“I never wanted to use macramé to kill,” hysterically screams Lulu in John Waters’ trash classic Polyester, named after yet another fabric of filth.
Even though Lulu may never have wanted to kill with 1970s kitsch, a current exhibition of queer artists, who all employ the medium of craft, from embroidery to needlepoint to crochet and Lulu’s beloved macramé, is slaying at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art.
Curated by John Chaich, curator of Visual AIDS’ 2012 exhibition ReMixed Messages, Queer Threads: Crafting Identity and Community asserts the possibilities craft brings to representing the multitudes of desires and experiences that make up queer individuals’ lives.
While all the artists in Queer Threads identify as LGBTQ, the exhibition presents a wide range of messages, styles and materials from Allyson Mitchell with Jessica Whitbread’s cross-stitched exclamation “Fuck Positive Women” to Sonny Schneider’s sex positive embroidered “Cum On Every Body” on an easy clean-up terrycloth towel to Buzz Slutzky‘s playful, disembodied “Body Party” series, reflecting the physicality of gender performance, and Aubrey Longley-Cook‘s video animation “RuPaul Cross Stitch Animation Workshop,” featuring a multi-artist created recreation of RuPaul’s iconic “Supermodel” video.
While I have noticed the increasing use of craft by contemporary queer artists before even entering the Leslie-Lohman Museum, I certainly was not ready for the overwhelming realization that craft is perhaps the perfect medium for expressing queer experiences. Even though I certainly do not want to denigrate other realms of fine art, which all participate in queer culture in their own way, craft, through its lower status in the hierarchy of fine art, emerges as a direct reflection of the place of queer individuals in dominant society, as well as opens the dialogue for queers to portray their own performance of gender, sexuality, intimacy, desires and communities.
Is Craft Queer?
In his exhibition essay, John Chaich writes, “Craft has been long considered the queer stepchild of fine art.”
And he’s right. Often understood as a quaint, homey medium for amateur artists, housewives with a lot of time to kill, art therapy-enrolled mental patients and crunchy granola feminists, craft has been largely ignored by high art institutions, defining craft as an almost deviant form of art-making.
Even though Queer Threads is the first to seriously investigate the combination of craft and queerness, Chaich is certainly not the only one recognizing their similarities and potentially generative relationship.
In fact, one of the artists included in the exhibition, L.J. Roberts, takes a serious, critical look at the possibilities in using queer theoretical tactics in order to revitalize craft’s position in fine art. In their installation included in Queer Threads, entitled “The Queer Houses of Brooklyn in the Three Towns of Breukelen, Boswyck and Midwout during the 41st Year of the Stonewall Era,” Roberts, along with Buzz Slutzky’s illustrated pins, colorfully merges the history of queer activism from Stonewall to ACT-UP with contemporary queer communities, using crafting techniques like embroidery, knitting and quilting in order to depict the beauty and importance of these self-made queer families.
Reflecting on the similarities between craft and queer in their essay “Put Your Thing Down, Flip It And Reverse It: Reimagining Craft Identities Using Tactics of Queer Theory” in 2011’s collection Extra/Ordinary: Craft And Contemporary Art, Roberts delves into the current demeaned status of craft in the fine art world, stating “The phrase ‘identity crisis’ has frequently been used to describe the current state of contemporary craft” (243). At the time of the essay’s publishing, a significant number of schools and institutions erased the word “craft” from their name in favor of stressing the more general, less tacky art or design.
Comparing the word “craft” to the history of the term “queer” and its reappropriation by AIDS activists such as Queer Nation and academics in the burgeoning queer theory field, Roberts explains, “What makes queer theory so useful to those marginalized communities that must confront the pigeonholing stereotypes that overdetermine and essentialize identities? The tactics of reclamation, reappropriation, and disidentification used in queer theory and praxis give non-normative identities agency as well as question the seemingly stable systems that render them as other. These tactics acknowledge stereotypes, transpose them and then subvert them to form new models of identity” (245).
By employing the thoroughly queer methods of “reclamation, reappropriation and disidentification,” craft, according to Roberts, could both subvert the negative stereotypes surrounding it, as well as assert a new identity. Roberts continues, “By flipping and displacing denigrating and confining stereotypes through tactics of performance and appropriation, craft can reimagine itself in marginal ways, molded and reconfigured by the desires of the maker. Through the dismantling and reconfiguration of its own stereotypes, craft is positioned as a potent agent to challenge the very systems that create and proliferate stereotypes to maintain hierarchies of visual and material culture” (247-8).
For Roberts and many of the other artists in Queer Threads, not only can craft use queer methods to transcend the stereotypes, but queer artists can also employ craft in order to disidentify with stereotypes.
For all those fantastic Filthy Dreams readers who haven’t had Jose Munoz’s conception of disidentification hammered into your heads for years like me (in a good way!), disidentification is defined by Munoz as neither an identification, a cross-identification or a picking and choosing of identifications. Instead, as Munoz reveals in his seminal Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics, “Disidentification is about recycling and rethinking encoded meaning. The process of disidentificaiton scrambles and reconstructs the encoded message of a cultural text in a fashion that both exposes the encoded message’s universalizing and exclusionary machinations and recircuits its workings to account for, include and empower minority identities and identifications. Thus disidentification is a step further than cracking open the code of the majority; it proceeds to use this code as raw material for representing a disempowered politics or positionality that has been rendered unthinkable by the dominant culture” (31).
Looking at the artists in Queer Threads, many use their works to disidentify with the stereotypically feminine medium of craft. For example, John Thomas Paradiso‘s embroidery “Leather Daddy II” depicts Paradiso’s use of disidentification with both the stereotypes of the hyper-masculine leather daddy and the ultra-feminine medium of embroidery. Exposing, as well as embracing, the underlying construction of the masculine world of BDSM subculture and fey flowery femmes, Paradiso’s “Leather Daddy II” inhabits both of these worlds at once, constructing his own subversive performance of gender.
Exhibited near Paradiso’s “Leather Daddy II,” Nathan Vincent‘s much-talked-about installation “Locker Room,” a life-sized reconstruction of a men’s gym bathroom, performs a similar act of disidentification. Filled with lockers, showers and yes, urinals (turn your Grindr on boys!), Vincent’s “Locker Room” is made entirely out of knit and crochet, another old lady medium. Contrasting crochet with the hyper-masculine identities often performed in environments like a gym bathroom, Vincent’s “Locker Room” plays with the feminization of this uber-masculine domain.
You won’t find any clones there! Actually you won’t find anyone! Devoid of cruising bodies, the empty “Locker Room” also points out the potential isolation experienced in a location of overly masculine performances and desires.
In addition to these queer men’s use of craft to disidentify with masculine gender performances in Queer Threads, queer women also participate in this twisting of gender identity and performance. Identifying as a lesbian, artist Maria E. Piñeres‘ needlepoint “Bona Fide! (In Good Faith)” reflects her fascination with hustlers in the sex-charged, bad old days of Times Square. It’s our favorite too, Maria!
Exploring sexuality through nude male pinups, as well as a trashy pinball machine aesthetic, Piñeres employs these pre-gentrification photos as a means of disidentification, allowing her to perform her own sexuality and nostalgia for the sleazy past.
Somewhere Beyond The Rainbow
In his essay, John Chaich quotes queer craft scholar Julia Bryan-Wilson, stating, “Craft objects, like queer desires are multiple…they refuse to be any one thing.”
In addition to disidentification through the use of craft, many artists in Queer Threads utilize craft’s tactile ability to represent a multitude of queer experiences, and desires. Embracing the complexities in the queer community, craft is able to depict the complicated reality that many queers inhabit, exceeding normative notions of gender, sexuality and politics.
Perhaps best representation of the range of voices in the queer community through craft is Liz Collins‘ installation “Accumulated Pride.” Hanging over a wall in the entrance to the exhibition, one side of “Accumulated Pride” appears as a simple revisiting of the rainbow flag. However behind the wall, the installation lives up to its name by appearing as an excessive, almost to the point of abject, amount of fabric, piling on the floor and enveloping the exhibition space, representing the enormous variations of queer identities that are not contained within that rainbow flag.
In addition to the extreme amount of fabric, Collins also returns two stripes to the flag as originally conceived by Gilbert Baker–a pink stripe for sex and a turquoise stripe for art and magic. Reinstating these two stripes, reminding viewers of the importance of creativity and sexuality in queer culture, Collin’s “Accumulated Pride” acts as a more inclusive pride flag than the actual rainbow flag, embracing the multitudes of queer individuals.
Another artist using craft in order to embrace the variety of queer individuals is Allyson Mitchell with her piece “Queer Unnation.” Carried in a 2011 Toronto march, Stonewall TO, in response to mainstream Toronto Pride’s censorship of the group Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, “Queer Unnation” delves into the diversity of the queer community, including its differing politics.
Thick As A Knot Or Thin As String
As Chaich powerfully observes in his essay, “And thread—be it yarn or embroidery floss—parallels the potential for connectivity in our lives as same-gender loving and gender-non-conforming peoples. Our commonalities may be as thick as a knot or as thing as string. As individuals we are strands, as communities we are interwoven. Both can be broken or braided.”
Even though most of the works in Queer Threads are contemporary, made in the last couple of years, the one work that really struck me was Allen Porter’s circa 1955 needlepoint. Proving that the connection between craft and queer identities is hardly a new phenomenon, Porter’s gorgeously homoerotic “Untitled” portrays a queer intimacy not too different from the post-Stonewall art filling the rest of the Leslie-Lohman Museum.
Not only is the connectivity between queers as “thick as a knot or thin as string,” it seems as if a genealogy of queer craft could be too. Putting Porter’s “Untitled” in conversation with contemporary queer creation, Chaich undeniably depicts that more can and should be researched on this mesmerizing and significant combination of craft and queer.