s just faster to sketch in the computer. I think that is a really important distinction, that they are not computer-generated.

The installation for your MOCA piece is slated to take about two-and-a-half weeks. That’s a big chunk of time. How does one of your installations typically pan out?
We get there and me and an assistant and probably someone from the museum as well will be stretching the thread from all of the different points in the space. The process is simple in a sense. It’s stretching thread back-and-forth, back-and-forth, back-and-forth. It’s a very repetitive process. There are plans that we follow. This [the installation] is just the execution of it.

How did your Plexus Series happen and what inspired it?
I was doing research for a collaboration with an architect for an exhibition on the link between fashion and architecture. In doing the research for that show, I had this idea of using the core material of fashion, which is sewing thread, and using it in the scale of architecture. Sewing thread is used to make stitches or to work together to form a fabric on a human scale, so stretching thread over many several feet in midair and using it in an architectural scale, it becomes a structure that is there, but not there at the same time. Or that’s there, but is translucent and plays with your perception.

Are any of your installations in Plexus Series permanent or do you move them from one space to another?
They’re all site-specific, so I can’t move them. Each one is created by the space it’s going to inhabit, but the few that are permanent are mostly in corporate collections like office buildings. There’s one in the Crystal Bridges Museum [of American Art] in Arkansas that’s permanent. That’s one of a few that’s accessible to the public.

You’re working with a material that’s vulnerable. Have you had to go back and fix any installations because the threads have broken?
Not yet, but probably after a few years, I think the main issue is that they will be losing color. But so far, I haven’t had to change any of them. The material is actually stronger than you would imagine. I use an industrial-grade thread.

How much does the architecture of a space influence each installation?
It’s unique in the sense that all of my installations are unique because they’re created specifically for the space. My goal is to come into a space and make something that I haven’t made before. That’s how I keep the work sort of evolving. It’s always having a feel of what I can achieve in the space and it seems to me that this space [MOCA’s Atrium] is going to be a particularly striking one.

You work with the colors of the rainbow; are there social or LGBTQ statements you’re making with your art?
The reason I work with thread is because when I was growing up in Mexico City, my grandmother would teach my sister to embroider, but she wouldn’t teach me. That was always very frustrating to me as a kid. When I was an adult, I sort of remembered that frustration and decided to teach myself how to embroider. I saw embroidery as a way to challenge that idea of gender identity that is imposed on us as we grow up. The installations are an extension of that. The idea that there are gender norms that we have to follow is one of the things that I wanted to challenge when I started embroidering.