New York

Elaine Reichak

MoMA – The Museum of Modern Art / Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery

When is the ideological subtext of the modernist white cube most clearly revealed? According to When This You See. . . ,1996–99, Elaine Reichek’s installation in the Museum of Modern Art project room, when it is carpeted and painted green, trimmed with molding and picture rails, and filled with the samplers the artist has been sewing since 1996.

In such humorous juxtapositions as a needleworked version of Jasper Johns’s 1958 White Numbers and a replica of a nineteenth-century sampler used to teach multiplication tables, Reichek jokingly alludes to the formal affinities between modernist painting and domestic craft, stemming from their mutual dependence on allover composition and geometric grid. Taken as a whole, the thirty-one needleworks on display—featuring everything from conventional decorative motifs to embroidered appropriations of modern and contemporary art to literary quotations addressing the metaphoric implications of sewing and weaving—constitute a land of perverse cataloguing of the sampler qua artistic medium: “perverse” because modernism’s emphasis on medium-specificity is precisely what allows it to distinguish high art from lowly craft (and, by extension, “masculine” aesthetics from “feminine” ornament), but more interestingly because, under Reichek’s nimble fingers, the sampler’s essential property reveals itself to be the ability to elude the very categorical logic on which a modernist notion of medium is based.

“Experience is never limited,” reads a passage from Henry James’s The Art of Fiction (1888) in Sampler (A Spider), 1997, “and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness, and catching every air-borne particle in its tissue.” The sampler functions similarly (as a kind of domestic, feminized, flatbed picture plane), attracting everything that modernist self-sufficiency expels: narrative, sentiment, personal reference—and, most significantly, subtext. “I don’t much like my daughter sewing,” confesses Colette in Sampler (Dispositional Hypnoid States), 1996. “She is silent and she—why not write down the word that frightens me—she is thinking.”

Given the subtlety of Reichek’s vision of the sampler as feminist antimedium, her own tendency then to fall back on clear-cut divisions and hierarchies is unfortunate. On one hand, her installation is an instance of Conceptually based institutional critique, in which the goal of producing aesthetic objects is superseded by that of revealing the power structures that produce aesthetic value. And it is equally an instance of feminist canon revision, in which the parameters of aesthetic beauty are simply expanded to encompass heretofore unacceptable objects. When This You See . . . mines the deconstructive potential of needlework to address the limitations of both institutional critique and canon revision (the first for its dismissal of content, the second for its failure to escape a category-driven conception of aesthetic value). Reichek, however, overlooks the museum’s ability to transform almost any display of technical virtuosity, no matter how subversive or “debased,” into Art.

Reichek’s most recent video (which shares the title of her MoMA show and was shown at the Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery) navigates the problem more successfully by continuing her strategic investigation of sewing without producing an object susceptible to traditional forms of aesthetic contemplation. Perhaps the artist was inspired by the celluloid sweatshops of early cinema production, where women performed the menial task of splicing film. At any rate, the analogy between editing and sewing is hard to miss. Reichek’s video—nine appropriated film clips that show women knitting, sewing, or weaving—stitches together such diverse sources as Heavenly Creatures (1994), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), and The Heiress (1949), extending the montage technique originally used to make those movies. The video is thus equally a study in the iconography of needlework and an analysis of the formal properties it shares with film.

Each segment reveals a pivotal moment in the source movie’s drama and is punctuated by a freeze-frame and the superimposition of a single word written in bright pink cursive script: “obsession,” “betrayal,” “revolution,” “revenge.” In this way, Reichek captures cinema’s structural interplay between repetition and temporal unfolding, and—as the viewer starts anticipating the arrival of her interpretative captions—the rhythm of expectation and delivery that drives its narrative engine.

Especially compared to the musclebound video installations playing down the road at Dia, Reichek’s effort is thoroughly modest—pleasing, no doubt, for its subtle wit, and finely crafted, but unassuming. Reichek’s video, however—like the women it depicts—packs a velvet punch. “When This You See ... Remember me,” her embroidering heroines might well say. But the question remains: Are they imploring or cautionary?

Margaret Sundell