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Poetic Needle

An embroidery exhibit probes the subject and role of tradition

By SIGALIT ZETOUNI
Distinguished artist Louise Bourgeois (b. 1911) grew up in Paris in a family that operated an atelier that repaired and sold Medieval and Renaissance tapestry and antiques. At the age of 12, young Louise assisted her parents in the workshop by drawing in the missing sections of tapestries for restoration. Interviewed in 2003, Bourgeois reflected, “When I was growing up, all the women in my house were using needles. I have always had a fascination with the needle, the magic power of the needle. The needle is used to repair the damage. It’s a claim to forgiveness.”*

Needlework played a significant role historically in the domestic lives of women around the world. The needle served as the household tool for stitching, garment making and patchwork, while decoratively it was essential for needlepoint. Josephine Bourgeois, Louise’s mother, was critical of this direction. In one scene from a recent documentary, the artist recalls, “There was a lot of tapestry making in my family…I talk a lot about needles, but I never studied it. In her feminist attitude, my mother was virulent about that. She said, ‘You, my daughter, must never handle a needle. Women are not supposed to be only craft-women; they are supposed to have a career.’ My father’s idea was that I get married and be a good wife.”**

But Louise Bourgeois has never relinquished the needle. Whether wood, paper, bronze, marble or fabric, she stitches works metaphorically into her childhood, sewing and patching the fibers of her identity. The anthropomorphic shapes of her sculptures convey viscosity and softness, warp and weft. As Bourgeois stitches her stuffed, dismembered figures, she transforms the traditional role of the needle into the liberties found in contemporary vision.

In the 1990s, Oliver Herring (b. 1964) was progressively and obsessively knitting mylar in New York. His woven sculptures took the forms of clothing, chairs, comic heroes and the human figure. The act of knitting, its performance and repetitive motion, became the artist’s dialogue with time, motion and introspection. The sculptures, rising from the floor with radiance appeared somewhat bestial, and their porous quality deferred any direct meaning. Like the abstract expressionists who were focused on the action of painting that documented their existential struggle, Herring attended to the process of his creative work.

Interviewed for a documentary of 21st century, Herring explained, “Knitting can be very meditative and monotonous, but exactly that quality gives you time, and that time was actually, well, that was the crux of the matter. I never made more than one kind of stitch.

I never got into patterning and any of this because it was never about knitting. It was about performance. Going through a certain motion, repetitively, in this case for 10 years. People only witness the outcome of the performance, the legacy of that time spent. And its sculpture was something that kept me so isolated for so long in the studio. Once I committed myself to a piece, I had to follow it through, which could easily take 2 to 3 months. So once I started I was locked into an idea, and the only thing that could really move was my mind.”**

Similar to Bourgeois, Herring transcended the needle. Furthermore, as a male artist, he shattered the needle’s categorization of gender. In recent years, following in the path of performance, Herring has developed a series of video works that continue his dialogue with time and motion.

This month in Chicago there’s an exhibition of new work by New York-based artist Anne Chu at Donald Young Gallery. Born in New York (1959) to Chinese parents who emigrated from Shanghai, Chu’s early works included sculptures of paper bears inspired by the ancient terracotta soldiers in Xi’an, China. More recently, she exhibited carved wooden bears that at first glance appeared massive, but in fact were hollow and fragile.

There are various figures in Chu’s sculptural work. The artist models her courtiers, bears and knights after Chinese burial ceramics, Romanesque tombstones and Austrian marionettes. The marionettes, with carved wooden heads, hands and feet, hang from the ceiling. The solidity of the carved forms contrasts with the delicate wire armature and richly textured fabrics. The needlework in Chu’s pieces are of decorative origin and highly poetic, evoking a sense of history of China’s Silk Route. Her manipulated embroidery probes the subject and role of tradition. o

*From Eimear McKeith, “Louise Bourgeois: Stitches in Time”, online review for Circa Art Magazine,  Ireland, who referenced this quote from Cristin Leech, “Art getting to the point”, The Sunday Times, Dec 21 2003
**Excerpt from a PBS documentary, Art: 21/Art in the Twenty-First Century

Published: January 28, 2007
Issue: Winter 2007