“Body Impolitic” is intended to address some specific issues we care passionately about. But last week I saw art that made me really angry. It’s not directly on topic, but I’m glad I have a public place to talk about it.
I know that my work is considered to be “high art” in many circles, but I consider myself to be a popular culture artist. So when I see work that heedlessly destroys a popular folk art I get really angry.
Stephen Sollins, a respected contemporary artist, had a show in San Francisco featuring work that he creates by finding embroidery pieces made by individuals using printed patterns . According to the statement on his gallery site, he takes the “banal patterns of flowers and iconic domestic scenes” apart with great care, leaving the machine-printed original drawing and the holes left by the needle, and uses the embroidery thread to create “abstract, geometric patterns on a white ground. The finished works,” says the gallery website, “contrast the sentimentality of “craft-based” embroidery with the rigid methodology of modernism.”
I went to the exhibition expecting to see inferior work and to be angry about complicated issues around appropriation. What I saw was art whose aesthetics really worked for me. I realized that my anger was about the simpler and more basic issues of erasure and denial.
I appreciate his vision. He describes his work as an “exploration of representation and silence, presence and absence …” In his previous work he has erased and manipulated catalogue images, newspapers and sheet music. They are truly mass-produced and no original is being destroyed. But when he buys embroideries of the 40’s and 50’s and unstitches them, he is destroying original work by individual people.
The embroideries he destroys are a populist folk art, like quilt-making and painted duck lures. That these objects are made from purchased patterns does not make them manufactured. In fact, by removing the threads, he removes the art/craft . The pattern ghost that remains is the manufactured part.
Sollins operates in an aesthetic and intellectual framework where the viewer “must confront the â€˜ghost’ of the original work, destroyed by the artist to create the new work.” But in his new “new work,” his destruction crosses a line, from the unoccupied territory of catalogues and sheet music, to the inhabited territory of art/craft.
That he did not initially consider the implications or the context of this work is comprehensible. But when stitchers/artists brought the matter to his attention, he says: “I do realize that I have undone someone’s labor, and I take full responsibility for this … [But] the embroideries I am taking apart are not ‘original’ works. They are mass-produced items from the 1940s and ’50s in which a person follows printed or stamped directions to achieve a predetermined result. There may be some choices made by each needleworker … and I know exactly how many hours of work was involved in making each one, but these embroideries could not possibly be called ‘precious handmade pieces of our needlework history,’ [as one respondent had said].” “Stephen Sollins’ handiwork needles some stitch crafters” – San Francisco Chronicle, 6/28/05
Sollins is dismissing and erasing a whole class of work – his acceptance of responsibility is empty. Distinctions need to be made. “High Art” does not privilege the artist to destroy any work he chooses. His refusal to recognize that there is even an issue, or to recognize the context and implications of his work, is a longer version of “fuck off.”