Donna Sharrett’s work is both emblematic of its time and difficult to classify. At first glance, it may appear to be quintessentially postmodernist, offering a borrower-conjurer’s cornucopia of found objects and unusual materials that have been plucked out of their original, utilitarian settings and repurposed. At the same time, though, Sharrett’s mixed-media abstract art is not intentionally postmodernist at all (she does not mean for it to be and she is not motivated by pomo theory), nor does it fall neatly into the categories of traditional craft (speaking more generally) or needlework (speaking more precisely) or sculpture.
“I refer to what I make as assemblage art,” Sharrett says. “I make use of needlework techniques and gather found materials and reuse them but I do so because I like their textures, colors or other qualities, and also because they already have been used and come to me with their own histories, which I evoke in my work.” Unabashedly, her art reflects — and celebrates — the discipline and pleasure of the most time-consuming and painstaking hand-production methods, and deploys fine craftsmanship as a powerful, expressive language in its own right.
Now, with Love Songs, an exhibition at Pavel Zoubok Gallery in Manhattan (on view through February 7), Sharrett’s meticulous handiwork is being showcased in a solo presentation for the first time in five years. The show focuses in particular on her work of the past three years. Concurrently, the gallery is offering Sampling, a group exhibition that takes as its thematic starting points certain aspects of Sharrett’s work, such as mathematically based compositions and the reuse of found materials. The works of twelve artists on view in this survey may be seen as sharing an aesthetic dialog with Sharrett’s; their makers employ such materials as thread, yarn, chalk or old furniture to create drawings, photographs or other art forms. Sampling was curated by Dara Meyers-Kingsley, the director of an honors program for undergraduate art students at Hunter College.
“Perfection in craftsmanship is not the primary objective in my work,” says Sharrett, who grew up in the Pine Barrens region of southern New Jersey and earned an undergraduate degree in painting from the School of Visual Arts in New York. She says she does not want to be “constrained by traditional methods or have the goal of flawless technique preclude spontaneous discovery” in her art-making.
In 2000, Sharrett, who resides and keeps a studio in the mid-Hudson Valley region, north of Manhattan, began gaining national attention with Mementos, a solo exhibition at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York. Made with dried rose petals, which she joined together in intricate patterns using hand-stitched, artificial hair, the works Sharrett presented there explored the theme of memorializing deceased family members and other loved ones. The compositions in her Mementos series were set against black-velvet backgrounds and constructed using a needlelace stitch.
From her mother, who had died a decade earlier, Sharrett had learned some complicated stitching techniques. After her mother’s death, she left painting in search of other ways of making art. At that time, she began researching Victorian-era memento mori, Mexican Day of the Dead customs and other traditions related to remembering the deceased.
Sharrett recalls, “Earlier, during the first stages of the AIDS crisis, a few contemporary artists had addressed the subject of death in their work. When I made the Mementos works, I was specifically interested in cultural and historical responses to memorializing the deceased, but in time my interest — and the central theme of my work — became memory and, more specifically, the idea of remembrance. That is, the people and their belongings, events, places, times and things that we remember and what triggers our memories to flow.”
Roughly a year after Sharrett’s Everson Museum exhibition and about a week before the terrorist attacks of September 2001, her younger brother died. He had been a musician who had played in rock bands. His death profoundly affected the artist and, in turn, prompted her to re-examine the nature, themes and purposes of her art. In time, her earlier efforts evolved into an ongoing body of work she is still developing today, which she calls “Arrangements.” That title is evocative in many ways and can allude to musical or floral arrangements (and, thus, to her previous work and to her brother). Sharrett says, “It also refers more generally to the arrangements people make for various kinds of rituals.”
Like her earlier creations, her first mixed-media works in the Arrangements series featured round, elaborate, precisely assembled compositions, although they were often larger and further articulated. They were also informed in part by Sharrett’s study of medieval cathedrals’ stained-glass rose windows. In the Arrangements series, over time she has used a wide variety of unusual materials, including little, gold-colored rings from the ends of her late brother’s guitar strings, old neckties, denim and other fabric scraps, and even dirt. Her most recent works make use of inlaid violin tail pieces and pieces of jewelry.
“In honor of my brother, all of the works in my Arrangements series contain guitar strings or guitar-string ball ends,” Sharrett explains. She adds, “I only use strings or ends that come from instruments on which music has been played. One musician from Peekskill gave me a batch of 50 used strings.”
In recent years Sharrett has made a point of primarily using materials — she calls them “gifts” — that have been passed along to her, sometimes by people she has not personally known. She says, “It’s a collaborative process with these donated materials. Often a new gift suggests a potential relationship with another gift-in-waiting I’ve received from someone else. All of the objects or materials I use are holders of history, of memories. I arrange these components in sets or multiples of six, a reference to the number of strings on a guitar.”
Sharrett says her circular compositions “refer to the everlasting, to the infinite,” and that she almost always employs traditional stitching techniques, including a running stitch or a buttonhole stitch (also known as a “blanket stitch”), to join together the items that make up her assemblages. She uses the latter stitch, she says, to honor her late mother, who, she recalls, “always said a handmade buttonhole is a sign of a well-made garment.”
The titles of the works in her current exhibition are taken from rock songs, a gesture that provides another reference to her late brother. “Dancing Barefoot” (2014), named for a 1979 Patti Smith song, is a multi-textured, mandala-like piece — many of Sharrett’s works evoke the spirit of meditative instruments — featuring webs of fine stitchery that form thickets of flower shapes, all of which are set like the toppings of an exquisite pizza on a bed of such ingredients as pieces of men’s shirts, neckties, blue jeans, a damask tablecloth and a woman’s negligee. Guitar strings, bone beads, buttons and bits of jewelry are present, too. All of the elements and layers of Sharrett’s assemblages are neatly fused.
In “Nothing Else Matters” (2012), named after a 1992 song by Metallica, the heavy-metal band, parts of an old bridesmaid’s dress and a damask tablecloth, along with pieces of a quilt and a fur hat, come together with buttons and beads in an elegant, decorative-ceremonial artifact — a central object, perhaps, in some mysterious, unknown ritual?
This assemblage’s round form is surrounded by a ring of dried rose petals, recalling the works in Sharrett’s earlier Mementos series, each of whose delicate edges the artist has finely finished with buttonhole stitches made with synthetic hair. Other works in Love Songs are similarly rich in physical and visual textures, and their ordinary, familiar components serve as Proustian sparks for memory-stirring reverie. “My grandmother (or elementary-school teacher or favorite aunt or former lover) used to wear something like this,” a viewer might think, catching a glimpse of the weave or pattern of a piece of fabric peeking out from one of Sharrett’s complex, heirloom-filled compositions.
There was a time when certain makers of feminist art, perhaps those who pointedly brought traditional “women’s work” techniques, such as embroidery or quilting, into “fine art,” would have been all over work like Sharrett’s. “I definitely embrace and incorporate ‘women’s work’ into my art,” she says, “but I’m doing something very different from the feminist artists of decades ago. I could not do what I’m doing today if they had not laid the groundwork, but whereas aspects of their art were more political, my work is much more personal.”
What’s inescapable in examining Sharrett’s creations is the recognition of the fact that they are all so purposefully, lovingly well-made. The contrast between this kind of art, which is not ashamed to call attention to the touch of its maker’s hand, and the tides of slick, cynical, sent-out-to-be-fabricated art product routinely proffered in so many galleries and museums, could not be more pronounced.
Sharrett says, “The slowness of this kind of work, the long time it takes to produce it, are some of its essential characteristics. Nowadays, we receive so many tiny bits of information that don’t necessarily add up to knowledge or understanding, and everything is so condensed. But my work is slowly built up. It’s not linear. It’s not like following a pattern to make a quilt. I’m constantly taking apart and reassembling. My approach is sculptural; it’s not a needlework approach.”
Meyers-Kingsley, in a brief essay in the catalogue that accompanies Sharrett’s show, notes that the artist stitches together “[p]ersonal history and cultural history” in each of her works, and that she “is proud to be among what she calls ‘the venerable needlework sorority that joins women throughout history and is found in every culture’” and to be the heir of a generation-to-generation legacy of stitches and patterns.
That is, of course, a rich artistic heritage for any artist. It is one that Sharrett’s art of history and remembrance, with its sophisticated manner of appropriation and assemblage, both esteems and enriches with its peculiar way of making palpable the fleeting nature of time.