Crafting Identity and Community
Curated by John Chaich
January 17 – March 16, 2014
This exhibition presents twenty-four artists from around the world who use thread-based craft materials and techniques to examine the diversity of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer experiences. Is this work “gay?” You bet.
Loaded with gender connotations and power hierarchies, fiber traditions such as crochet, embroidery, macramé, and quilting provide a fitting platform for examining iconography, tastes, roles, and relationships socialized within and around gay and lesbian culture.
And thread—be it yarn or embroidery floss—parallels the potential for connectivity. Our commonalities may be as thick as a knot or thin as a string. As individuals we are strands; as communities we are interwoven. Both can be broken or braided.
Many of the artists featured fully employ craft processes to execute their vision. Others mix yarn, string, and fabric with fine art mediums. But all of the artists embrace the power of thread-based crafts to examine stories and ideas unique to our lives as queer peoples.
Reproduced as a widely distributed wheat paste poster, Fuck Positive Women was commissioned by Toronto’s AIDS Action Now to challenge the perception of (particularly queer) HIV-positive women as sexless or passive. Read both as a slur and a plea, the forcefulness of the text contrasts with feminine and craft stereotypes. Mitchell and Whitbread intentionally leave the cross stitch unfinished to draw attention to the absence of the penetrating needle through the exposed plastic and hanging yarn.
In Then and Now (Rainbow Order), Larry Krone forms an irregular rainbow from crochet pieces found in thrift stores across New York and the Midwest. The artist attempts to create the ROYGBIV order but ultimately embraces irregularity and imperfection. Treating the afghan as a symbol of Americana as much as the rainbow flag is a symbol of gay pride, the piece layers regional identity and sexual identity. By hand stitching discarded crafts, Krone uses the individual’s mark to question the meaning embedded in existing forms.
In Two Ladies, Rebecca Levi takes from the visual language of quilting to create a fabric frame around graphic content that she has lovingly hand embroidered: a pair of bare-chested, short-haired, minimally adorned pin-ups from a vintage photograph found at a flea market. In doing so, the artist celebrates non-traditional female—even “soft butch”—beauty through traditionally feminine craft while conjuring hidden queer histories.
Accumulated Pride builds on previous installations using textiles created in the artist’s KNITTING NATION series of actions. This site-specific installation uses scale and shape to comment on the ubiquitous if not over- whelming presence of the rainbow flag as a symbol of gay pride. By returning two stripes—pink for sex and turquoise for art and magic—that have since been edited from Gilbert Baker’s 1978 original design, Collins asks whether mainstream LGBT culture has devalued the powerful role of sexuality and creativity in our lives as queer peoples.
Sonny Schneider uses bold humor and vibrant color to address the urgency of the gay male sex drive and the absurdity of gay pride slogans. The organic nature of his hand-embroidered letter forms imply bodily fluids while the text recalls both a rally for unity and a sex-positive manifesto.
In Bona Fide! (In Good Faith!), a selection from her recent Playland series, Maria E. Piñeres employs a range of traditional and idiosyncratic needlepoint techniques to celebrate the gay hustlers of pre-gentrified Times Square sex culture, juxtaposing the visual language of pinball machines with nude pinups in classical poses and evoking nostalgia, risk, losses, and gains. Although she identifies herself as a lesbian, Piñeres often explores erotic power in her work through gay male imagery, countered by the association of needlepoint as women’s handiwork.
Allyson Mitchell and friends carried this banner in a 2011 grassroots march in Toronto called Stonewall TO, originally organized in response to mainstream Toronto Pride’s censorship of the group Queers Against Israeli Apartheid. In this piece and in her practice, Mitchell uses thread-based craft—made by both her own hand and others—to explore the diversity of experiences and politics that fall under the umbrella of the term “queer.”
As a young, gender-creative, queer artist in San Francisco, Carrillo has felt displaced if not attacked by the masculinity and monotony of the mainstream gay community’s aesthetic ideals, like Saint Sebastian being persecuted for his faith. In this self-portrait, gender is ambiguous as a bare male chest is paired with fishnet stockings. The arrows that punctured the saint are replaced with embroidery needles, implying that even the tools that weave and strengthen can be used to pierce and tear us apart.
As an out lesbian feminist artist, Sheila Pepe explores personal and cultural lineage in Your Granny’s Not Square. By crocheting with shoelaces, the artist honors her grandfather’s profession as a shoemaker and her mother and grandmother’s craft talents. The piece also speaks to both Eve Hesse’s 1969 Right After and Faith Wilding’s Womb Room/Crocheted Environment from the 1972 Womanhouse. By expanding the traditional granny square into a looping wall work, Pepe transforms the intimate act of crocheting into a mysterious, multilayered, amorphous form through which scale, light, and material evoke ideas of the natured and nurtured, the physical and spiritual, and the personal and communal.
John Thomas Paradiso has delicately hand-stitched a trio of multi-colored pansies onto black leather in a circular hoop traditionally used when embroidering. By replacing cotton canvas with sumptuous leather, Paradiso pushes the contrast of butch/femme, top/bottom, vanilla/kink dichotomies and uses craft to link natural materials and forms with the sexual cultures and desires we construct.
In Locker Room, Nathan Vincent uses the stereotypically feminine mediums of knitting and crochet to explore ideas of gender permissions and socialized roles. Empty and removed from its original context, the life-sized locker room serves as a site of isolation and intimidation as much as it can be a site of connection and attraction. The intricacy of the medium contrasts with the enormity of the scale, inviting both intimate and social interaction with the installation.
This animation is based on cross-stitched frames created by 35 community members participating in workshops led by Longley-Cook in Atlanta to recreate an excerpt from RuPaul’s groundbreaking music video, “Supermodel.” By transforming handmade craft into high-tech video, the resulting piece and related process explore the power of the image, collaboration, and communication. By revealing both the perfect front and rougher back sides of the cross-stitched designs, Longley-Cook draws a parallel between the painstaking medium of cross-stitch and the careful processes of beautification that drag queens and supermodels alike use to construct their own images.