Is it ironic that an art show held together by mere threads is stronger than any of its constituent parts?
That’s no slam on the individual work of the eight artists who have been brought together for “Stitch,” a group exhibition at the Greater Reston Arts Cente r that’s united by its focus on embroidery, crochet, knitting and other needlework techniques. There’s not a slouch in this bunch of artists, who include five locals as well as three artists from New York and New Jersey.
The fact that this show hangs together as well as it does has less to do with material and technique than with theme. The first exhibition wholly organized by curator Holly Koons McCullough — who came to GRACE from Savannah’s Telfair Museum of Art in 2012 and who also recently assumed the role of executive director — “Stitch” is bound together more by ideas than threads. Throughout the show, it’s the food for thought, not the filaments, that connect one artist to another.
Few if any of the artists would consider themselves fiber artists in the first place. Even a cursory glance at the show reveals objects that more closely resemble drawings (Orly Cogan and Erin Endicott Sheldon), soft sculptures (Suzi Fox and Nathan Vincent), mixed-media paintings (Pam Rogers) or 3-D signage (Rania Hassan) than craft. Yet the show’s resonant, interwoven themes — gender stereotypes and sexuality; motherhood, relationships and community; aging, mortality and healing; nature and beauty — echo from work to work.
Vincent, the show’s only male artist, creates witty sculptures that, like Mark Newport’s knitted superhero costumes (seen at the Renwick Gallery in 2009), question traditional definitions of masculinity. For Vincent, a bomb, a slingshot and a phallic video-game joystick, all sculpted in crocheted yarn, subvert the cliche of macho aggression. It’s a theme that also crops up in Cogan’s slightly surreal drawings of male and female nudes, embroidered onto reclaimed vintage tablecloths.
In a larger sense, the entire show comments on this masculine/feminine dichotomy. Hasn’t needlework historically been the province of women? Yet works by Hassan, who “stitches” miniature dresses directly into thick, painted wooden panels, using needle-thin drill bits, and Fox, whose anatomical sculptures are made from recycled copper motor wire, belie the cliche of a traditional seamstress’s output. There’s a subtle ruggedness and the mark of hardware to their sculptural work.
Two artists (Kate Kretz and Stephanie Booth) incorporate human hair into their stitchery, lending it a powerful, at times even creepy, intimacy. Two also work with antique infant clothing or doll’s dresses (Kretz and Sheldon), transforming tiny, yellowing fabric into potent meditations on memory, history, life, death and longing. In a smashing show, their work feels the most deeply personal.
Sheldon calls her embroidered pieces in the show “Healing Sutras,” a nod to the fact that the Sanskrit word “sutra,” or aphorism, is related to the English “suture.” Both derive from a root word meaning “sew.”
For this artist, whose embroideries often suggest bloody wounds, stitching involves both hurting and healing. After all, the needle and thread that bind the wound also puncture the skin.
There’s lots of healing and hurting going on in “Stitch.” Connections are made between genders and generations, and ruptures are created between tradition and innovation. It’s a show that coheres, even as it tears at the fabric of the past.
The most recent body of work by Kate Kretz, a former painter, incorporates so much of one particular art material that she must solicit donations of it from friends. The artist’s work in “Stitch” is notable for its extensive use of poetic text, much of it embroidered in human hair. This labor-intensive process, in which each word is essentially “drawn” using hundreds of tiny, hash-mark-like stitches, can be maddeningly meticulous.
“Your fragility in this sharp world is paralyzing,” reads one especially poignant phrase that Kretz stitched onto a child’s garment using her own hair, which she harvested while pregnant with her young daughter. Another, sewn with thread into a tangled hairball of gray tresses, reads simply “Hag.”
Kretz is not afraid to inject a little humor into works that mostly alternate between beautiful and biting. Stitched in red thread on an old pair of her overalls is this hilarious passage: “When asked about the meaning of his provocative symbols, the young art star leaned into the microphone and said, ‘I just thought those two things looked cool together.’ ”
— Michael O’Sullivan