Embroideries continue the link to textiles, which began early in my career when I photographed the women I worked with in a textile mill. I’ve always been interested in women’s’ work and labor and the way that it is often undervalued. Embroidery also represents an uncontested space, a space that women didn’t historically have to fight for.
I’ve been collecting old embroideries made by anonymous women for years. They cost a quarter or a dollar. I buy them at second hand stores and put them away. I often ask myself “If a man had made this would it cost more? Would it be better preserved?” “How many hours were put into the construction of this object?” They are things of beauty made with care and skill for women by women. They are also two sided objects; they are proof that someone loved you so much they made this for you while at the same time becoming small burdens. Unused, you carry these small burdens from house to house since throwing them away would make you feel guilty.
My grandmother embroidered, my mother taught me to embroider. It is a skill that was passed down to me through the women in my family. In the summer of 2006, I began to work back into the found embroideries, reclaiming them and asking questions about women’s’ lives and the political world we live in by adding words and images to the already existing stitches.
“Beautiful and fragile, these reclaimed, old embroideries represent a sense of history and dignity while questioning the current politics of gender and class.”
-Ce Scott, Director of Residencies and Exhibitions, McColl Center for Visual Arts
The work in Mend: Love, Life & Loss can sneak up on you. The materials of fabric and thread seem so innocuous. We associate them with the domestic and the feminine, and relegate them to the lesser realms of hobby and craft. At first these works do not seem to demand our abstract conceptual attention as so many works of contemporary art do. Instead of facing installations and conceptual puzzles, we are presented with hand-wrought objects that revel in their physicality. Every stitch and every manipulation of materials is time-consuming, repetitive, and tedious for the maker. The masochistic dedication to processing materials through time evokes the emotional patina of love, life and loss.
All of the artists in Mend speak of the funny or absurd, even the perverse, in what they do. First they take on the endless task of mending what has come undone: fixing stains, repairing ruins, reconnecting that which is broken, making visible to the outside what is hidden on the inside. All of this takes time, and dedication to a task that will never be completed. Instead of lamenting that condition, however, the artists relish the expenditure of time needed to craft their objects. They have the opportunity to see and experience their materials and their creation to an intimate degree. Comfort, and even pleasure, is gained through this connection. I would suggest that viewers can share this condition as well. We, too, know these everyday materials, and the quixotic desire to make and unmake our world as we find it. Who does not find things that they want to fix, recast, or even subvert? It may be most crafty to sneak up on these tasks with the familiar materials of the domestic.
During the 1970s and the early days of the feminist movement in art, domestic materials were a troublesome inheritance. On the one hand, women artists wanted to gain respect for materials and techniques that had been gendered feminine and therefore less important. Being labeled craft, or a hobby, was the same as being labeled not art. Judy Chicago decided to turn this bias on its head. Rather than argue against the unfairness of the gender stereotype, she decided to maximize the potential of those materials dismissed as feminine. Chicago used embroidery, ceramics, and sewing as the primary media of her Dinner Party (1974-79), in order make a monumental work that would speak to women’s history and lives. The result was a work of art that is among the most important of the decade. No matter how one might respond to her Dinner Party (and reactions still vary widely), there is no denying that it had a profound impact on discussions about the gender bias towards materials in both the craft and art worlds. Today it sits ensconced in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, a testament to its relevance in the debate about materials and meaning in contemporary art.
Another approach in the 1970s was to weld the emphasis on color, pattern and painstaking forming found in the domestic realms of embroidery, sewing, and quilting, to the abstract interests of contemporary painting. Joyce Kozloff and the Pattern & Decoration movement are most often cited in this regard. Unfortunately, this was a very short-lived experiment. The lesson to be learned here is that if one tacks too closely to the concerns of a dominant medium such as painting, any positive elements that the other media have to offer are simply usurped, without much credit.
So, how to balance such forces, and move beyond the polarizing politics of gender? The answer has two parts: one, create work that refuses to be one medium or one genre, and two, make work that appeals to both genders through the humor and pathos of shared human experience. This is both a refusal to be easily categorized or typed, and an unwillingness to be reduced to a debate along the binary line of “feminine” or “masculine”. I would argue that the mix of media employed by these artists, and their creation of works that defy easy genre categorization, is the primary tactic in their ability to confound gender stereotypes, and move beyond reductive readings. Because we are curious and engaged by the objects before us, both familiar and unfamiliar in their mix, we are more receptive to what they have to offer.
This brings us back to the issue of innocuous materials sneaking up on us, which brings to my mind the artist Eva Hesse. In Hesse’s work of the mid 1960s, such as Ringaround Arosie or An Ear in a Pond, the artist used materials like cloth, cords, and papier-mâché. With these pliable, organic elements, Hesse created works that evoke the body and prompt a tactile response. Cords protrude and hang, wires are coated and wrapped, and things bump and poke against surfaces. What Hesse relished about these characteristics were how contrary, unexpected and thus absurd they were given our expectations of what a work of art can do as it hangs on a wall. The organic, soft materials evoked fleshy surfaces, and the variety of materials allowed a range of textures and colors in Hesse’s objects. The artists in Mend mine their materials in just this way. The organic and pliable, like human hair or embroidery thread, are used to give texture and color to the imagery, shifting their objects from something known to something surprising and new. Hesse linked this moment of surprise to the absurd, and through that absurdity, a reengagement with the world around us. The world can once again surprise or delight us.
The large number of artists in this exhibition testifies to the widespread use of domestic materials in contemporary art today. We are not compelled to call these works craft, just because they are made from fabric or thread. Most of the artists would say they share the dedication to handmaking that is a primary feature of craft, but they are not creating craft objects with a utility. Artists also no longer have to justify using domestic materials, nor defend them against the charge of being feminine and not art. Instead, these materials are valued for what else they can bring to art, from evoking the body to foregrounding issues of process and time. Frequently these characteristics become intertwined, so that process and time are experienced via the body and what covers it. An artist well known for successfully using domestic materials such as fabric and thread to evoke memories, sensations, and emotions is Annette Messager. In Messager’s work materials wear the stains of time and memory, layering and exploring the emotions that create such marks. The materials bear a palimpsest of life experiences. The wonderful thing about palimpsests is that you can go back and change or subvert what was, mend that which turned out wrong, even try again. For the artists in Mend the process of making work provides the time to experience life, and perhaps mend what has gone before.
An essay by:
Dr. Marian Mazzone
Art History Department
College of Charleston