Hi Everybody! Welcome back for Part Two of “Let’s Talk About Sex!” If you haven’t read Part One, click HERE to get started.
Once again, I Solemnly Swear not to surprise you with NSFW images. We will see some nudes, some body parts, (G rated to PG) but nothing pornographic. Any link that is graphic will say NSFW right next to it. Also, I’ve barely scratched the surface investigating these artists. I could have easily written several more pages but I was scared of the word count. Please take over for me and check them out yourselves.
I think I did a fair job establishing a historical and world wide context for the use of sexual depictions in needlework in Part One, so let’s go forward and explore the current use of that imagery, starting with Louise Bourgeois.
Louise Bourgeois photo by Robert Mapplethorpe
Louise was born in 1911 in Paris, France to parents who worked as tapestry restorers. She says her birth as an artist was helping to draw the missing and damaged pieces of tapestries for the weavers to follow. Although she works in many, many mediums and is probably best known for her Maman sculptures, she is also a renowned fiber artist.
Seven in Bed
“Two things count in one’s erotic life: dinner table and bed. The table where your parents made you suffer. And the bed where you lie with your husband, where your children were born and you will die. Essentially, since they are about the same size, they are the same object.”
As we begin to explore the vast body of Louise’s work, eroticism and sexuality is a theme we see over and over again. But in interviews, we find an artist full of ambivalence and paradoxes. One quote will have her saying, “I am not particularly aware of or interested in the erotic of my work, in spite of it’s supposed presence.” And then we find her saying, “The sculptures reveal a whole life based on eroticism; the sexual or the absence of sex is everything…”
When we deal with the erotic in needle work, some of the questions that come up over and over again are, “Are these people feminists? Are they bucking feminine traditions by using this form to render the controversial?”
Louise is just as difficult to pin down with those questions. “The feminists took me as a role model, as a mother. It bothers me. I am not interested in being a mother. I am still a girl trying to understand myself.” She also states,“I am a woman, so I don’t need to be a feminist.”
She was acutely aware of women’s roles in the art world. “… to men one is first and foremost a woman, even when, as a woman one is first and foremost an artist.” As well as explaining, “… the buying scene, was in the hands of women- women who had money.. The trustees… were not interested in a young woman coming from Paris. They were not flattered by her attention.” She continues, “They wanted male artists who could come alone and be their charming guests. Rothko could be very charming. It was a court.”
So where does her theme of sex fit in? She calls the emotions she explores “Pre-Gender”. When looking at her work, we see juxtapositions of male and female organs, sometimes stylized, sometime more obvious.
Her piece, Fragile Goddess, is a reworking of Stone Age Venus figurines, however the breasts and neck become a phallic symbol resting atop a pregnant belly. Her use of the word “Fragile” refers to the quality of cloth in comparison to the long lasting stone the original Venus was carved out of.
She explains that this piece is a couple copulating seen through the eyes of a young girl. “Are they enjoying themselves? Is one killing the other? It refers to an age when I could not understand what they were doing.”
So, does Louise Bourgeois fit into the category of Feminists Artists or People Who Use Fiber to Explore the Feminine? Um, short answer… No? Maybe… A little? Other people who have researched her far more throughly than I have pointed out that it may be as simple as the Second Wave Feminist movement was not really part of her experience. We have to keep in mind, she was already in her mid-sixties when the Women’s Lib movement was well underway, even though that movement is largely responsible for “rediscovering” her. So it makes sense that she might not be quick to define herself as such. However, her work and statements are full of contradictions, so maybe her reluctance to be pinned down to movement, whether political, social, or artistic, is more of a reflection of that.
So who is a concrete example of a Feminist Artist Using Fiber to Explore the Feminine? I’m glad you asked. Judy Chicago. In 1974, Judy began working on The Dinner Party. Her intent was to create a monumental tribute to women’s achievements. It was finally completed in 1979 along with the help of over 400 volunteers.
Judy Chicago with The Dinner Party
Judy said, “I wanted to make a piece that was beyond judgement. For example, if you go and see the Sistine Chapel you don’t say, ‘Oh, I don’t like it.’ It’s irrelevant whether or not you like it or not. Whether it’s good or bad is irrelevant, it simply stands as a testament to human achievement… And so I longed to see that kind of achievement having been made by a woman.”
The Diner Party is an installation piece consisting of a triangular table that measures 48 feet on each side and features a place setting for 39 mythical and historically famous women. It also includes ceramic floor tiles that are painted with the names of 999 famous women. Each place is set on an embroidered table runner executed in a historically specific manner, as well as including a chalice, utensils, and a ceramic plate decorated in vulva “butterfly” images, both in 2D and 3D. Six woven banners greet the visitors as they enter the space. These tapestries reflect the colors and visual motifs found in the main work. While it is a mixed media piece, fiber arts are an integral part of the work which is why I’ve included it here.
Judy explains, “Needlework in all its forms was ‘women’s work’, and as long as I was compelled to deny my identity as a woman in my life and in my work, I never considered it as a medium for art-making. It would have been humiliating for me if a male artist or dealer discovered me sewing a button on my artist husband’s shirt or sitting at the embroidery machine or a loom. It would have confirmed the already taken-for-granted idea that my place in life was either supporting my husband’s aspirations or working in the ‘minor arts’.” With works like The Diner Party and the Birth Project, she has acknowledged needlework’s role in women’s lives, honored it and elevated it.
The work became a polarizing piece for viewers and critics alike. Many asked the same questions in 1979 that we ask today when confronted by needlework that challenges us. Is it Craft? Is it Art? “But if it wasn’t art, what was it? A highly trained artist conceived it, designed it, worked to create it, and directed its realization… It stirred strong passions, evoked arguments among highly trained professionals…”
Is it vulgar? Is it pornography? “… in 1990, the Trustees of the University of the District of Columbia voted to accept and purchase The Diner Party of their collection, which was to be housed in the Carnegie Library. Because Congress controls this University’s budget, however, congresspersons who deemed the piece ‘pornographic’ and ‘offensive’ debated the purchase in televised congressional proceeding and a controversy ensued questioning the ‘value system’ the artwork demonstrated. Ultimately, the purchase was denied.”
A few other feminists even took issue with the work, particularly the lack of other ethnicities and lesbians depicted. Some were uncomfortable with the inclusion of women such as Virginia Woolfe, who often voiced her frustration at the public’s interest in the gender of writers, and Georgia O’Keeffe, who consistently rejected that her work had any sexual meaning. The artist Maureen Mullarkey called it “‘… preachy and untrue to the women it claims to represent.’ She especially disagreed with the sentiment she labels ‘turn em upside down and they all look alike…’ an essentialist of women which does not respect the feminist cause.”
I suspect Judy welcomed the controversy, and even intended to provoke as a way of bringing attention to the whitewashing of women in history. On her website it’s stated, “It was a major challenge to academic and artistic tradition that the subject matter of women’s achievements was adequate for a monumental work of art.”
Despite the debate that still rages on about The Diner Party, it is undeniably one of the most important examples of feminist art, as well as a clear example of needlework and textiles being elevated from their perceived position as craft into high art. (I’ve hardly begun to discuss the piece here due to space constraints. Please please explore it further. I really haven’t done it justice.
So where does that leave the men? Well, contemporary German artist Walter Bruno Brix is a fine example of men exploring sex with needlework. Now bear with me, all of his interviews are in German, so I’ve had to struggle through Google Translator and there is a good chance I’ve misinterpreted what he’s said. I apologize in advance.
Walter has been embroidering since childhood. In the early 90’s, he studied weaving, dying, and embroidery in Japan. He often explores Kimono and and other Japanese traditions in his work. His art constantly refers to lines, and the use of thread following/leading lines to create composition, almost like a blind contour. He says, “For me it’s interesting to see how the line can become content. That one can come to know something, if one goes further away. The course of the line however, interested me the most.”
I get the impression from his interviews that he’s not so interested in making a gender infused statement by using embroidery. Rather, he likes the line quality and movement that needlework allows. However, his use of handkerchiefs as a canvas for many of his erotic pieces seems to me to be an obvious reference to what men use hankies for in their “private time”. But I could be dead wrong. I don’t speak German.
I hate to quote him further because my translating capabilities are so poor, but I did glean from an interview that he likes that when his pieces are viewed up close, they have a child’s drawing quality to them. It’s only when viewed from a distance that the image comes into focus and surprises the viewer. Aside from exploring the erotic, sometimes very graphically, Walter also has a fascinating series of 12 famous loincloths, embroidered on cotton. Each one quotes and original loin-clothed figure from works by Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Rubens, Velasquez and many more. His work is well worth checking out.
So where are we with all this? Is sex/erotica/genitalia new in needlework? Absolutely not. Are the people who use this medium and imagery feminists or making a statement about the feminine? Sometimes, certainly not always. Are these artists a bunch of pervs? That’s mostly up to you to decide, but please look at the whole of their work before you do.
Penny Nickels is a printmaker that started playing with needles with tremendous effect. She and her husband, Johnny Murder, have been described as “The Bonnie and Clyde of Contemporary Embroidery” and you can discover the power of her creativity at her blog.
All quotes and photos referring to Louise Bourgeois are from Louise Bourgeois Edited by Frances Morris
Books referenced in Part One included Needlework as Art by Lady M. Alford, Embroidered Textiles by Sheila Paine, The Illustrated History Of Textiles by Madeleine Ginsburg, and Women’s Work: The First 20000 Years of Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times by Elizabeth Wayland Barber. (You will be seeing these books a lot in my articles.)
I had intended to also look at works from Tracy Emin, Ghada Amer, and Orly Cogan, but I ran out of room. This piece is poorer for it. Please contact me for suggestions for future articles! firstname.lastname@example.org
Penny Nickels is a print maker, a former book binder, currently a fiber artist and fledgling writer.