On ViewThe Church
Threading the Needle
July 1 – September 18, 2022
Sag Harbor, NY
Threading the Needle. Sounds so simple. Close one eye, do it, and then stitch away. At first glance, this expansive exhibition of fiber and textile-related works heartens the viewer as gently and naturally as a loose button welcomes needle and thread. The Church co-curators, Sara Cochran and Eric Fischl, envisioned it that way when they invited fifty international and local artists to exhibit within this exquisitely restored nineteenth-century Methodist Church in Sag Harbor, New York; original architecture reimagined as contemporary art space. As Fischl told me, “Everything is warm and fuzzy and welcoming when you walk in. You can enjoy crazy ways of making stuff, see a broad range of work that doesn’t scare you away, but that holds your gaze and invites deeper introspection.”
Instantly comforted, then gradually seduced by all that awaits you within this soaring art sanctuary, you easily yield to the magnetic pull of El Anatsui’s Telesma (2014) and Alice Hope’s Murmuration 2, (2021) two multi-media wall sculptures which belie the hard, manufactured, and repurposed metal from which they were made. Anatsui transforms bottle caps stitched with copper wire into a cascading patchwork of dazzling intersecting patterns. Hope weaves Coke can tabs within seine netting to create an undulating blanket-like mass of sparkling form. Then, as you gaze upward you feel submerged beneath Sheila Pepe’s site-specific Atmospheric Conditions, (2022) a flotilla of fiber strands clinging like seaweed to the boat-like rafters supporting the historic wooden ceiling.
This exhibit hits multiple art references—genres, practices, political and conceptual themes—as it explores new ways for art to activate a purposeful architectural setting. Perhaps it takes the structure of an old church to distract us from the iconic white cube, and return us to a time when art, space, and viewer enjoyed a more ecumenical bond, unsullied by art-historical prejudices that draw dividing lines between art and craft. It instead affirms art made from whatever, doing all it takes to say what it needs to say. For example, media viscerally merges with meaning in Magdalena Abakanowicz’s Pregnant, (1970–80). This rough sisal and horsehair construct of a fecund abdomen reimagines the fleshy human belly gestating within a mythic, archaic landscape. But with a single agonizing gash for a navel, Abakanowicz subliminally weds this organic womb to personal themes of human freedom, loss, and destruction. Louise Bourgeois’s Couple (2004) similarly embraces the power of media-as-metaphor with particularly chilling effect. This sculpture depicts a pair of standing nude fabric figures intimately abutting one another. But with amputated arms, they can’t embrace. And the sharp penetrating stitches holding together surgical grafts of fabric-patched “skin” metaphorically define their painful emotional nakedness and scarred relationship. By contrast, Kiki Smith explores tough themes of vulnerable humanity and nature through the meticulously fine and elegant weave of jacquard tapestry. Sojourn (2015) features a wolf, Smith’s mythic symbol for woman as an emanation of nature, vulnerably navigating a difficult path through a densely woven woodland of fallen trees.
The Feminist art movement, which began in the sixties, seized traditional crafts—long considered “lesser art” and “women’s work”—as empowering tools, especially as practiced by women collaboratives. For example, Judy Chicago’s The Crowning (1982), an embroidered batik quilt depicting a stylized representation of a birthing woman, was part of her Birth Project, a collaboration with more than 150 international fabric workers. Today, Brazilian artist Maria Nepomuceno, inspired and often assisted by indigenous women artisans, creates playful umbilical-like floral bead and braided rope sculptures, such as Little Delilah (2018), a lively composition celebrating nature as a creative expression of the joy and fragility of the life cycle.
As this exhibition’s feminist-based narrative continues with works by Faith Ringgold, Angela Ellsworth, Erin M. Riley, and others, so it extends the craft dialogue to engage questions about gender, identity, and wider political issues. Some artists catch us off guard with humor, making it seem like fun, say, to prance about in Nick Cave’s Soundsuit (2011), a cover-up made of Smokey the Bear and cupie doll-like soft children's toys—until you learn that the bodysuit and Cave’s related performance expressed outrage over the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police. Cave created the costume as an “outer self,” a disguise to conceal the wearer’s racial and gender identity and protect against ethnic and homophobic violence. CharlesMcGill’s Patriot (2012) similarly conflates play and terror with a montage of reconfigured hooded golf bags lined up like Klansman against a background of stars and stripes. And Christa Maiwald’s Alan Greenspan, Musical Chairs: Economic Crisis in G-Minor (2009), upends child’s play with a double row of kiddie chairs, their cushions embroidered with portraits of financiers whose policies enabled the 2008 global financial crisis. There is no humor, however, to assuage Diedrick Brackens’s tapestry, fire makes some dragons (2020), which targets the violence faced by Black and LGBTQ communities. Replicating painterly effects with yarn, Brackens depicts a Black male figure holding aloft his wounded partner as they flee from a brick building afire, loose strands of red and gold yarn “dripping” blood and “flaring” flames. The solid real estate behind them is soundly spared, human suffering is not.
If you view this show slowly you will clearly understand the kinship between art, craft, and architecture; how the hand-hewn beam and strut, the bones of a building, relate to the strand, the loop and the stitch, the tendons and ligaments pulling together the artworks exhibited within this space. Think spiders: Jim Hodges’s For Once (For Tad) (1997), a delicate woven metal spider web straddling a corner near a staircase, says it all. It takes us back to nature and a tiny creature’s intuitive work, building a gossamer wall with thread; spinning nothing less than beautiful form to propitiate the life cycle.