Review of the exhibition Thread
By Victoria Suescum
Thread curated by Alana Coates concluded on Saturday, March 31 at the Clamp Light Artist Studios & Gallery next to Blanco Cafe. It is a youthful exhibit. Only a few of the artists in the show are over thirty; the youngest is fresh out of college. The curatorial thought which guided the selection of these artists was “What is contemporary embroidery today? What space does a medium, that is perceived as so traditional, occupy in the current art world?” And that is a fabulous question to ask young and emerging artists. It is worthwhile to find out what this new generation has to say, what are its concerns, what its social and technological environments look like. These artists have grown up in a tech world entirely different than the one which generated the art of embroidery. The contrast between the high-tech world from which these low-tech objects and images emerge presents an effervescent dichotomy. The work in Thread is SO different than that formulated by earlier generations which were taught labor intensive embroidery in school to create practical objects and in which one did not grow up with a single computer in the house, let alone a smartphone in one’s pocket. Most of these artists are self-taught and learned at least part of their embroidery techniques on YouTube videos.
The artists in Thread use embroidery to explore subjects which spring from their roots that reflect the tech world in which they grew up, and that explore choices in gender and sexual identity which were not even an option a couple of decades ago. None of the objects are practical. Many of the words they use did not exist until recently: nonbinary, free software, man bun, selfie, Google. Similarly, they gather ideas from their smartphone, Microsoft fonts, and YouTube pop songs. Because most of the artists are from Texas, there is a lot of Spanish, some English, and works where the two languages coexist. And then, of course, the artists explore love, because after all what is youth without heartbreak.
Cultural roots and identity make an appearance, with a twist. Linda Arredondo creates headdresses out of tulle – bride like veils- which refer to the flayed skins worn by the Aztec. Initially, the features belonged to young women posing for social media. Arredondo locates Ulzzang, “a particular selfie emblematic of the internet-cell phone age” and emblazons the tulle with their large eyes, bright lips, a tilt of the head. The satin stitches are dense and yummy: wide areas of floss contrast with the delicate tulle. Thin lines of thread add variety and unity to the compositions. The flayed selfies are given names of powerful Mesoamerican goddesses “to refer to the neoclassical habit of associating aesthetic qualities and ideals with western/European mythologies.” I wish Clamp Light was larger so these pieces could be allotted more wall space. I wish they were worn. Alternatively, I wish there were photographs of Linda Arredondo wearing them. I want more!
Blanca Alvarez takes corn husks and patches them together into flat irregular shapes– they remind me of 6000-year-old fragments of mats by Paleo Indians found in the Pecos Region. The husks are covered in gold pigment, recalling the conquistadors who sought cities of that precious metal. Alvarez’ work contrasts the insatiable European appetite for gold versus the Native American corn found in greater abundance. Just as contemporary Mexican Americans are descendants of the two cultures, Alvarez miscegenates a native material with the material preferred by the Spanish. In smaller works, Alvarez reclaims words typically used to denigrate a Latina such as “Sucia” (whore) and “tirada” (trashy) - names which have been cast at her- by stitching them on the golden husks. These are true portraits of a contemporary Latina. Very subtle. SO smart.
Jose Villalobos also deals with his roots and name calling but in relation to the confines of gender. He digs up dirt and brings it into the gallery space. In the ideal world, Villalobos would use earth from his homeland: the El Paso/Ciudad Juarez border. Currently, a strip of cowhide hangs on the gallery wall and reads: “Las manos de un hombre no deberian ser suavecitas como esta piel.” The text is interspersed with red letters which spell “marica” (faggot.) On opening night Villalobos knelt on the slight mound of earth, entered the red letters in a simple backstitch – pausing to use the four-foot strip of cowhide to flagellate himself, calling out phrases that put down gay men in Spanish- until he had also stitched welts across his back. Villalobos sought, successfully, that observers feel the sting that words produce upon a human being. In a video, Villalobos sews “hombre” directly into the palm of his hands to thicken his skin, because -as the strip of cowhide states - “real men” don’t have soft hands, they have callouses.
Sexual identity and gender issues are addressed throughout the exhibit. Michael Martinez machine embroiders chest binders used by trans men to flatten their breasts before transitioning away from the sex assigned to them at birth. The chest binder in Thread is one out of four that come in different flesh tones. It carries a message which loosely means that it takes a lot of courage to support a heart’s truth. I find this text interesting because it is not clear Spanish or Spanglish. Rather it seems to be a direct translation from English into Spanish, only making sense if you know English. One literally reads English in Spanish. The phrase reminds me of a radio commercial broadcast in the nineties in which Spanish listeners were encouraged to “pick up” Dunkin Donuts. But the idiomatic expression did not translate literally into comprehensible Spanish and so I did not understand why I was asked to “levantar” (lift) donuts. I find these subtle plays with language fascinating. The companion chest binders are embroidered bilingually: they require that the observer know both languages in order to comprehend the full message. The messages exist on a threshold, as the transitioning man does also. Martinez refers to themselves (them is his preferred pronoun) as non-binary. The search for correct sexual identity exists along a spectrum that did not have currency twenty years ago.
Similarly, Sol Kesseler describes a man -with a bushy beard and man bun- who adorns his? their? doppelganger with a flower. Are they twins? Is it one man twice? Bullion rosebuds bloom on the man’s (men’s) beard(s). This mass of hair which has traditionally been associated with tough masculinity – think duck hunters - is made gentle with floribunda. In addition, skilled open work is used to decorate the men’s (man’s?) shirt with delicate patterns. The man (men?) in this work challenge stereotypical ideas about gender, which is a learned behavior.
Alternatively, Nicole Tovar maps hair on the white female body, she describes it in abundance in areas where it hasn’t been attractive since the 1960’s. Her images use inches of black thread to boast hairy armpits and pubic areas. Black French knots peep above a pantie. Is this hair emblazoned on young taut bodies a trending sign of beauty? Is this a hip alternative to completely hairless labia? I do wonder why nipple hair is not included, a few stray strands around the aureola would be a lovely addition. And I wonder why the pubic hair is left long while the legs are bare. Are the legs shaven? Those of us who have dark hair know that unruly pubic hair will not be contained in a neat triangle. Where to stop shaving, how far up to go, is an important decision to make once you start shaving a leg. When I was a teenager, parents often allowed us to shave our legs only up to the knees. This left us with “hairy shorts.” We broke rules of decency by shaving all the way up to our leg crease. How much hair to own is an important decision in a woman’s world where we encounter the word aesthetic in the beauty parlor (“salones de belleza y estetica”) before meeting it in the art world. Tovar “is working on a catalog of the entire human body.” I hope she maps mustaches and stiff chin hairs on older bodies, maybe gray hairs in the pubic area, maybe flesh of another color. I look forward to finding out.
Like Kesseler, the issues contained in the work of Justin Korver also challenge the confines of gender. Can a man be both soft and tough? A hunting cap answers the question: “Maybe camouflage is a masculine floral.” In it, generous stitches stagger across the crowns and contrast with eyelets tensely embroidered by machine. Korver feminizes stereotypical male qualities. Freeform trapezoids contrast with mechanical lines which run parallel to the brim in “I guess I think of pink as the complement of green.” My favorite cap, titled “A flower crown isn’t a laurel wreath, trees are more manly,” has a machine-embroidered house in the center. The house is caught in mid-construction, studs showing. The manly man is not complete. Instead, it is surrounded by a vibrant garden of hand sewn flowers. A single large rose now blooms where pools of sweat once flourished.
Relationships - their maintenance, their dissolution- are a recurring subject in Thread. In a Millennial world, where many people break up by email, text or tweet, Abby Hinojosa documents every article of clothing she and her significant other were wearing on the day they broke up because, shock!, they did so in person.
In another piece, “Things are Changing,” Hinojosa writes the lyrics from a pop love song by Julieta Venegas (“Algo esta cambiando.”) Sarah Castillo tries to let go of a lost love by repetitively stitching a mantra, barely visible – in effect inaudible- using red floss on a red dress.
Instead of splitting people apart, Argentine artist, Sol Kesseler, brings the audience together by asking them to touch both themselves and the artwork in order to complete an electric circuit which then generates a series of tapping and clicking sounds. Her contemporary embroidery has a voice.
Sarah Barnes describes a relationship with urban nature: a female figure hides behind a large potted plant. And behind lots of cats. She seeks to, loosely paraphrased: “hide behind the material objects which define us.” The piece is fun and funny.
Millenials inhabit a computer world. Martha Elena Flores uses coding to echo phrases from Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Yellow Wallpaper. Each of her symbols corresponds to a letter. She couches fluffy yarns with floss to create large circles and fuzzy arrows which travel in all directions. They are overlayed in such a manner as to record phrases. Intentionally, retrieval of that information is sketchy at best. That the images contain coded information is clear. In the piece titled “Nothings,” fifty small works on tracing paper are organized in a grid with iconic symbols in thick, sensuous yarns that are tightly bound and couched. Here discord struggles against structure. Arrows leading in every direction serve to confuse.
Last but not least, Sarah Fox displays a wide knowledge of stitches and skillful drawing techniques to embroider a portrait of her newborn son, Will, as a frog-boy on the head of a large and powerful Mama Bear with a human ear. Fox allows the morphed animal and human figures to tell their tale a-la Aesop’s fable. In Fox’s work form and meaning appear to merge as effortlessly as in a well choreographed and executed ballet. Mark making and support are carefully contrasted. Fox strews a stubble of threads over layers of translucent papers. Satin stitch, French knots, bullion roses and buttonhole stitch create delicate textures. Instead of knotting all the ends, Fox allows the ends of threads to dangle, like incomplete phrases, like a pause in mid-sentence, like a voice that falls silent.
Thread is a valuable exhibit, not to be missed. If you do, make sure to google it on your smartphone and follow the artists on Instagram.