New York’s art world seems to be experiencing a newfound love affair with art made by hand — art that has, dare I say, “craft” in it. We saw a passing flirtation with knitting when the Rosemarie Trockel show at the New Museum teased us with needle possibilities. Glass was “in” for a while — the SOFA art fair came from Chicago with a focus on glass in the late 1990s and changed the landscape for artists working in that medium — but now it’s “out” (SOFA shut down in New York in 2012). Recently, there’s been a professed love of sculpture made of clay, a form that’s been around since the mid 1950s and is now the flavor of the week: witness the 2014 Whitney Biennial, which included a lot of it, as well as a retrospective for Ken Price at the Met last year and a showing of Sterling Ruby’s huge clay works (among others) at Hauser & Wirth this summer.
The latest craft art making a strong appearance is embroidery, at Robert Mann Gallery, which has mounted a stunning exhibition of artists who embroider on top of photographs. Curated by Orly Cogan, who has included herself in the show, The Embroidered Image features the work of 11 artists who have found creative ways to meld two unlikely mediums.
Hinke Schreuders has taken what appears to be 1950s advertising images of women, adhered them to linen, and added abundant embroidery in a way that heightens the kind of surreal glamour of the photos. The embroidery drips across the pictures and around the sides of the canvas — abstracted bubbles and flowers, embroidery that resembles old-fashioned brocade, drift in and out around the images. From afar the thread creates a sense that these women are behind veils of color and pattern; up close the dimensionality of the surface causes the two mediums to pop apart and you become aware of both the handiwork and the photos underneath.
Not all of the works achieve this electricity between materials. Matthew Cox’s embroidered found X-rays don’t quite transcend the physical and conceptual gap between the films and thread, and the sewn decoration of dancers’ costumes by Jose Romussi isn’t as inventive as some of the other pieces in the show.
By contrast, Flore Gardner’s and Jessica Wohl’s use of found images and the ways they embellish the narratives in them are knockouts. Both have chosen photographs of the basic things that we use the medium to document in our lives: marriage, children, friendship. Iconic and ordinary at the same time, these are the images that can be found by the millions in scrapbooks and shoeboxes across the US. The artists have then embellished and complemented the sentiments of these photos by sewing traditional embroidery stitches-satin, like running and cross (to name a few), on top of them. The results dive into the soul of each image and draw it out through the threadwork on the surface. They are psychologically riveting.
All of the artists in The Embroidered Image are essentially working in a form of collage, layering one medium on top of another. They’ve also chosen to work with photographs that were once intensively handmade and now carry a whiff of nostalgia. Add to that embroidery, with its societal references to domesticity, intimacy, and femininity, and you get an exhibition that is at once beautiful and woven with artistic and cultural tension.
The exhibition is also interesting in the larger context of the “maker” and “DIY” movements that are currently in vogue in the art/craft/design world. The current biennial at the Museum of Arts and Design, NYC Makers, seeks to celebrate those who make things “through exquisite workmanship and skill.” It feels as if, with our lives so digitally based, there’s a strong desire to capture and reinvent the tangible presence of the artist as maker.
The Embroidered Image is a mash-up of a different sort. In layering two forms of handicraft atop one another, the exhibition creates a third medium. The work is “mano a mano” in the literal sense of the expression: “hand to hand.” In a time of sometimes indiscriminate and forgettable high tech, it’s a delight to revel for a moment in work of such exceptionally high touch.
The Embroidered Image continues at Robert Mann Gallery (525 W 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through August 15.