CHICAGO — John Chaich’s exhibition Queer Threads considers artworks that use craft aesthetics to reclaim, reimagine, and renegotiate previously accepted hierarchies of visual culture. Much like Chicago-based curator Danny Orendorff’s exhibition All Good Things Become Wild and Free, which considers artworks that utilize unconventional materials and the relationship between craft and affect, Chaich’s show gets into art’s knitty and knotty. Hyperallergic got in touch with Chaich to learn more about Queer Threads, which is currently on view at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in Manhattan.
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Alicia Eler: Craft has roots within the private feminine domestic and fine art practices. Here I am thinking about books such as Rozsika Parker’s The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine that discusses the history of needlework, and the conflation of embroidery and female sexuality, which she deems “both innately virginal and available for consumption.” She also discusses the art/craft hierarchy. I don’t see any discussion of this in your exhibition premise. Why is there no discussion of craft’s feminist roots?
John Chaich: I don’t think one works with fiber or craft techniques in their art without being a feminist.
As you said, fiber crafts — knitting, crochet, embroidery and more — historically have been associated with the “feminine” or “women’s work”, which we know have been undervalued by patriarchal structures. Culturally, craft has long been considered “lesser than” fine art.
It’s not surprising that queer artists, who most likely have felt personally, politically and even artistically alienated, feel an affinity with craft. Through working with craft techniques, they can reclaim and reimagine the gender and power associations that are inherent in these materials and techniques.
One of the first pieces you see in the installation actually expresses feminist politics pretty explicitly: Allyson Mitchell and Jessica Whitbread’s “Fuck Positive Women.” The forcefulness of the text contrasts with stereotypes about craft and femininity. It challenges the viewer to reconsider HIV-positive women as potential sex partners.
Nearby is Jesse Harrod’s “Pensile Arrangement #2” (2013). She uses cock rings and macramé to create a hanging sculpture whose shapes allude to harnesses and female genitalia. It’s more subtle than Mitchell and Whitbread’s approach, but no less sex-positive and feminist.
And on February 1, Debbie Stoller, co-founder of BUST magazine and author of the Stitch n’ Bitch series of books, will lead a gallery tour. I’m looking forward to hearing her take on the feminist perspectives in Queer Threads.
AE: In the press release, you say that “using craft to celebrate and critique identity and community is very queer in all sense of the word — unusual, political, and personal.” Can you elaborate on that, specifically how craft is queered in this exhibition?
JC: Queer Threads aims to present a diversity — and even discrepancy — of approaches to how queer people form their identities, create communities, and react to the homogeneity of mainstream gay and lesbian culture.
The artists in Queer Threads subvert these fiber craft techniques which a lot of people think of as old-fashioned and uncool and some use them to make political claims, which is very queer, while others are immediately personal, and of course the personal is political. The title of Sheila Pepe’s piece, “Your Granny’s Not Square,” let alone the work’s queering of the suburban home, really captures this spirit.
Or take Liz Collins’ “Accumulated Pride” (2005-2014). This site-specific installation presents an enormous rainbow pride flag, utilizing textiles created through the artists KNITTING NATION actions since 2005, that flows over the gallery wall into amorphous mound on the floor. Look closely and you’ll see that Collins has returned two stripes — pink for sex and turquoise for art and magic — from Gilbert Baker’s original 1978 design of the flag that have since been edited from the version we commonly see. In doing so, she questions if the powerful roles of sexuality and creativity in our lives as LGBTQ people has been devalued.
AE: On the converse, can you talk about craft that is not queer? Please provide a few examples.
JC: Although all of the featured artists are LGBTQ identified, not all of the content explicitly is — and that’s perfectly queer in this context. Some of the work reads quickly as queer through figures, text, and recognizable iconography, but others are more abstract or ambiguous. (In fact, I originally titled the exhibition Not-so-Common Threads.) Throughout the featured work, there are universal themes — beauty, vulnerability, power, iconography, history — that I hope that any viewer can relate to.
AE: Where did the idea for Queer Threads come from? Tell me a bit about the realization process.
JC: I grew up in a home where my mother and grandmother both crocheted and quilted, so I’ve always admired fiber craft practices. I have failed miserably when attempting to knit or crochet myself, so I envy those who can!
And since the last exhibition I curated, Mixed Messages: A(I)DS, Art, and Words for Visual AIDS in 2011 and 2012, featured only text-based works, I wanted to challenge myself by exploring more tactile, textured work next.
AE: How did you go about selecting the artists that you’ve decided to include in Queer Threads?
JC: A few years back, I started first looking at gay male artists who were working in traditionally feminine handicraft to explore masculinity, but this felt too much like a punch line. I quickly became more intrigued by the nuances and surprises in works by the broader spectrum of queer artists. And it’s not like male artists are struggling for exposure, eh?
The community of queer artists working in fiber crafts is pretty closely knit, pun obviously intended. There are personal relationships behind many of the pieces in Queer Threads —from faculty and students, to artistic collaborators to lovers, so discovering new work to consider was very organic and interconnected.
In designing the exhibition itself, it was important for me to feature not only a mix of male and female and trans identified perspectives but also balance of 3D and 2D work and even new media.
AE: A lot of the press I’ve seen about the exhibition focuses on Nathan Vincent’s Locker Room (2011) installation, which opens the space for gay male adolescent fantasy. I also think it’s easier work to digest than, say, Allyson Mitchell’s “Queer Un-Nation” flag (2012). To me, this seems like a very clear distinction between non-politicized art that uses craft moreso as an aesthetic choice and art that uses craft as part of a radical feminist political agenda. From your point of view, how do these two works play off of or compliment each other in the context of the exhibition?
JC: One way Nathan’s “Locker Room” and Allyson’s “Queer Un-Nation” banner are similar is that they both address queer alienation in public spaces. The locker room may be a site of seduction for grown men, but it’s also a site of intimidation for many queer boys growing up. (A beautiful, clever quilt by poet Melanie Braverman in the exhibition also addresses bullying.) Queer boys and non-masculine queer men, let alone trans folks, can easily feel displaced from the body-conscious, hyper-masculine aesthetic of gay male culture. Allyson Mitchell’s Deep Lez crew carried the “Queer Un-Nation” banner in a 2011 grassroots march in Toronto called Stonewall TO, organized to protest the increasing assimilationism and homonationalism of gay pride events. The locker room and the pride march are both spaces where queer people can be made to feel alienated from mainstream gay culture — just as art and craft have been isolated from each other.
AE: Tell me about two up-and-coming young queer artists in this show that people should definitely keep an eye out for, and why.
JC: It’s really an honor to present in Queer Threads work by artists who have been under-exposed in the United States. Pierre Fouché of Capetown works exclusively in hand-lace and macramé. His featured piece took over 1000 hours to make. His skill is stupendous, and he references both art history and contemporary politics. Leo Chiachio and Daniel Giannone of Buenos Aires are partners in life and in artistic practice. They use embroidery to create self-portraits that twist gender and ethnic expectations, such as their featured family portrait of themselves in the face paint and jewelry of the Guarani peoples. This same piece will be shown in an exhibition of contemporary Latin American craft artists at the Museum of Art & Design this summer, and I’m as curious to see how its queerness will be addressed as I am excited to see their impeccable skill promoted exposed to more audiences.
Queer Threads: Crafting Identity and Community continues through March 16 at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art (26 Wooster Street, Manhattan).