Extremely rude embroidery; is it a good idea?

Detail from Danica Maier's "Have Lunch Downtown" exhibited at the London Printworks Trust
Detail from the lacework "Having Lunch Downtown" by Danica Maier at the London Printworks Trust

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 
"Hasty" by beefrank on flickr
'rage' by laurelann 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/

'Free Form embroidery on recycled silk' by davis.jacque on flickr
"Free Form embroidery on recycled silk" by davis.jacque on flickr

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"

"Peaches…and cream" by Martys Fiber Musings on flickr
"Peaches…and cream" by Martys Fiber Musings on flickr

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

"Cream Pie" by Ruby42 on flickr
"Cream Pie" by Ruby42 on flickr

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.

Luckily there is a fourth way: to ‘go meta’. One can become ironic about the irony itself. This is done to wonderful effect by Stitch Out Loud with her "Come closer Bob!" on flickr:


"Come closer Bob!" by Stitch Out Loud on flickr

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6 Responses to “Extremely rude embroidery; is it a good idea?”

  1. donkeywolf Says:

    I feel this post, “Extremely rude embroidery; is it a good idea?” really misses the mark with this question.
    A better question would be, “Why are we shocked when fiber artists explore the same themes as other artists?”
    Before I begin, let me explain my perspective. I am the forth generation in a family of successful, working artists and collectors. I was a printmaker for 15 years and have recently started working in fiber arts. When I see a question like the one you posed, (and I see it fairly frequently) it really sets my teeth on edge. Why? Because aside from the very conservative, no one ever asks the question “Extremely Rude Painting; is it a good idea?” Or “Extremely rude sculpture; is it a good idea?”
    Sure, Egon Schiele certainly got some trouble for his masturbation self portraits, along with the likes of Jeff Koons, George Grosz, ect., but no one groups these artists together and essentially asks, “Is it a good idea?” The point is, we are artists. No topic is off limits for us to explore. Just as J.G. Ballard and D.H. Lawrence are “allowed” to explore sexuality, so are the rest of us.
    And by the way, it’s only been fairly recently that fiber arts have been stuffed into the “crafting” corner. Even the Bayeux Tapestry has men with their pants down, showing off their penises.

  2. mrxstitch Says:

    Hi Dumbledad,
    I think the other aspect to this is that for some people, taking a more “adult” approach to needlework content is the only way they can explore their connection with the medium.
    Part of the problem with embroidery is the way the mainstream has taken the edge out of the art form, denigrating to a craft at best and more often a hobby. And the restoration of embroidery as a valid art form is a personal passion of mine.
    Pieces that are edgy or push boundaries have a function in broadening people’s perspectives of the genre – allowing creative space wherein new ideas can be explored. For a lot of the young’uns today, there needs to be this edge that may tie in with their personal philosophies, so that they might choose to engage with the pleasures of embroidery.
    There will always be work that is rude and crude, neither funny nor well executed, but if that isn’t art echoing life then I don’t know what is. 🙂

  3. dumbledad Says:

    Thanks Penny (or Johnny) and Jamie. I half agree and half disagree.

    Let’s start with the agreement. I am sorry that my post typifies an ilk of conservative criticism that sets your teeth on edge. You mention that it is only “fairly recently that fiber arts have been stuffed into the “crafting” corner”. I too sometimes lament the distinction, and one of the exciting things about the craft revival now is this blurring of the distinction, with craft based practitioners producing artistically interesting work, and artists adopting craft methods and forms. But there is still a difference. When I look at, for example, the work of two potters, Richard Baxter http://www.richardbaxter.com/ (my pottery teacher at VIth form) and Edmund de Waal http://www.edmunddewaal.com/ I can tell which is primarily a craftsman and which primarily an artist, though I’ve probably set their teeth on edge just typing that!

    I guess that something in the distinction between craft and art seems important to me. And while I love work that crosses the boundary, the boundary still feels honest. But it shouldn’t constrain us. Or should it?

    It seems wrong to propose that the other arts, the non-fibre arts, are free from criticism about their choice of sexual subject. You mention Schiele, Koons, and Grosz in the visual arts and Ballard and Lawrence in literature. We can also consider photography. The maelstrom of concern around, for example, Tierney Gearon’s or Betsy Schneider’s work asks exactly whether art photography that may be considered pornographic (in their case illegally so) should be on public display, and (in the surrounding public debate) is “a good idea”.

    Pornography is notoriously difficult to define, but also laughably easy to spot, and I think it is obvious that the NSFW fibre art your blogs sometime cover are not pornography. But it seems disingenuous to suggest that the way fibre arts approach these subjects is synonymous with the way other arts approach the same subjects. The NSFW embroideries and cross stitch pieces borrow their clout from the juxtaposition of our expectation of cross stitch as a gentle feminine hobby with the content. Without that subversive clash, the work is just pornographic. For example one of the recent posts (sorry I cannot find the link) includes an almost photo-realistic cross stitch rendering of a man masturbating, as a photo it would be easy to dismiss, but as cross stitch it is unsettling.

    So I stand by my criticism. I do not think we should lose the air of craft and of hobby that surrounds the fibre arts, and while that atmosphere may lend impact to the NSFW pieces, I think we should avoid traveling along that escalating spiral of shock.

  4. donkeywolf Says:

    Like you, I half agree and half disagree. 🙂
    One of the things that did make me uneasy was this quote, “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.”
    I won’t speak for Mr. X, but I know on Donkeywolf out of 83 post, only 2 post actually show visual representations of sexual acts. Much like how Ruby’s work is not solely pornography. It feels like you have dismissed the other work in order to make your point about the shocking porno arms race. It’s a little… well, it’s like saying the other artists I’ve cited above only do porn/sex. It’s just not true. It’s something that they’ve explored, which we are free to explore as well.
    I understand the point of your piece, how useful or successful is all this porno business in fiber art, but we are doing much more than that. It’s not like we’re Mapplethorpe, all dicks all the time. Our work doesn’t begin and end with porn, and to not put those pieces in context by acknowledging the rest of the body, you run the risk of presenting a very narrow picture of what we are actually creating. It feels like you’re asking “Is this all they do? And will they keep having to push the envelope?”
    I would urge you to take a look at some of the more philosophical/critical pieces I’ve featured on Donkeywolf. I think you’d find some interesting things on the nature of art vs craft,
    donkeywolf.blogspot.com/2009/05/you-have-that-crooked-wisdom-which-is.html
    and insights into different artists motivations. http://donkeywolf.blogspot.com/2010/01/tod-hensley-flying-haystacks-embroidery.html
    But really, I know I sound a bit hard, and please forgive me. Any discussion aimed at our work or blogs is welcome! It’s great to see that people are interested!

  5. dumbledad Says:

    Excellent – now I 100% agree 🙂

    Please forgive me if I gave the impression that I was asking “Is this all they do?” I’ve only recently found your blog http://donkeywolf.blogspot.com/ but mr x stitch’s is part of my daily morning reading. The embroidery, cross stitch, and other needle craft that you are bringing to our attention is, by-and-large, wonderful. I took an embroidery class recently (I started as a youngster but gave up almost immediately) so I’m hoping to join the throng. Your blog gives me many fan-boy moments!

    I was hoping that my four responses to initial irony showed the meaningful ways to move beyond ironic needlework (sidestepping irony altogether, remaining edgy minus irony, or going meta) that we can accomplish without needing recourse to the fourth, the escalating shock. Because once you start trying to out-do the ironic shock of the previous piece you really are trapped, pushing the envelope for the sake of it, and to what end? You are left with audiences desensitised (or at least blasé to) shockingly explicit pornographic images rendered in thread. Why would you want that?

    You do sound hard, and I’m not going to forgive you: I love it. It’s the rigorous and passionate belief in all this that gives your work, blog, and commentary its backbone.

  6. beefranck Says:

    I don’t have an envelope to push, and I don’t really think about having an audience.

    I stitch what I like. That’s all. ^_^

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