Review: “Pricked: Extreme Embroidery”

15Feb08

Extreme Embroidery (showing until April 2008 @ Museum of Art and Design) is a showcase of contemporary artists who are transforming and re-deploying this traditional handcraft. The result is a colorful, sexy and subversive arrangement that takes us from contemporary politics to dreamy, personal histories.

The Dutch artist, Tilleke Schwarz describes her work as “visual poetry” and that’s a pretty accurate description of the whole exhibit. Schwarz’s work is fun: her fragmented, scrawling needlework includes Butthead (from Beavis and Butthead) and extracts from an angry letter sent to the editor of Embroidery magazine.

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Tilleke Schwarz Count your Blessings (detail), 2003
Photo: Rob Mostert

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Tilleke Schwarz, Into the Woods (detail), 2002
Photo: Rob Mostert

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Andrea Dezsö, My Grandmother Loved Me Even Though …, 2005-2006
Photo: Andrea Dezsö

Like Schwarz, Andrea Dezsö‘s work Lessons From My Mother is deeply personal: the artist renders her Transylvanian mother’s “folk wisdom” in a series of embroidered squares. Each square follows the refrain “My Mother Claimed That…” followed by her mother’s superstitions and aphorisms.

Sometimes it’s hilarious; my personal favorite is “My Mother Claimed That…she talked about the vet in Romanian because she didn’t want to upset the cat who understood Hungarian”. Each aphorism is illustrated with Kahlo-esque little pictures, and combined with the repetitive refrain, it has the same anticipatory delight of a children’s book.

There are strong pieces of a political bent; in particular Xiang Yang’s striking work in which thousands of rainbow threads stretch horizontally between the heads of George Bush and Saddam Hussein. Maria E. Piñeres meditates on media culture through needlepoint celebrity mugshots (such as Paris Hilton and Mel Gibson), bringing gravitas to tabloid subjects, with the tiny details you’d expect from pastoral scene framed in your Aunt Veda’s lounge room.

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Laura Splan, Trousseau (Negligee #1), 2007
Collection of the artist

Laura Splan’s work is a triumph of lateral thinking. At first glance, Splan’s work Doilies look surprising quaint until you realize that the doily lace is designed from the molecular structures of human viruses: herpes, AIDS and SARS.

Another work, Trousseau (Negligee #1) is a white slip dress, again a quaint object, and then you learn that the material is not chiffon. It is, and I kid you not, cosmetic skin peel. The artist covered her whole body in a peel-off mask and then removed it “as one large hide” (very Silence of the Lambs). On closer inspection, the material retains the porous texture of Splan’s skin, complete with goose bumps and hairs.

This eerie take on everyday objects gives these works an unsettling presence – they’re familiar, but not necessarily friendly. It’s brilliant.

This exhibit has been extended until April 2008, so get down to the Museum of Art and Design for this very curious and rewarding collection.

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