Diedrick Brackens

Dress for Adventure

Interview by Kristin Farr and portrait by David Broach

Never use a textile metaphor with Diedrick Brackens. He’s heard enough. The tropes of his medium are woven into the fabric of our lives, and once you’re aware of this constant thread, you’ll notice it twofold. Apologies to the artist, who was born in Texas and is now based in LA, a leader in the contemporary fiber renaissance. He unravels traditional approaches, mending the ties that bind personal perspectives to universal material. And maybe one day he will forgive me for this introduction. 

Diedrick Brackens: Dress for Adventure
"Diedrick Brackens: darling divined," 2019. Exhibition view: New Museum, New York. Photo: Dario Lasagni.
Kristin Farr: I first saw your work in person at Frieze London. It looks like it’s been around forever, an heirloom. 
Diedrick Brackens: I love that. I think they surprise people in person. They might think the yarns would be finer... I’m not sure exactly what it is. 
Who are your subjects?
Mostly me. Sometimes I’m inspired by history paintings, or other outside sources, but then it’s normally filtered through photographs of myself, or drawings of myself, so the subject is me. I’m thinking about folks like me so often, looking at what’s happening in the media, pop culture, and using myself as an instrument to get at some of those things. 
Do you pose for source photos?
Yes, and besides the materiality, the oldness of it is kind of about the poses. I find myself attracted to poses that are more classical and show all the limbs that can be read when they’re abstracted down to the silhouette, so it makes me really think about it. Something might look weird with a leg a certain way, even though it would be fine for a photograph, so I spend a lot of time figuring out the posing. 
You have excellent posture. Are you a dancer? Weaving is a very hunched-over practice.
I never danced, but I get a lot of comments about my posture. It is something I’m hyper-aware of, so I’m always thinking about sitting up or standing straight, especially after I became a weaver.


Diedrick Brackens: Dress for Adventure
"the cup is a cloud," 2018. Woven cotton and acrylic yarn, and mirrored acrylic, 74" x 78".
I studied weaving in school but never took it further because the setup is so complex. Can you summarize the process? People need to know. I often reiterate how hardcore fiber art is. Even a sewing machine can mess you up. 
I’ve spent the better part of a decade trying to master sewing. I feel confident doing most things I need to, but, for years, I would struggle and fight against the machine. There is so much in weaving and textiles about tension, and holding the right amount of tension, and keeping that going until the thing is finished. People tend to think about the limpness and flexibility of fabric, but in construction, there’s so much rigidity, strength, and organization, and all these moving parts to account for. 
I dye all the yarns before I work with them, and then there’s warping, measuring all the lengths and number of yarns, and then transferring it from the warping board to the loom, and putting each thread through each hole…
Right! You also have to thread hundreds of needles.
It’s crazy. And then there is tying everything on, rolling onto the loom, and then weaving, which, for me, is all about the precision of line and everything falling where I intend. At the point of weaving, I try to allow myself not to be married to the sketch, so there are times when I’ll deviate or change things in the process. 
It used to be so comforting to me that weaving was so rigid and constructed, and there’s a plan, and you execute it before you even start. You kind of know what it’s going to end up looking like. That frustrated me the more I wove, so now I really love introducing moments where there’s an unintentional variable that I can work into the weaving, which keeps it exciting.


Diedrick Brackens: Dress for Adventure
"in the decadence of silence," 2018. Woven cotton and acrylic yarn, 72" x 72".
What are the more traditional or non-traditional ways you approach weaving?
A lot of techniques I use are pretty traditional. The thing that makes them more complex is that I combine different techniques together. The double weave is something I’m really married to, but I don’t often see that paired with some of the other techniques I use at the same time. 
I like to think that the way I use color is not typical to textiles; it’s more in line with the way a painter might work. And in terms of finishing a piece, I don’t do it the way I was taught. I’ve been thinking about how fiber, textiles and weaving are having this moment where we can decide to throw out the rules, and we don’t have to do everything the way we were trained. These objects that were once about being a utility—when they enter the fine art discourse, then what is a textile? How does it have to be constructed or not constructed?
How do you finish the ends? I remember that being an essential consideration. 
In some cases, once I’ve cut the piece off the loom, I don’t really treat the ends. I might make knots to keep it from unraveling, or sew a line. Other times, I keep the fringe or cut it at angles, and really play around with it to draw attention, or move folks’ eyes around the composition. I love having staggered lengths of stripes, keeping it a little unexpected, and heightening ideas around unraveling or tangledness—all these qualities we see in textiles that indicate conceptual ideas.
You’ve mentioned Americana and that nostalgic aesthetic. Which elements stand out to you?
My interest in Americana is the idea that it’s nebulous. It’s hard to describe what Americana is, but everyone knows it when they see it. Beyond the red, white and blue stuff, there’s this small-town feeling. This longing for the pastoral, or things that a lot of us have never actually experienced. In terms of aesthetic things, places, and ideas that Americana represents, for better or worse, it feels like what we want. 


Diedrick Brackens: Dress for Adventure
"Diedrick Brackens: darling divined," 2019. Exhibition view: New Museum, New York. Photo: Dario Lasagni.
Or not.
Right. Or not. So it feels like there’s this moving target. There are so many contradictions in the idea. In terms of the way that I make things, I love that I can use techniques and references from different parts of the world right next to each other and think about what it means to grapple with that idea, especially thinking about American identity and how this space has been formed and informed by different things. It seems like a lovely metaphor for what textiles have the ability to do to speak all these languages at the same time. 
There’s an exhaustive amount of cliches that we use in our everyday lives to talk about our identities, borrowing textile language. I always roll my eyes at them, as somebody working in textiles, when people talk about weaving a web or something. 
So many metaphors! 
And people are sincere. They don’t see it that way. But, as a maker, I’m like, “Jesus, this is so much.” I also love it because it’s so ingrained in us to think about this material as a part of our lives, even if we don’t recognize it.
I really get into these nostalgic ideas around Americana because I know they seduce us. Even those of us who are critical can still find nuggets of inspiration as Americans, and we do hope and aspire to have these ideal things and make them true for everyone. It just seems like a nice tool to bring in a viewer, and then deliver whatever other messaging I want someone to walk away with. 
At the very bottom of it, I lean into the side of being hopeful. I think about tenderness and beauty, but I also want people to look at what are sometimes brutal images that appear in the tapestries. These are things we live with every day, and we often have the luxury to look away. Even in the way a lot of the systems in our lives are organized, it is made easy to look away. 


Diedrick Brackens: Dress for Adventure
"opening tombs between the heart," 2018. Woven cotton and acrylic yarn, 72" x 72".
Are there real-life headlines or experiences you’ve referenced?
Some weavings are a nod to real events or histories, but they’re not always anchored in truth. Thinking about those things, and mixing them up might show through.
You were weaving at a really young age.
I made little frame looms in school. We had a lesson on it in art class. I went home and made the loom again, and made these little weavings for a couple years, then 100% forgot about it until after I’d been weaving as an adult for several years. 
In college, I was in a 3D intro class, and we had a professor who would give us prompts, and even if we were given certain materials, I would always end up working in thread and string, and deconstructed clothes because I intuitively had a sense of how these materials worked and how to manipulate them. I had been sewing by hand since I was little, just toys and stuff. So my instructor was like, “Oh, you’re a fiber major.” I signed up for weaving, the only class they were offering that summer, and it was epic. I walked into class, saw the rows of looms and color coordinated yarn in the back, and thought, this is it. It was all by chance, just this one person telling me to take a fiber class got me there. 


Diedrick Brackens: Dress for Adventure
"opening tombs between the heart," 2019. Woven cotton and acrylic yarn, 72" x 72".
Did you sew toys as a kid?
I remember wanting to make something, and I needed to sew it. It was probably a shirt for a Beanie Baby, to be honest. My grandmother basically showed me how to thread a needle, and that was it. I started to figure it out, taught myself how to braid, all these different things with string, because it was so around and available, like cloth. 
I was sewing all these things that made up a little universe for my own entertainment. I still have this Beanie Baby squirrel who was the captain of my adventure land. Everything that needed to be made was probably in service of a bed, house, or the clothes needed for the adventure of the day. 
This squirrel needs to be in a vitrine at your retrospective.
Ah, Simon. 
That’s fun to know about. You grew up moving around a lot, right? 
Always in the states, and usually my father would get stationed one place outside of Texas, and then he would try to make our next place to be in Texas. We would be away, then we would move back, even if was on the other side of the state. 
There was always a compass pointed towards home. My parents were always interested in being as close as possible. We would spend the summers with our grandparents, and come home for holidays; we were always in the car headed towards family. 
I went to high school about 90 minutes from my family’s hometown, and the two hours north for undergrad. Even when we lived outside the state, we flew a Texas flag in front of the house. So serious. 


Diedrick Brackens: Dress for Adventure
"opening tombs between the heart," 2018. Woven cotton and acrylic yarn, 72" x 72".
Is there anything particularly Southern or Texan about you or your work?
I was very excited and happy to leave Texas. Part of that was from living this life where every three or four years, at the most, we would start over—pack everything up and go, so it was normal. By the time I finished school, I was ready for the next thing, the next adventure. For my parents, moving was a necessity, and later, they felt like it was finally over. We were close to home and everything was good. 
Getting older, I want to see my family and be closer to them. My brother has kids now, so there’s this other emotional component to me wanting to be there more. I find myself thinking about it, and I think that comes through in the work. I have this anxiety that the more time I spend away, the less I will remember it, or I will start to misremember it, or the things that animate me about it are things that would be of no consequence if I was there. It’s curious. 
The landscape, that kind of flatness of it all—it sounds so boring, but it’s so beautiful to be able to to be under this huge sky, just to see great distances, huge clouds and rain. They all come back to me, and there’s a particular kind of mood that’s interesting for me to try to bring into the work. 
With your color palette, it makes sense. Desert, low horizons. Moving around a lot makes you very adaptable. 
Where my family is from is just a quiet, rural place, so my understanding of my blackness does not necessarily stem from this urban landscape that I think we often associate with African American folks—the city. Even our conceptions of ourselves are often formed around these ideas of being city dwellers, or at least being divorced from the outdoors and nature, and for me, I don’t quite have that sense of the world. It’s not something that came to me until I was much older. If anything, I grew up in a lot of suburban landscapes, but never understood city life. I’m interested in that dimension of the work, and what it means to be making and prioritizing this nature-y imagery. And to claim it as something that is part of an African American experience post-1900s. 


Diedrick Brackens: Dress for Adventure
"blue under night," 2017. Woven cotton and acrylic yarn, 31" x 78". All artwork images courtesy the artist.
Tell me more about how using cotton and other materials supports the content. 
Materially, it is mostly cotton that does that, and I’m intentional about using it because of its realtionship to Texas, to this country, to slavery. Even beyond slavery, I have family members who are still alive who grew up picking cotton, so it feels important to use those materials if those histories are embedded within, and if it can be any kind of homage to them—to elect to use it, versus it just being this thing that is impressed upon you. It’s idyllic, of course, but it feels important to have that small tribute embedded in the work. 
It’s a big tribute! Do conversations about your work bring up moving moments?
Beyond weaving, one of my favorite things is interacting with folks around the work. I love being able to share particular stories or images, or point things out about the work, and hear people talk. It gives me a lot of joy and a chance to really dialogue with people.
A lot of moments that stand out are around spiritual things, which is somewhat embedded, but it’s often not something people want to talk about in a fine arts context, so I typically don’t. 
Some people have asked about a very specific story from the Bible, or said the work feels biblical, and the first few times it happened, I didn’t feel good or bad about it, but it was interesting. It wasn’t surprising that someone would say such a thing. Growing up Southern Baptist, there were so many of these stories just baked into my mind, even though they’re not things that I’m anywhere near thinking about at this point in my life. I would start to see it, and have more conversations about that, to the point where I decided to intentionally mine some of the imagery. Instead of it being this thing that came up, I could take control of it and embed my own content on top, as opposed to using my content, and then finding out that it invokes something else. 
A lot of the later images, like the horses, the snake and the hare, were moments where I was deciding to take these animals with particular biblical symbolism, and think about what I actually want them to say and do. I was using these animals that, in the Bible, were either representing evil, or weren’t things you were supposed to eat because they were unclean, and thinking about how to extrapolate and change those ideas, making them into things that talk about my own experience as a queer person. 
And then how does it complicate the situation if I’m thinking about this animal as a means of self transformation, or as a stand-in for any kind of celebration of myself? What starts to happen if people read into these biblical storylines, and the horses were fueled by these ideas of the apocalypse, and the fact that, on any given day, it feels like the world is coming to an end because of how crazy it is?


Diedrick Brackens: Dress for Adventure
"Diedrick Brackens: darling divined," 2019. Exhibition view: New Museum, New York. Photo: Dario Lasagni.
It really does. You’ve said that abstraction and queerness can save the world. Can you expand on that?
After undergrad, I made this pivot towards abstraction because I felt like any figuration in my work, and a lot of work by folks of color, was reduced or flattened out to a very simple reading that included things that I wasn’t explicitly trying to talk about, and it just shocked me. I started making abstractions in response because I didn’t want to have these traumatizing conversations with people, and I wanted to make them think more. I thought if I started working in abstraction, with no figures, they wouldn’t start to make these stories that aren’t happening, happen. 
In any art history class, you look at a lot of abstraction and minimalism as the beginning of contemporary art. I wanted to have a conversation with Donald Judd but add my content, not just make things that are autonomous. I felt the abstractions worked best in context, with a certain material, or a block next to something that makes people think about the content—that’s powerful, with no language or figuration, no body, when you can still evoke the body. I started playing with that, wanting to be able to have these pieces that had conversations. That allowed me to be slippery and keep some of the secrets, and make people have to work harder. 
I probably didn’t make another figurative thing until 2017. That’s when the figures came back into the work, and it was in part a celebration of how much art and media were telling more nuanced stories about black and queer folks. I think about the show Insecure, and Issa Rae, and any number of other things, like the film Moonlight—all these things coming into the moment that weren’t just about police murdering black folks. They were telling stories that I’m living and actually thinking about; they weren’t reductive, and that was super exciting. Not that those other things weren’t happening, but that was all you could find if you were looking at newspapers or television, and it was exhausting. So the first figures since undergrad that were serious came from that moment. I felt like, oh, I want to show bodies that aren’t in peril as well. 
I felt so seen. And in a way, that was affirming. In terms of abstraction, it’s an important part of my work, but I also feel that I can have both. I still believe in the power that abstraction offers. 
In terms of queerness saving the world, I remember saying this, and now… it seems as though they both lend to these ideas of expansion. Like there’s more room to say who you are under the umbrella of queerness, specifically that the language continues to expand to describe our experiences, and I think it makes more room to advocate for oneself and for those that you love if you have the ability to name something. 


Diedrick Brackens: Dress for Adventure
"ventriloquist," 2018. Woven cotton and acrylic yarn, 78" x 32".
How have you and the work evolved since you started making figures again? 
I am the person who has a three-month plan, a five-year plan, then maybe beyond. I get so caught up in seeing the future, and in a very particular way. I’m not very compromising with myself. 
In my work, I’m now looser in approaching my materials and process. I also feel like I have a thousand ideas at any given time. I remember having moments where I didn’t know what to make, and now that happens much more rarely. I need to finish one thing so I can do another thing I feel excited about, and I’m so much more open. 
What’s the five-year plan?
To buy land in Texas, and hopefully land that is arable, because I want to have my own cotton farm, with a long-term goal to have all the means of production for my work. The idea is not fully baked, but I know that I have to listen to that impulse, and I want to have a footing in Texas that means more than just talking about it and visiting my family. I want to invest in it, and I also want to buy a piece of property in Los Angeles. 
Texas has big art fairs. 
Let me give you a little of that Texas obnoxiousness. We Texans are always doing great things.