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Embroidery and cutting-edge contemporary art may seem like strange bedfellows. Unless you do some form of needlework yourself, embroidery probably sounds old-fashioned, corny or kitschy.
But just as knitting has undergone a popular revival in recent years - spawning books for alt-crafters like Stitch 'N Bitch by BUST magazine founder Debbie Stoller - needlework techniques are being adopted by fine artists looking to confront contemporary issues.
So don't think samplers, sunsets and puppies. Gender, politics, pop culture and more have all become fair game for textile artists.
Locally, a new art show looks at land issues through the lens of embroidery and other fabric techniques.
Jody Clowes, who directs the Design Gallery on the UW-Madison campus, has organized Stitched Ground: Four Artists Embroider the Land, which runs through April 11 at the James Watrous Gallery on Overture Center's third floor.
Stitched Ground is a joint venture between the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters (which runs the Watrous Gallery) and the Design Gallery, which is currently homeless while campus renovations are under way. The show pulls together the work of four Wisconsin artists, two of whom - Leah Evans and Sarah Gagnon - live in Madison. The others are Terese Agnew of rural Vernon County and Chris Niver of Milwaukee.
Together, they explore our relationship to the land, from drab culverts to the byzantine network of pipes and tunnels just under our feet, out of sight and out of mind. They celebrate landscapes under threat as well as the type of beautiful spaces that have attracted artists over centuries.
Clowes has dabbled in embroidery herself. "I used to embroider all my clothes in high school: free-form, crazy hippie embroidery," she laughs. But she's quick to note that Stitched Ground encompasses techniques other than embroidery, like quilting and appliqué.
"Some of these pieces stretch the definition of embroidery a bit, but the phrase 'embroider the land' [in the show's title] just felt right," says Clowes.
As a curator specializing in craft media like ceramics, metalwork and textiles, she says, "I've been taken with the resurgence of interest in embroidery, and I hadn't seen a show dealing with embroidery here in the Midwest." She cites the New York show Pricked: Extreme Embroidery, which ran at Manhattan's Museum of Arts and Design in 2007-08, as an inspiration in terms of its edgy take on a traditional form.
Here's a look at the four artists of Stitched Ground, all of whom will appear at the exhibition's opening on Friday, Feb. 26. There's a reception from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., and a gallery talk with Clowes and the artists begins at 6:30 p.m.
Madisonians may already be familiar with Terese Agnew, 50. Her brilliant, heartbreaking Portrait of a Textile Worker was shown at the Watrous Gallery in 2005. It attracted significant local attention.
From a distance, the work was a realistic portrait of a young Bangladeshi woman at a sweatshop sewing machine. Up close, one could see that Agnew had made the portrait by painstakingly piecing together labels from the kind of mass-produced clothes nearly all of us wear. Agnew had enlisted the help of the public to collect hundreds of garment labels.
Portrait of a Textile Worker was a rare piece of political art: one in which the form and the meaning were perfectly suited to one another.
Says Agnew, "I'm very passionate about worker rights and the environment. Those are my two big issues, the things that always ring my bell as an artist in terms of ideas."
Agnew formerly lived in Milwaukee but now resides with her husband, also an artist, in a green-built home in southwest Wisconsin's Driftless Region.
The most widely known artist in the exhibition, Agnew will show two major pieces: The D.O.T. Straightens Things Out and Practice Bomber Range in the Mississippi Flyway. The latter will be on loan from Washington's Renwick Gallery, part of the Smithsonian Institution, where it is in the permanent collection.
Practice Bomber Range takes a brilliant green landscape - the region where Agnew now lives - and has us imagine it under threat, viewed through the bombsight of a soaring military plane. As Clowes has written, "The lovely bird's eye view turns predatory...suddenly, the land seems frighteningly vulnerable."
Odd man out
By day Chris Niver, 47, works as a conservation assistant at the Milwaukee Art Museum. While his art-school background is in painting and printmaking, a textile at the museum sparked his interest in embroidery.
"It was embroidery of someone's European vacation," he says. "I don't know how long ago [it was made], but they came back to the Appleton area and commissioned someone there to make embroideries on a tablecloth, with little medallions" depicting scenes from their travels. "That's what got me interested."
The idea of using textiles to document places spurred Niver to think critically about places in his own life. He grew up in the suburban area of West Hartford, Conn. ("the beginning of sprawl," he calls it). While his education exposed him to masterworks of art history, it's those suburban, more mundane places that speak to his personal experience.
"I don't have this real expansive sense of landscape in the way those art historical pieces are referencing," he acknowledges. "Mine are more neglected, small-scale environments. There was a small creek near where I grew up, and that was my exposure [to nature], not Niagara Falls. A wooded area might only be an acre in size before you ran into some houses."
As the lone man in Stitched Ground, he's aware of the gendered associations of needlework, though he finds that many male contemporary artists are working with textiles. In fact, his work was recently included in a UW-Milwaukee Union Art Gallery show featuring men working in embroidery, knitting and weaving.
Niver's trademark format for his embroidered works is small-scale and slightly rough-hewn, with black embroidery floss on white squares of fabric. There's a sketchy, imperfect quality that emphasizes the hand of the artist.
As curator Clowes says, "He's got this really interesting swing between sublime, iconic landscapes from art history and, at the same time, working with images of culverts and drainage ditches from his own sketchbook."
At 30, Leah Evans in the youngest artist in Stitched Ground. The Kansas native, who now works out of a home studio on the east side, weaves interests in mapping and microbiology into her art.
"I like to look at patterns in topography that happen at other scales and what that might say about how we interact with land, and how microorganisms interact with us," she says.
Evans is fascinated by the links between science and art. She took a lot of college electives in science, and her husband is a biologist. "I'm most interested in the esthetic elements of science," she says.
Evans grew up partly in the oil refinery town of Augusta, Kan., and then later moved to Olathe. She was struck by the harsh effect that strip mining for zinc and lead had on the landscape of her home state. As she describes it, it has left behind troughs that fill up with water and become hazardous wastelands. Despite the danger, some people fish there.
Evans' work is not strictly embroidery. She uses a lot of quilting and appliqué, often incorporating fabrics that she has dyed or printed herself. The beauty and craftsmanship of Evans' quilts belie the sometimes disturbing message underlying them.
Artistic talent comes naturally to Evans, who holds a BFA in textile design from the University of Kansas. Her father, Terry Evans, is a woodworker, and the two have made the rounds on the fine-craft circuit.
And there's another big project on Evans' horizon: her first child, due in June.
What lies beneath
The fabric of daily life drives Sarah Gagnon's art. Community, sustainability, and the invisible infrastructure that undergirds our lives are all themes in her work.
Gagnon, 34, had taken a series of photos called Daily Walks, documenting the many manhole covers and access points found on streets and sidewalks - things most of us fail to notice. "I found 60 within four or five blocks," she says, with a touch of amazement. That observation caused her to think about the sewers, drains, wiring and other elements that support our way of life.
The photos became the basis for a series of textile works called The City Under the City, which mix fabrics, beads, embroidery floss and photo transfer with a rough esthetic of frayed edges and loose stitches.
Motherhood and extensive travels have also spurred her thinking. Gagnon is the mother of an eight-month-old daughter, who's "learning to play with blocks as I play with thread," she notes wryly.
"Having a baby, it's amazing how isolated you feel in the American neighborhood," Gagnon says. "Some of the newer pieces are about that, the material culture of the American neighborhood."
Among other destinations, Gagnon has journeyed to India and Nicaragua. Her daughter, then four months old, came with her to Nicaragua. While U.S. life is easier in many respects than what she experienced in Central America, "their sense of community is definitely more integrated and less isolated," she says.
Gagnon hopes to launch a small business in the next few years, using skills she picked up studying textile design at the UW. She has her hand in several freelance projects now, including design work connected to a restaurant her brothers, Underground Food Collective guys Jonny and Ben Hunter, are starting.
Gagnon appreciates being able to balance both functional projects and more conceptual, fine-art work. The Watrous Gallery show, she says, "was a great opportunity to get back into the conceptual side of things."