As digital technologies increasingly dictate how we see the world around us and how we communicate with one another, a growing number of contemporary artists seek to reaffirm the human presence through their use of traditional handwork such as quilting, embroidery, knitting and crocheting. The nostalgia associated with the simple act of sewing, in particular, resonates for artist and viewer alike. It reminds us of the past—of our mothers or grandmothers making and mending clothes by hand, when time did not seem so rushed. This quiet domestic task is somehow both productive and comforting.

The recent proliferation of sewing and embroidery in the work of contemporary artists—both male and female—has spawned a concomitant rise in the number of exhibitions devoted to such work. Among the most widely acclaimed perhaps is the Whitney Museum's 2002 exhibition of quilts by African-American women from the rural community of Gees Bend, Alabama. Here, the handicraft of four generations represented the essence of life in this small southern town. Although their materials and tools were simple, the expressive artistry of Gees Bend quilt makers—all descendants of slaves— appealed to a wide audience and attracted serious critical attention. Recycled fabrics and used clothing—the stuff of daily life—were the medium. Thread was the "glue" that held the stitched pieces together, marking the creative progress of each artist. Memories, both personal and communal, were inherent in each of these objects, so tenderly wrought by hand.

The impetus for Threads of Memory had its roots in the mid-1990s when I first started to notice artists turning to needlecraft and the use of thread as an expressive and markmaking device, a trend that seemingly has accelerated after 9/11/2001. Thematically and conceptually, their work is richly varied—paralleling the pluralistic tendencies in art-making today. For many of these artists, thread symbolically references the hand. For others, the repetitive push/pull of sewing provides an inner calm in the wake of post 9/11 trauma. Through the linear reach of each binding stroke, thread also infers a yearning for cohesion and inter-connectedness in a chaotic and uncertain world.

Threads of Memory features the work of 30 artists for whom the medium of thread resonates personally as a reference to specific life experiences or to the creative impulse and, universally, as a signifier of the human spirit. It is inherently rhythmic, meditative—even transcendent. Yet it can also be erotic, expressive, desperate—even violent. Although the expressive range of thread might seem limited, these artists have adapted the medium to their individual needs and produced work of unusual diversity of form, tactility and content. For each of them, memory is as deeply embedded in the objects they make as it is in the work of the Gees Bend artisans. Varying in scale from the intimate "samplers" of Tracey Emin to the room-size installation of Meridith McNeal, the artists in this exhibition examine the metaphoric fabric of their lives through the innovative use of thread.

Historically, samplers served as educational tools for young women. As they became adept at needlework, they also learned basic lessons of life. In addition to the usual alphabets and numbers, text in samplers provided messages about morality, codes of behavior, aesthetics and the accepted notions of femininity and domesticity. Looking to this tradition, which had its roots in 19th century European and American samplers, Stephen Sollins often appropriates found linens. In his diptych, Elegy (Let me live in a house…), 2004, he removed the original threads from existing samplers, replacing them with a modernist- inspired pattern of his own. The instructional penciled message of the samplers can still be seen—the pentimenti of a voice from the past: "Let me live in a house by the side of the road and be a friend to man." In another work, Untitled (threadsuns), 2005, the artist arranges 105 hand-crocheted handkerchiefs dating from the 1940s and 50s in a minimalist, grid-like pattern. On each of these objects, an erratic, meandering gray line of tightlysewn stitches traces the irregular outline of the right edges of 105 poems by the Romanian-born surrealist poet, Paul Celan.1 Sollins sees the handkerchiefs as human surrogates; each one carries the imprint of its owner just as the threads contain the memory of each verse of poetry.

Vintage printed fabrics and found embroideries appeal to Orly Cogan, best known for her erotic embroidered scenes of young women flirting or flaunting their sexuality. Opting for sugar-sweet needlework on tablecloths, bureau scarves or table runners dating from the 1940s, she acts as collaborator with unknown women from the past, updating their work with an edgy overlay of provocative images of the archetypal seductress. Her modern day femmes fatales freely engage in the pleasures of life, trading "Home Sweet Home" for the life of a party girl. Boldly executed in colorful thread, her stitches are hurried and expressive, lacking the disciplined order of vintage works that women once labored over so diligently. Subversive yet oddly respectful, Cogan's dialogue with the history implicit in these objects is particularly complex in her installation, Detached, 2005, where fragments of female nudes with Gen X attitude bare all while cavorting on old-fashioned embroidery hoops.

Fabrics with a history have special resonance for Louise Bourgeois whose Untitled, 2002, is a patchwork head of worn tapestry fragments—keepsakes from the artist's past. Growing up outside of Paris, where her parents had a thriving business restoring tapestries from abandoned or disused chateaux, Bourgeois often assisted her mother, an expert weaver, who taught her the basic sewing skills. In this iconic portrait, she embraces the medium with renewed interest, presenting a timeless female figure. Like an ancient, omniscient oracle or primitive priestess, she looks toward the unknown with a sideways glance, mouth open wide in tentative wonder, awe or fear at what life may deliver next. At age 94, Bourgeois's fascination with memories of her own past persists as she continues to use vintage fabric, garments and linens, some of which she has been saving since childhood.3 Among her recent projects is Ode `a L'Oubli ("Ode to Forgetfulness"), an editioned book from 2004, incorporating replicas of these fabrics with layers of hand and machine needlework.

Like Louise Bourgeois, China Marks also uses vintage textiles. Searching through second-hand shops and flea markets, she selects fabrics with existing narratives such as reproduction French toiles. In Sea Change, 2005, she adeptly transforms the quaint vignettes with erotic and playful machine-stitched elements. A lighthouse becomes a phallus, figures sport heads of animals, birds and so on; the past is transformed into a modern-day fantasy gone awry—a not-so-subtle allusion to the chaotic state of the world today. In a similar manner, Kent Henricksen digitally embroiders his own subversive images rife with political commentary on fabrics inspired by the romantic pastoral scenes commonly found on toile. Though his hooded figures from The Childrens' Fables series of 2005 seem to frolic innocently, they strike a more sinister note. Among the images that spring to mind are the hood-shrouded Iraqi soldiers from Abu Ghraib prison or midnight raids by members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Using thread as a symbolic device to bind with or encapsulate the past, Bonnie Lucas, Rachel Selekman and Elisa D'Arrigo employ readymade objects to reference childhood memories. For Cross Section #4, 2004, D'Arrigo collected outgrown socks worn by her children and their friends, fastening them in a honeycomb or cellular assemblage held together by bold, elongated stitches. Bonnie Lucas, longtime resident of Chinatown and veteran scavenger of nearby notion shops, layers her tawdry treasures and compresses them tightly in small round containers. Beads, bracelets, fake flowers, ribbons, dolls, and myriad girlish trinkets—all objects associated with stereotypes of femininity— are bound with stitches and lashings of thread. Ready to burst, her roiling tondos are ripe with burgeoning female sexuality and remembrances of lost innocence. In her Untitled (spring purse), 2000, Rachel Selekman appropriates a small vintage change purse, a familiar accessory often carried by her grandmother, who taught her the craft of sewing. The purse is open, its mouth agape like a hungry bird or vaginal cavity. Long strands of earthgreen thread are attached inside with minute French knots like so many stamen or human sperm. This object, transformed through the addition of thread, references not only the fecundity of nature but also the cyclical nature of human existence.

A growing number of artists today use thread to reference the words and language of daily communication. Lesley Dill incorporates a fragment of a poem by Pablo Nerudo in White Corolla and Black Corolla, both of 2005. Drawn to the visionary language of this well-known Chilean-born poet, Dill uses thread as metaphorical connectors to Neruda's fertile mind and Nature itself. In these works, an iconic female with Afro-style hairdo morphs into the tree of life. Elaine Reichek summons the wit of William Shakespeare in samplers from her As She Likes It series of 2001. In the tradition of the historical sampler, the passages she selects from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Troilus and Cressida" serve as instructional lessons in female behavior. Here, women protagonists speak forcefully about their sex and their place in the world; of a woman's resilience, empowerment and moral strength. Tracey Emin's white-on-white samplers, though whisper-soft at first glance, belie the desperate lament of a lonely woman abandoned by her lover. Her histrionics are spelled out in hand-wrought needlework: "I Keep Dreaming of You" and "Always on My Own. Want to Be With U." Personal tragedy is also the subject of Mimi Smith's Knit Baby, 1968. After suffering a miscarriage, the artist knit a life-size infant, dressing it in a white undershirt embroidered with "The Baby is Dead." Complete with instructions, it might not offer solace to other grieving mothers, but it was nonetheless a way for the artist to express her own. The object invites cradling and caressing that could serve as cathartic release from the memory of such a profound loss.

Nina Katchadourian uses language in a poignant video documenting her own intervention in the world of nature while visiting relatives on a Swedish-speaking island in the Finish archipelago. Here, she inserts the word "gift" into a spider's web. Each letter, written in red thread, is rejected by the creature who casts out the artist's unwanted gift—the spider's instinctive memory of the proper way to make a web superceding the artist's ministrations.

Although text does not appear in Conrad Atkinson's Wordsworth Suit, 2003, he plays with ideas of an insidious kind of communication. In the label that accompanies the piece, the artist spins an improbable tale of the suit's provenance claiming it was Wordsworth's "lucky" suit, worn as he strolled in the English countryside and while composing his famous poem, "Daffodils"(1804). Past and presence conflate in the gold digitally-embroidered mosquitoes (which, presumably, might have plagued the poet during his perambulations in nature) that also reference the scourge of communicable diseases passed so easily in this time of jet travel from animals, birds and insects to humans.

For some artists, threads symbolize connections as well as rifts with family and the past. Through their work, they seek to establish their own identity. Marguerite Day sees her threads alternatively as lifelines that hold fast memories of her brother, who recently died of leukemia, while tethered to I.V.'s that prolonged both his life and his agony; and as shackles that tie her to family, depriving her of her independence. Amanda Guest, proclaims a postmodern approach to needlework in the quiet minimalism of samplers lacking the words or decorations of those by previous generations of women. Though her stitches are those she learned from her mother and grandmother, the presentation is an assertion of who she is as artist rather than artisan.

Overt references to feminism can be seen in the work of Ghada Amer and Ambreen Butt, for whom conventional views toward women have long been rich subjects. Women warriors wielding swords are powerful dragon-slayers in Ambreen Butt's I Need a Hero series, 2005. Stitched in bright red thread, they joust with effortless grace against their foes. Ghada Amer's protagonists—two women locked in a passionate embrace—were lifted from the pages of a pornographic magazine. As the viewer struggles to "untangle" the threads to make out the image, so must these women struggle to assert their sexuality.

Ke-Sook Lee takes a gentler approach to women's roles. Memories of her childhood in Korea, waking to the rhythmic sound of hand sewing by several generations of older women in her home, remained with her long after she established a life in the United States and had children of her own. Using diaphanous fabrics, tea-stained rice paper and thread—all elements that represent her Korean roots—she embroiders organic designs onto objects that speak of domesticity and familial obligations: aprons, potholders and tea towels.

The memory of places and experiences—real and imagined represent potent subjects for a number of artists in this exhibition. Doug Bosch recalls early spring walks by a New Hampshire lake covered with cadmium-colored pollen from pitch-pine trees in Pollen Rods, 2002. Katherine Porter memorializes trips to Rome, Montreal and Cape Negro in her recent embroidery work. Abstract and laden with bright color, they recall the jazz-age energy of Stuart Davis. Michael Raedecker's Still Life, 2001, on the other hand, is tinged with a ghostly gloom that suggests the tenebrous otherworldliness of dreams.

The poignancy of loss resonates in the work of Elena del Rivero, Donna Sharrett, Sarah Lovitt and Fred Fleisher. Del Rivero's [Swi:t] Home: A Chant, 2001-2005 is an homage to the victims of 9/11 whose personal papers, memos, to-do lists, and documents landed in her loft, covering the floor with the remnants of lives lost. Her assemblage, loosely held together with repetitive stitches, represents her devotional, ritualistic effort to catalogue, reconstruct and memorialize this tragedy.6 Deeply moved by the recent deaths of her mother and brother, Donna Sharrett created a series of needlework memento mori with dried rose petals, artificial hair, lace and beads on grounds of dirt. Elegant and elegiac, these circular geometric patterns recall ancient mandalas and reference the cyclical nature of life. Fred Fleisher offers new life to a cast-off doll, mending it with crude black sutures, offering it up as a symbol of loss and redemption. Working in flesh-toned wax, Sarah Lovitt similarly "mends" the torn surface as if striving to rescue a wounded soul.

Like many contemporary artists, Nene Humphrey is interested in the human body. Its remarkable resiliency and vulnerability are the subjects of her most recent investigations in a new series about the human brain—the repository of memory. Drawn to imagery produced by electron microscopy designed to visually record brain tissue, she downloads specimens from the Internet and prints them on fabric. Struck by the beauty of these abstract forms, she painstakingly embellishes them with hand-embroidered stitches, symbolically embedding the memory of her own intervention, and mind, in each of these objects.

While much of the needlework being used in art today had its origins in 19th century samplers where strict rules of handling and technique applied, thread is now being deployed in countless more innovative and expressive ways. The push and pull of its rhythmic cadence and repetitive stroke make it an eloquent mark-making device. Its mood ranges from sensual and serene to edgy and violent. It can recount a story, spell out a message, plunge into the political or social arena, and plumb the depths of the human psyche. Whether sewn by hand or machine, a stitch inherently speaks of tradition, of a venerable past and a moment of looking back toward a better time. For those who use it today as an artistic medium, it is adaptable, resilient, tactile and richly rewarding.

— Margaret Mathews-Berenson

1.Paul Celan's work became widely known during the 1950s. Fadensonnen (Threadsuns in English) was first published in German in 1968 by Suhrkamp. A recent anthology of Celan's poems appeared in 2004, translated by Pierre Joris, published by Green Integer.

2.Stephen Sollins. Interview with Margaret Mathews-Berenson, New York, N.Y. October 25, 2005.

3.In the mid-1990s, Bourgeois began using cut up scraps from garments that she had stored in a closet. Some of these garments date from "as long ago as the 1920's." Amy Newman in "Louise Bourgeois Builds a Book from the Fabric of Life," The New York Times, Sunday, October 17, 2004, Arts & Leisure Section, p. 30.

4.This book represents a collaboration between the artist, her publisher, Peter Blum, and master printer, Judith Solodkin of Solo Impression. Each piece of fabric was carefully replicated, complete with every worn spot and stain. Aided by a computerized sewing machine, especially adapted for the project, Ms. Solodkin oversaw the production of Ode à L'Oubli. Using a complex process of lithographic printing, digital scanning and laborious hand work, Solo Impression pioneered new methods of working with fabric as seen in the work of other artists in this exhibition such as Ghada Amer, Kent Henricksen and Liliana Porter.

5.The title, Gift/Gift is a reference to the Swedish word for poison—pronounced gift, with a soft "g." In an illustrated Swedish nature book dating from the 1950s, the artist discovered a chapter describing a spider's habit of using its thread as "gift-wrap" to bind its dead prey and present it to another spider. The title of her video is derived from the description in this book. Nina Katchadourian, Mended Spiderwebs and Other Natural Misunderstandings, ex. cat., (New York: Debs & Co., January 7th—February 13th, 1999).

6.This project by Elena del Rivero is a continuation of an earlier installation also titled, [Swi:t] Home, originally commissioned jointly by Dieu Donné Papermill and the Drawing Center, New York, and was exhibited in both places in July, 2001. The piece that appears in this exhibition constitutes a single panel from a much larger, multi-panel installation that will ultimately span approximately 500 yards. It will be seen in its entirety in the artist's solo show, "At Hand," curated by Elizabeth Finch, at IVAM (Institute of Contemporary Art), Valencia, Spain, September 14, 2005, and will travel to Patio Herreriano, Valladolid, Spain, in December, 2005.

Threads of Memory. pdf