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Tiny Trinkets and Magical Tapestries 

Garter snaps and Christmas tree lights. Sea shells, buttons and children's toys. Silky snakes and tropical birds. Old lace, hearts and life preservers. These are a few of her favorite things, or so we might presume. In fact, it's hard to presume anything about what Opelousas artist Shawne Major is up to in her new tapestries, works so obsessively detailed as to transcend much of what the term "tapestry" typically implies. Dripping with symbolism, they suggest the miniature domain of a faerie queen or the dreams of an old-time opium freak with a fetish for intricate detail--a realm where more is always more and never less, in a gallery that ordinarily prides itself on minimalism.

Ostensibly this is the realm of the feminine, of craft and decoration, the legacy of Spanish, Italian or Irish seamstresses, or of plainspoken Appalachian crones making patchwork quilts in their hardscrabble hamlets in the hills. But that's not it, not entirely. Major says she approaches her work as a bricoleur, a French term for a kind of handyman who makes it all up as he goes along, improvising solutions from whatever's available. As she puts it, "Bricoleurs are comfortable in unfamiliar realms of learning and experience because they learn best by using indirect connections to known information."

Hmm, that somehow reminds me of "pattern recognition," the cybernetic science of analyzing chaotic quantities of random data to divine their underlying implications. For instance, the National Security Agency justified its secret search of millions of Americans' telephone records by claiming it was just an exercise in pattern recognition rather than an actual perusal of the contents of those calls. And I wondered what the CIA might think of Major's show, but her 6 by over-7-foot-long Surface Taggant, a wall hanging laden with more minute details than the mortal mind can comprehend, would have clearly been more useful as an exercise in encryption. For instance, almost lost amid the beads, sequins, vintage lingerie fasteners, tiny hula-hoops and satin umbrellas are some silky geckos enmeshed in gauze. And what initially suggested flecks of color on close inspection turned out to be tiny, termite-size dolls like little thread and fabric people arranged topsy-turvy as if in free fall. The effect was vaguely vertiginous.

Mnemonic Casserole: Comfrey is perhaps the closest to a traditional tapestry, a series of loopy traceries of pale beads outlining leafy forms on a backing of mocha-toned lace. Clusters of pearls, opalescent buttons and sea shells gather in the recesses like tidal pools of shimmering flotsam, and you have to look twice to see the little white plastic horses and tiny actual bird skulls, icons of life and death amid the decorative. But Cow Jumped is the most densely layered of all, suggesting the most serendipitous encrustation of Mardi Gras trinkets ever to occupy a 9 by 3 1/2-foot space. For Major, these kitschy, castaway components are talismanic, a way of arranging life's chaos into a new, neatly woven worldview. What it all means depends on the viewer's capacity for pattern recognition, for divining the symbolism of tiny trinkets woven into the cryptic schematics of magical tapestries.

But doesn't that ring a bell somehow? Think hard. Hint: Think Tootie Montana. No, I'm not suggesting that the late, great Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas Mardi Gras Indian tribe was a CIA agent, but it might help to be a pattern recognition specialist to decipher what he and his fantastically feathered cohorts were up to. Shawne Major's show put me in the mood to visit the Back Street Museum. Located at 1116 St. Claude Ave., it survived the storm and still boasts the most impressive display of Mardi Gras Indian costumes on the planet. And sure enough, there are distinct similarities and differences amid the wildly effusive patterning. Although inspired by Native-American regalia, the Mardi Gras Indians' approach to beadwork is said to have more in common with West African peoples such as the Yoruba culture of Nigeria. So they are bricoleurs too, melding African and Native American approaches into a whole new mythology of their own. As with Shawne Major, the result is very local and very personal -- so much so that it becomes universal. Apogee: New Wall Tapestries by Shawne Major

Through June 30

Heriard-Cimino Gallery, 440 Julia St., 525-7300;

click to enlarge This close-up detail of Shawne Major's Cow Jumped reveals - a serendipitous encrustation of trinkets and beads.
  • This close-up detail of Shawne Major's Cow Jumped reveals a serendipitous encrustation of trinkets and beads.


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