Young Blood show needles tradition with subversive sewing
Crossbred Thread: Ego and Memory will leave you in stitches
I've tried not to take it personally that the embroidered violets I made as a preteen for my grandmother now hang above her latrine. The womanly art of sewing was never my forte. But the current generation of artists employing needlework doesn't strike me as particularly interested in the "womanly" arts, either. Instead, artists are taking the form down roads both weird and wicked, whether engaged in yarn bombing street art or knitting ironic vegetables, breasts or iPod cozies to subvert their progenitors. A reclaiming of sewing defines the Young Blood exhibition Crossbred Thread: Ego and Memory, which tips its skull cap to craft but takes its cues more from the conceptual art world.
Stephanie Blair, featured along with Stacey Page in the stitch-centric Crossbred, could hardly be described as ladylike, given her tendency to drop the occasional f-bomb into her sewn text. Blair's layered work has a purposeful grittiness, and there's a subversive energy in her minimalist, free-form stitching of both text and image. The art's look and feel evoke Raymond Pettibon's similarly impulsive drawings. Blair stitches Catholic imagery and primal creatures that suggest Aztec drawings, but also creates photo-based silkscreens on fabric such as "Stoned Family," which depicts a group of men playing guitar in a cramped kitchen. Blair houses her fabric works in conventional frames, but just as often employs round embroidery hoops for that extra measure of homemade ethos.
Her silkscreened, painted and sewn works hang in a chaotic salon style, blazing across a stretch of the gallery wall. The mass of work unfurls a family history of suggestive creativity, flinty attitude and colorful language in place of the tame family picture wall. In "Trailer Trash," Blair opines "growing up in a trailer don't mean I can't read superfluous theoretical prose." The Athens, Ga., native has described her heritage as "half hillbilly, half Mexican." In a nice parallel to the current autobiographical Paper Twins show at Get This! Gallery, Blair examines her upbringing amid poor but proud people and offers up her work as document, memento and act of devotion. Her stitching is saucy, angry and purposefully sloppy at times to better convey a spirit of co-mingled defiance and pride.
Blair gets props for ambition, but she could stand to edit and tighten her work. The autobiographical core often becomes weighed down by imprecise and distractingly oblique visuals. The murkiness of some of the images and of Blair's intent can muddy some promising material, as in the painted work "Flirting," which appears to depict a little girl taking a pugilist jab at a small boy, but might depict something more sexually loaded. Or "Doodle," in which random shapes are stitched in white on a black background to no clear end.
If Blair's work is most memorable for its content about her trailer-dwelling kin, then Page's form leaves the biggest impression. Page has a great gimmick on her hands and she executes it with aplomb. Page customizes vintage photographs with giggle-inducing head cozies — hoods and masks, fuzzy arms and lavish collars that partially bury the refined identities in an avalanche of silliness. Part of the appeal of her work is the random quality of the armature in which she shrouds her vintage folk. It can suggest luchador masks, Egyptian or Mayan headgear, owls, cardinals or moth heads or the kind of homemade brain-warmers plunked on young heads by overzealous mothers during the winter months. It's a masked ball. It's a nut house. It's irresistible.
It's refreshing to see a juxtaposition of such different takes on sewn-art, as Blair and Page take stitching in promising new directions, both angry and adorable.