In artist Sophia Narrett‘s current solo show at Arts+Leisure, two women meet on the set of The Bachelor and swiftly fall in love — with each other. They run off to have an affair in a bucolic garden, surrounded by lounging naked women, couples and threesomes having sex, and, strangely, Kendrick Lamar. But something goes wrong. Something involving guns. The pair splits, and in the end we are left stranded with our uncertainty in a harsh, wintry cityscape accented by a deep, bloody red. (The show’s title: This Meant Nothing.)
Narrett conveys all this in just four fantastical embroideries, each one bursting with figures, thread, colors, and motifs. Part of the appeal of these pieces is their unabashed too-muchness, their revelry in a maximalist approach to both medium and story. In the exhibition’s middle two pieces, “Stars Align” (2014) and “Something Went Wrong” (2014–15), there is no single scene of focus; time lapses and shifting perspective, as well as a parade of bodies engaged in sexual acts and erotic poses — which Narrett calls “eroticism as ornamentation,” and which feel like a nod to Hieronymus Bosch — keep our eye circling, attempting to turn a strongly articulated feeling into some more fleshed-out story or meaning. This is the careful balance struck by all of the works in the show, both individually and as a unit: on the one hand, highly narrative; on the other, difficult to completely read.
A similarly successful tension animates the threadwork itself. Narrett finds most of her images on Tumblr and other online sources — the protagonists in this series are based on Lauren Morelli, a writer for the TV show Orange Is the New Black, and Samira Wiley, one of the show’s main actresses, who did really meet and fall in love on set. She then crafts a narrative, Photoshops collage mock-ups, and sews them into three-dimensional existence, giving herself “over to this process … [which] almost dictates what the work will look like in the end.” Her hours of work are evident in the intense layering of thread, each lone body or flower petal seeming to contain hundreds of stitches and dozens of colors. From far away they coalesce enough to sustain the images they comprise; up close, a face and torso dissolve into stitches and lines and small passages of color. (My first referential thought upon seeing them was Brian Adam Douglas’s recent, painstaking paper collage work.) It’s as if Narrett insisted on sewing until she couldn’t anymore, stopped not by physical pain but by artistic climax, a knowledge of just how far to push without pushing over.
The essentials of Narrett’s practice are familiar: dramatic, allover embroideries and the process of using pop-culture images to make art (not to mention rendering them in a handmade medium). But her reclamation of both for her own purposes is compelling. She takes the images we all see and bracingly sews and stitches them together until they become something utterly different, and hers. Would that all our fantasies were so well-crafted.
Sophia Narrett: This Meant Nothing continues at Arts+Leisure (1571 Lexington Avenue, East Harlem, Manhattan) through June 28.