PRINT October 1991


Anywhere I hang myself is home.
—The Replacements

WHILE AWAITING THE RETURN of Odysseus, Penelope calms her impatient suitors by claiming that she'll choose among them when she's finished with her weaving, and then prolongs the labor by unraveling her work at the end of each day. Clytemnestra’s murder of Agamemnon is made possible by the cloth she uses to bind his arms before she stabs him, and images of string, fabric, carpets, and netting are interwoven into the verses that precede the event. Medea also uses cloth as a weapon, in her case taking the life of her estranged husband’s new bride with a poisoned wedding gown; and when Arachne challenges Athena to a weaving contest, the latter responds to her hubris by turning her into a spider.

The early history of sewing as a figure is not, then, entirely a matter of darned socks and samplers, not confined to representations of a world without adventure or agency. As often as not, at least for the Greeks, the trope of working with cloth is used as an expression of women’s cleverness, their power, their capacity for violence, or their pride. So if to us needlework usually suggests an idealized domestic practice, with its valorization of cleanliness, safety, simplicity, and goodness, it also carries intimations of contradiction, compromise, and even, in its association with nets and webs, danger. In doing so it simply represents the home, for while it would be wrong (and what’s more somewhat hateful) to deny the possibility of a place where love, nurturing, safety, and retreat may be found, interwoven with those qualities—even if only in the imagination of their failure—is a host of less comforting possibilities. To take on the sense of sewing, then, is to take on the home, and, like the act itself and the place it points to, it is a mutable and demanding thing.

Moreover, the meaning is doubled back on itself when the medium is appropriated by men, as it has been a great deal in the last five or six years. Those with an eye to shifts in esthetic practice may have noticed the fact that many male artists—among them Meyer Vaisman, Mike Kelley, Robert Gober, Joel Otterson, David Robbins, Jim Isermann, and Michael Jenkins—have made substantial bodies of work in which cloth is the medium, and the needle, loom, or sewing machine the tool. But the scope of the metaphoric web that I started above should be enough to discount the possibility of any easy take on the phenomenon.

Vaisman once mentioned his disgust with the image of the artist that circulated ten years ago, the kind of hero-at-work shot one used to find in Vanity Fair, and before that in Life: there the painter stood, before an enormous canvas, dressed in a paint-spattered Italian suit, knitting his thick-plated brow and chomping on a big cigar while he contemplated which part of the picture to attack next. Taking a needle to that kind of humorless pomp is one way of deflating it. Still, it doesn’t explain all of the implications or purposes of the work that follows. Because while sewing will feminize a male artist it won’t enfeeble him, any more than it enfeebled Medea, or the real-life women for whom sewing has long been a means of less virulent domestic expression. (“Bless this House” is not the only, or even the most common, sentiment to be found on samplers. In a world where women were discouraged from writing, or even talking much, every emotion from grief to anger to competitiveness found its way onto cloth.) And while the strength of the claim that work sewn by men makes on the viewer’s imagination gets part of its charge from the fact that it’s motivated by role playing, hence a critique of the idea of an essential femininity or masculinity, the role adopted is not what it might at first seem—not, that is, the role of the prudent housewife, still less that of the rural folk heroine. There is, of course, some play off notions of women’s work, but the play, like the work, is not entirely straightforward.

One reason is that women, inasmuch as it (still) tends to fall to them to make domestic meaning, know its subtleties in ways that men do not. It follows, then, that a man’s account of the complexities of domesticity is going to be different, in part because what has been an assumption for women will end up being a point for men. It can’t, for example, be much of a surprise to a lot of women that the initiation into sexuality can be an affair tinged with both joy and the possibility of pain, degradation, or a sense of loss. Sappho—to return to the Greeks for a moment—says as much in her epithalamia. The ambivalence about that moment still exists in the ritual trappings of marriage, even though it’s been a while since women were expected to be virgins on their wedding night. To an artist like Gober these mixed feelings come as something of a revelation, an occasion for a slightly detached speculation, and the contemplation of one of marriage’s material signs. The wedding dress, of course, is among the most feminine of articles of clothing, often passed on from mother to daughter, and, more to the point, traditionally donned in great secrecy, away from the eyes of men. Reflecting on the dress that he himself sewed (Wedding Dress, 1989), Gober has said, “What was so fascinating to me about this outfit is that the thing that makes it a wedding dress, as aside from a prom dress or a princess costume, is the train, which literally drags in the dirt. . . .It was so loaded, so simple and so loaded.” Gober’s tone of voice in that quote, like the tone of the piece itself, distinguishes him from both past men and present women. Euripides, too, found the wedding dress to be a symbol of something at once quintessentially womanly and strikingly ambiguous, but the gown he assigned to Medea was grounds for fear and revulsion. For Gober it simply calls for an attempt to understand. And one can, of course, imagine a woman noticing the same contradictions that Gober found, but while her possible responses are manifold, the fascination he voices—detached, impersonal, and speculative—isn’t likely to be one of them.

For men, again, the means by which the world of the home is made available are necessarily oblique. Otterson, Jenkins, and Isermann have all spoken of their early years as formative of their esthetic, and for Kelley, too, childhood provides the first way into a critique of family life. That is, I think, a leap backward that a woman might not have to take; it is, at any rate, a longer one, inasmuch as boys, even today, tend to be estranged from domestic practices at a far younger age than girls. And certainly that leap can land someone in a ditch: lsermann’s remark that he thinks of his work as “coming out of the way I grew up—it’s me sorting through what I didn’t get and what I want” sounds like the kind of self-infantilization that would render his shag-rug paintings less informative than self-indulgent.

But it can also provide the impetus for a kind of playfulness. Otterson’s show at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta was called “Home Sweet Home,” and the middle word does capture something essential to his work. And Jenkins, too, speaks of the importance of the years he spent at the family kitchen table making stuff, and says, “I know it sounds corny, but my mother really influenced me.”

Both Otterson and Jenkins use childhood as a way into domesticity, not the other way around, and what they make is not so much about themselves as it is about the qualities they’ve found there. In Otterson’s case the torn-up tables, living-room and bedroom sculptures, and sewn pieces—bedclothes, bath towels, and the like—end up incorporating outside elements into the home; he opens the doors of home to a parade of styles, and then leads them through improbable paces like a drunken drum major. Jenkins’ sewn pieces, white-felt snowflakes randomly distributed on mattress ticking, invoke a kind of arts-and-crafts idyll, but they also make a fragile elegy out of that practice by referring to Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions, to the world of the bedridden, and, more generally, to the winter of life. Kelley also enters the home through childhood, but once inside he goes on to shred and reconstitute every relation he can find, until the forces binding and separating men and women, parents and children, art and craftwork, purity and impurity, reemerge as parodies of and commentaries on themselves.

For other artists, primarily, I think, Vaisman and Robbins, working with cloth makes possible a kind of sly and ambiguously sexual puckishness or wickedness that disguises a quite serious attempt to weave together various strands of cultural practice into a seamless work of analysis: in the former case, discreet taste and the most buffoonish kind of vulgarity; in the latter, art and entertainment. In both cases cloth becomes a medium that allows access to hitherto neglected interstices, for enlarging the fold, as if, like the pattern of tiny farm roads on a prairie, the very warp and woof of a piece of cloth made possible travel to otherwise inaccessible or ignored places.

Still, it’s easy enough to feel some dismay about all of this, precisely because of its success. When women try to come to terms with home life through its practices, the argument goes, it’s just craftwork. When men appropriate those practices toward the same end, it’s Art. When I mentioned to a friend, over a faulty phone line, that I was writing this piece, she said, “It’s about men who sell?,” and it seemed to me later that the near-homonym she mistook for “sew” has a nice irony to it. But it’s precisely the estrangement of men from sewing that lifts their work out of the world of the everyday: crossing the borders of accepted gender roles is one of the more reliable ways of giving work an esthetic charge. If until now we’ve seen few crossings in this direction, that’s all the more reason to find the work that results worthy of attention.

What women’s work gives men is resident alien status in an unfamiliar country, and if the language they’ve learned to speak there is not entirely their own, is still brittle and unusually accented, it has nonetheless become the language they think in, not a translation from their first tongue. The art they make, like most works in a second language, is a little less prone to cliche than some of its apparent models; there are no homespun pieties here, no paeans to the Ur-Woman, no truck given to the claim that domesticity is a woman’s thing, and you wouldn’t understand. Instead, as befits and honors the medium, work sewn by men has been everything from consoling to disturbing, and in almost every case comfortable, even delighted with itself. In the process the artists have proved—again, from another angle, toward another end that—“women’s work” is powerful and expressive enough to serve as the grounds for an esthetic practice equal to any, and that home life acts out its own complex account of the world.

James Lewis is a regular contributor to Artforum.