New York

Darrel Morris

Darrel Morris’s highly original, painstakingly worked swatches of cloth and embroidery constitute an absorbing investigation into memory and confrontation. In dreamlike scenes and funny/sad vignettes from his childhood and his short-lived career as a draftsman, the pieces on view in Morris’s New York solo debut revolve around moments of disappointment, hurt, shame, and anger. Most deal with a father’s frustration toward his son. In the rueful Good Paper, 2001, for example, the father stands gesturing angrily over his little boy, who sits on the floor drawing on a sheet of notebook paper. A speech bubble extending from the father’s mouth reads: NEVER USE GOOD PAPER TO DRAW ON! USE THE BACK OF A CALENDAR OR THE INSIDE OF AN OLD ENVELOPE. Morris reminds us that moments this stinging tend to have echoes in adulthood—in, for instance, the humiliation of having to hula hoop with the guys at work (Company Picnic, 1997).

Morris’s medium plays a major role in the amplification of his images’ expressive power. The time, labor, and fluid skill involved in each work make them somehow weightier than a drawing or painting. The jittery quality of the stitched line suggests the emotional intensity of Morris’s memories, a passion that is controlled and redirected rather than blurted out as the father’s is. Witty pictorial devices contribute to the narrative: The subject of humiliation often appears transparent, in miniature, or both. In You Promised Me, 1993, a giant man in a suit, almost filling the frame, glares down at the small figure of a boy huddled nervously in a corner, rendered only in pale outline. Elsewhere, speech bubbles of stitched capital letters extend from deep in the speakers’ mouths as if choking them, adding a violent tone while suggesting their ambivalence. The routing of raw memory into such artifice renders the scenes at once more affecting and less real.

The effort involved in making these pieces might amount to a “working through” of these quasi-traumatic memories, a bitterly humorous re-creation in which they are literally made small. But Morris’s project is much more than therapeutic. The association of the cloth and the so-called women’s work of embroidery provides a sympathetic setting for the narratives, which express both Morris’s powerlessness (whether under his father’s thumb or lagging behind in the rat race) and his strength as he retools his old self, piecing it together from fragments of his own clothing. A native of impoverished backwoods Kentucky, Morris is also ostensibly expressing a more general disenfranchisement, particularly in flatter, monochromatic works like Pointing, 2002, in which a roomful of people gesture accusingly at the viewer.

To consider Morris’s project within the legacy of women’s work is both to its benefit and to its detriment. The artist’s tale of woe is strengthened by his participation in a tradition of appropriating and empowering a “weak” medium. On the other hand, Morris, who as a child learned sewing from his grandmother, might wish that women’s work could now be updated and gender neutralized, a hope shared by a number of male and female stitchers, notably Michael Raedecker, whose cinematic paintings with sewing on fabric forgo the medium’s warm, domestic undertones. Ultimately the location of Morris’s “oppression” in domestic and corporate settings, traditional battlegrounds for women, renders his use of the medium more appropriate and more interesting while making his pain a bit less urgent.

Nell McClister