February 2008, Extreme Embroidery @ the Museum of Arts and Design
Laura Splan, American, born 1973 Doily (Herpes), 2004 Computerized machine-embroidered rayon lace
mounted on cotton velvet 8 x 8 in. (20.3 x 20.3 cm) Collection of the artist Photo: Laura Splan
Pricked: Extreme Embroidery at the Museum of Arts and Design
By Sheena Sood, WM New York
Stitching becomes a meaningful act as it is used in a myriad of ways by contemporary artists in this exhibition. This exhibit is appropriate due to the recent explosion of interest in and usage of fiber arts in recent art practice. It is the second in a series of exhibitions relating to textiles, following Radical Lace and Subversive Knitting, which is now touring the country. The show’s curators talk about the current dramatic changes in textile arts. Both the exhibits explore embroidery technique. This is not a showcase of textile designs, rather, a show uniting artists who happen to somehow use stitching in their work. Materiality…has renovated and re-energized the world of handicraft, writes David Revere McFadden, chief curator of the museum.
Technology, too, seems to be renovating the use of handicraft. In Emily Hermant’s interactive piece, Lies, lies, lies…, visitors can read, alter, and add lies to the piece. Sabrina Geschwandtner projects a video of stitching onto fabric mounted over an embroidery frame; she also links the sewing machine to early film projectors.
Shizuko Kimura, Japanese, born 1936 Models in New York,
2006 Hand-embroidered cotton, silk and synthetic thread on muslin
Other unexpected materials are combined with embroidery as in Annet Cowwenberg’s Embroidery Penetrates put directly onto the wall. Stitching is done on unanticipated backgrounds such as a map, military jackets, Welsh slate, chairs, a dress made of cosmetic facial peel, or on rubber. Others artists, like Laura Owens, Ghada Amer, and Angelo Filomeno use embroidery in lieu of more traditional media like painting and drawing. Perhaps the most literal drawings using thread are Shizuko Kimora’s sketches of nude models in Models in NY, 2006. She sketches using thread on thin white fabric, creating a wonderful line quality and producing a creative spin on nude model drawing sessions.
Karin Birch’s Broken Time is one of the few seemingly decorative pieces, but it is also meditative—the gorgeous colors and exquisite execution make it worthy of the show. Soft yellows and oranges are overlapped by violets, French knots, and delicate beading.
Andrea Dezsö, American, born Romania, 1968 She Wished She Never Married from Lessons From My Mother series,
2005-2006 Hand-embroidered cotton thread on cotton canvas 6 x 6 in. (15.2 x 15.2 cm) Collection
of the artist Photo Credit: Andrea Dezsö
Because embroidery in the past has been considered a feminine activity associated with purely ornamental functions, it now lends itself quite well to the creation of ironic and humorous statements. Andrea Deszo’s piece consists of square pieces of fabric with hilarious anecdotes such as, My mother claimed that, if you don’t have a bowel movement for 10 days, your intestines will twist and you’ll die. Or, If you let a man fuck you, he’ll leave you because every man wants to marry a virgin. The latter includes a hand-embroidered illustration of two vaginas. Correspondingly, Marcia Docter’s piece exclaims, Don’t fuck with me, I have PMS and I’m married, next to an image of the statue of liberty.
The title, Pricked, invokes the idea of a needle and thread piercing, pricking the surface of fabric or any other material; it also refers to a piercing in a non-physical way, works that stab or provoke. Viewing these works all together also makes one think about the blood, sweat, and tears that went into the hand-stitching, or the meticulous weaving of human hairs (including several from an ex-boyfriend), for example, onto a pillowcase into the form of eyes, ears, and a mouth (Kate Kretz). Many of the works that look machine stitched are actually done by hand and the craft and detailed perfection of many objects can make an argument on their own.
Karin Birch, American, born 1960 Broken Time, 2005 Hand-stitched embroidery using hand-dyed
One of the pieces that embodies this idea of piercing, or pricking, in a fierce way, and brings up a very timely subject matter, is Ana de la Cueva’s video of the Mexican-U.S. border being machine embroidered. She cleverly uses white thread and slow, calm music while embroidering the outline of the US, and Canada, and then once the Mexican border is drawn, the thread becomes blood red, the music disappears, and we are left with a painful feeling of the lack of humanity surrounding the issue while watching the machine pierce the fabric up-close.
Another clever use of thread and stitching is an afro hairstyle done on top of Abe Lincoln on an actual five-dollar bill (Afro Abe II, 2007, by Sonya Clark). “Hair is power,” she says.
Laura Splan’s intricate, perfectly symmetrical, and outwardly decorative doilies, made of machine-embroidered rayon lace, actually depict viruses. Who knew herpes, HIV, and the flu were so incredibly beautiful?
The exhibit is a very thorough examination of the current uses of a time-honored needle-working technique in contemporary art; it includes both emerging and established artists from seventeen countries, and encompasses many political and personal issues using satire, irony, and humor. It also showcases a number of innovative embroidery techniques. With forty-eight artists, it becomes almost overwhelming in the small space. The Museum will be moving to Columbus Circle, and it will be exciting to see what is done with the new space.
The title of the show emphasizes the idea of needles penetrating fabric, and highlights the idea of the textile art being provocative and meaningful, making the traditionally feminine, passive craft into a confrontational act.
Pricked: Extreme Embroidery runs through March 9th, 2008 at the Museum of Arts and Design, 40 West 53rd Street, Manhattan; (212) 956-3535, madmuseum.org
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief