Over recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in crafts traditionally considered feminine: knitting, lace-making, crochet, embroidery and things like that. Some of this renewed interest results in pretty pieces, while some takes a more ironic stance. I first encountered the latter in an exhibition called "Adam and Eve it" at the London Printworks Trust which I read about in the Observer and attended back in 2005. The exhibition contained large-scale but detailed wall mounted pornographic images made from lace (or made like lace) by artists Danica Maier and Miranda Whall (a detail from Maier’s work "Have Lunch Downtown" heads this post). Intriguing. The next time I came across this use of ironic reflection in needlework was when researching "scary wool". Two pieces of subversive cross stitch came up: "Hasty" by beefrank and "rage" by laurelann.
"Hasty" by beefrank on flickr
"rage" by laurelann on flickr
Although I came across theses works afresh, I think they are actually in turn quotations themselves, "hasty fellatio" being a Merlin Mann quote. But it works so well in cross stitch, the prim tone of the wording compliments the medium but confounds the meaning.
The question is where do you go from there? As us, the audience, become accustomed to seeing edgy subjects rendered into lace and cross stitch and embroidery how do artists maintain their shock value?
There seem several answers to this. One is to not bother, and many people getting into these crafts are just knitting or embroidering to produce nice work. For example I came across "Free Form embroidery on recycled silk" by davis.jacque on Jamie Chalmer‘s amazing mr x stich blog http://www.mrxstitch.com/
Jacque’s work isn’t overly cutesy, but nor is it overtly edgy or ironic, it’s just fun.
The second response to escalating audience familiarity is subtle: somehow to keep the edge but drop the irony. I’m not sure how to explain this one (or even if I’ve correctly categorised it) but a good example, again from mr x stitch’s blog, is Marty’s Fiber Musings series "Pretty Ladies in Smart Hats"
The third path, and the one that prompted this blog post, is to escalate the shock-value of the content to match the increased audience familiarity. This, I think, is a mistake, though it may still result in highly accomplished highly skilful work. The trouble is that it’s an arms race we really do not want to get into. The example that got me thinking comes from DonkeyWolf’s blog, and is the work "Cream Pie" by Ruby42
Like mr x stitch, DonkeyWolf includes ‘Not Safe for Work’ (NSFW) postings in the blog, by which they mean that the images included (should you ignore the warning and look at the NSFW posts) are not what you’d want on your screen in the office if the boss walks in. In fact, for many of the pieces covered I think they need a ‘Not Safe for work, home, or anywhere else’ warning as some of the needlework shown is extremely pornographic. Luckily Ruby42’s embroidered and cross stitch cushion has a safe side, with a recipe for cream pie on (shown above). The other side is very rude. If you’re unsure what might be on it the wikipedia disambiguation page for ‘Cream Pie’ might help, after that, if you want to see, and have no-one looking over your shoulder at your screen here’s the link to Ruby42’s picture on flickr (http://www.flickr.com/photos/ruby42/4239289319/in/set-72157616384571874/) and to donkeywolf’s post (http://donkeywolf.blogspot.com/2009/10/not-safe-for-work-swap.html) but be warned, they are extremely pornographic, despite being rendered in embroidery.
Now I may be wrong, the motivation for these NSFW needlework pieces may not be an ironic and shocking subversion of our attitudes to feminine crafts, but I think it is. And the trouble with such pieces is that what is required to shock the audience escalates out-of-hand. I think that the work often covered in mr x stitch and donkeywolf‘s blogs’ Not Safe For Work feature have already crossed the pale.