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Nathan Vincent, “Be Good for Goodness Sake” (detail) (2012), yarn, wood, bench, astroturf, cameras, in collaboration with Alex Emmart of Mighty Tanaka (all images courtesy the artists)

CHICAGO — In the age of social-networked identitieswhen every private thought is often public declaration, what does it mean to be “good” or “bad”? Our words become performances, our self-portraits become selfies, and we are present as online brands. It becomes hard to take emotional moments seriously

In the exhibition Be Good for Goodness Sake, now on view at Muriel Guépin Gallery in New York, artists Kathy Halper, Nathan Vincent, and Iviva Olenik consider the implications of such an existence, manifesting virtual moments in tactile ways — with yarn, linen, fabric, embroidery. Using images and phrases found both online and in the American cultural vernacular, the artists stitch these immaterial internet offerings.

Iviva Olenick, “IRL/URL” (2013), embroidery and watercolor on fabric, 7.5″ x 4.5″ (image courtesy the artist) (click to enlarge)

Iviva Olenick, “IRL/URL” (2013), embroidery and watercolor on fabric, 7.5″ x 4.5″ (click to enlarge)

Viewing works of art about social media through a screen rather than inside a gallery proper presents a different challenge. Here I am, flipping through the pieces on the gallery website and opening them on my computer. I start to imagine the online original source material before it was co-opted and interpreted by these artists. I am having a once-removed experience of IRL artwork that comes from URLs.

This same fluidity comes through in Iviva Olenick’s “IRL/URL” (2013), an embroidery of a young-girl taking a selfie. The text “to improve my ‘in real life’” is stitched into her arm like a tattoo, suggesting a sweetly laced adolescent moment of communication between the girl and her viewer. In its embroidered format, her selfie becomes a painting for the digital age — or rather, a painting of the digital age using a crafted means to an end.

Kathy Halper’s embroideries “Smart Decisions,” “Note to Self,” and “Look No Pants” (2011–2013) portray teenagers either engaged in or about to encounter high-risk situations. Grabbing photographs that she finds online — either on social media sites or elsewhere on the internet — Halper pairs them with Facebook status updates and that ubiquitous thumbs up. She mutes the palette through the use of a light-brown cloth that looks like it could have been ripped from a burlap bag or cut from a painting canvas. Presenting these anonymous teenagers in their natural internet environments, Halper offers a look into a world normally closed off from adults, especially from parents.

Kathy Halper, "Note to Self" (2012). Hand embroidery on linen 26” x 32”.

Kathy Halper, “Note to Self” (2012), hand embroidery on linen, 26” x 32”

Rather than focusing on images found online, Nathan Vincent’s installation takes questions of internet surveillance to the next level. In “Be Good for Goodness Sake” (2012), which he made in collaboration with Alex Emmart, the artist forces the viewer to consider how they behave when they know they’re being watched.

Nathan Vincent, “Be Good for Goodness Sake” (2012) (click to enlarge)

Nathan Vincent, “Be Good for Goodness Sake” (2012) in collaboration with Alex Emmart of Mighty Tanaka (click to enlarge)

In this constructed environment, a bench sits on top of astroturf; viewers may sit or lie down and look at the circular embroidery with the text “Be Good for Goodness Sake.” It hangs on the wall like an oversized version of a portrait for a child’s perfectly designed bedroom or a cute potholder found in a suburban home. An annoying reminder from mother dearest, it asks the viewer to grapple with the knowledge that they’re being watched. Viewers may do anything they want, keeping in mind that parents or family members could, at some point, come across this footage. What do you do when no one’s watching? Hopefully something you’ll be proud of the next day, and not just what makes you feel good in the moment.

Be Good for Goodness Sake is on view at Muriel Guépin Gallery (83 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through January 19.

Alicia Eler is a cultural critic and arts reporter. She is the author of the book The Selfie Generation (Skyhorse Publishing), which has been reviewed in the New York Times, WIRED Magazine and the Chicago...