PHILADELPHIA — The 18th-century anatomist Frederik Ruysch would sometimes dress severed and preserved hands, arms, or other human parts with bits of lace, bestowing a gentle domesticity on the visceral relics. I was reminded of his work when viewing Tracing the Remains at the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, where the artists Caitlin McCormack and Sabrina Small have responded to the medical institution’s collections in a personal way, using crochet, needlework, and stitching.
Like Ruysch, the two Philadelphia-based artists are deeply engaged with the workings of the human body, its pathology and its posthumous deterioration. McCormack sculpts skeletal shapes with crochet, stiffening the cotton string with glue, while Small creates golden-threaded icons in which beads glisten like jewels on diagrams of the heart, lungs, and kidneys, as well as more conceptual responses to cysts. And there happens to be a rather alarming cyst in the exhibition that weighed over 70 pounds before it was removed from a 19th-century woman’s body. The fibrous pattern of the tumor appears on invasive forms in several of Small’s illustrations.
The show also includes a wax model of a foot with gangrene from the Mütter collections positioned alongside McCormack’s “Black Procession” (2016), a series of cotton-string feet with growing black invasions that suggest decay. The detail in both her and Small’s art is painstaking, as meticulous as the way Ruysch built his dioramas of specimens so many centuries ago, while the use of fiber art bestows a softness on these “abnormalities,” like the fused fingers hand-stitched in felt in Small’s “Polydactyl” pieces. When it comes to the treatment of the body or its preservation, the clinical gaze often overlooks the individual experience of the patient. In a way, McCormack’s and Small’s art retrieves some of this identity, stitch by stitch rebuilding forms that have been lost to disease and death.
Tracing the Remains continues at the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia (19 South 22nd Street, Philadelphia) through July 6.