The show, presented on three floors of the museum, offers up a feast of color, technique, materials, experimentation, and ideas. Appearing in dozens of different and unexpected manifestations, embroidery is presented here as a vital and relevant creative form no longer relegated to the confines of a wooden hoop propped upon a lady’s lap.
The strength of the show is the way it conveys how much embroidery can DO. Artists are applying embroidery, not only to make (or modify) needlepoint on fabric, but also to sketch, paint, tattoo, upholster, sculpt, write, adorn, and embellish. Captured on film, embroidering even takes on an aspect of performance. There are great examples of each chameleon turn here, many worthy of mention and more than I have space to address.
Of particular note is David Willburn’s “Let’s Try This Again Tomorrow,” a ghost-like rendering of two chairs stitched right into the gallery wall. Also particularly interesting is Nara Lubelki’s “Clumsy,” for which she traced in red stitches the large stain on a yellow tablecloth. Works by Maira Kalman, Tilleke Schwarz, and Andrea Dezsö are engaging as they break aesthetic and even socio-cultural rules of embroidering on fabric. There is also plenty of technical virtuosity on view to please the skill connoisseur.
Since embroidery is often rendered in beautiful colorful threads of glistening silk, the eye candy quotient is delightfully high. Stephen Beal evokes the sheer aesthetic joy of encountering a variegated rainbow display of embroidery floss in a fabric store, as well as his own synesthesia, in “Periodic Table of the Artist’s Colors.” And Angelo Filomeno’s large embroidery on silk shantung (shown top) is pure dazzle, especially in person.
As these works demonstrate, embroidery is inherently superficial. Yet while its effect is to create a surface, embroidery is always also through and beneath. Some artists explore that aspect, with Xiang Yang exposing long lengths of gossamer “guts” between two surfaces placed several feet apart, and many others leaving the ends of threads to dangle on the surface or exposing the back or “wrong” sides of the work.
While there is a lot of wonderful work to see, the exhibition doesn’t take the viewer very far beyond the works themselves, and I found this to be disappointing. Clever ideas and eye candy can only take a curious viewer so far, and then they are going to start craving more substance. For example, while the exhibition does acknowledge how many men are now embracing this craft form traditionally associated with women’s work—a nod to gender context—I would have liked to see more contextualizing (in terms of labor, art history, fashion, material culture…).
I also noticed that embroidery done by hand appears in the show side-by-side with machine embroidery, as does studio work with designs “shopped out” to workshops overseas. This presents an opportunity to engage issues of labor and authorship that would have made for a meaty essay.
Regardless of these shortcomings, I definitely recommend this exhibition. PRICKED is a logical and welcome follow-up to RADICAL LACE AND SUBVERSIVE KNITTING, (which I reviewed in this blog here.) As the press release aptly states, “Like Radical Lace, this new exhibition challenges the way the public views the contemporary evolution of an ancient art.” Both shows are doing a great service to craft by presenting it in a bold and refreshing way.
As a final note, be sure to also check out CHEERS! A MAD COLLECTION OF GOBLETS on view in the lower level of the museum (thru March 9). This show is like a fabulous dessert at the end of a good meal, offering a totally different texture and feel, short and sweet and exploding with flavor. The show includes a great piece by Matthew Eskuche (whose work we show at Greenjeans and recently featured in GARBAGE COLLECTION)—imagine limp, deflated clear glass goblets hung with clothespins on a line, dripping dry...
Posted by Amy Shaw. Image courtesy of the Museum of Arts & Design.
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