Pricked: Extreme Embroidery

Special exhibition at the Museum of Arts & Design, extended through April 27.

To celebrate finally completing an afghan on which I’d worked off and on (mostly off) for nearly six years, I decided to check out the embroidery exhibit at the Museum of Arts & Design. It was an absurd impetus—like visiting an exhibit on fine oil paintings because you finished painting the walls of your house with rollers—but I’ve been meaning to visit that museum for months (it’s less than a block away from my office), and I figured a silly rationale was as good as any.

Anyway, I’m glad I went because the exhibit surprised me. It was much more diverse than I had anticipated, in virtually every way possible: male artists as well as female, hailing from around the world, approaching the art form from a wide variety of perspectives, using a wide variety of materials. Despite the seemingly narrow focus of the exhibit, there was nothing monolithic about it.

A substantial number of the works (though not as many as I had expected) reflected a strong feminist perspective. In the 1970s, women artists began reclaiming marginalized “women’s crafts”—choosing to work in embroidery rather than, say, sculpture made a political statement—and the legacy of that movement could be seen in some work. For example, a canvas by Judy Chicago (best known for The Dinner Party) overlaid embroidery over a traditional painting, deliberately rejecting the divide between high art and mere womanly craftsmanship. Elaine Reichek’s Lexicon of Clouds featured embroidered and carefully labeled cloud images from paintings by El Greco, J.M.W. Turner, and others: an interesting idea in theory—I spent quite a while gazing at Lexicon and pondering the appropriation and the statement it made—but I don’t think the work truly used the medium of fabric and thread to its best advantage.

Certainly that kind of overtly political work is important—it made an exhibit like Pricked possible—but it doesn’t interest me as much as some of the other work on display that, thanks to those earlier artists, is free to use embroidery to address other ideas and achieve other artistic aims. The exhibit includes several pieces by Nava Lubelski, who takes flawed fabrics and embroiders the stain, turning ugly accidents into something beautiful and intentional. Painter Laura Owens’s untitled embroidered silk—created in collaboration with the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia—depicts a flowering tree with an eerily cool color palette and hints of fantasy. For “Models in New York,” Shizuko Kimura “sketched” her subjects using thin dark threads and almost transparent fabric; the effect is lovely: quick impressions with an air of movement and mystery.

One of the most impressive works was Angelo Filomeno’s “Death of Blinded Philosopher”: an image of a skeleton and an abstract explosion of blood (?). I’d seen photographs of the work before I visited the exhibit, and I hadn’t liked it: I thought it looked flat and morbid. But when I saw the enormous embroidered silk in person, I realized the small photographs had done Filomeno’s work a disservice. The elaborate details of that red explosion are exquisite, not grotesque; the vivid crimson embroidery, with its floral curlicues and metallic accents, suggests sight as well as blindness, life as well as death.

In a weird way, it was those kinds of works, more concerned with form than the political implications of the medium, that felt the most radical. They were the ones that made the artificial distinction between fine and decorative art seem most absurd, and they did so not by actively affirming their own artistic worth or mimicking traditional “high art,” but by using the fabric and threads to their best advantage and creating something striking and memorable.