Arachne’s Woof: Women, Creativity and History
Dr. Kathy Battista
In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the goddess Minerva (the Greek deity of war and wisdom as well as the patron of weaving and embroidery) takes exception to the hubris of the mortal Arachne, a poor country girl who defiantly claims to be the superior weaver. Minerva, disguised as an old woman, appears to Arachne and suggests that the mortal offer forgiveness. When Arachne boastfully refuses, Minerva reveals herself and challenges the girl to a weaving contest. Minerva weaves a tapestry that depicts scenes of the greatness of the gods, including her own victory over Neptune. Arachne’s tapestry illustrates a much different point of view: a skillfully woven portrait of gods raping and deceiving humans. Minerva flies into a rage over Arachne’s skill and beats her, prompting the mortal to hang herself, and Minerva eventually turns Arachne into a spider, thus relegating her to a life of spinning webs. Ovid writes of this moment:
Arachne’s hair flowed away and with them both (her) nose and ears,
and (her) head becomes very small, she is also small in her whole body;
slender fingers cling on (her) side in place of legs,
(her) belly occupies the rest: from which, nevertheless, that (girl) lets out
a thread, and the spider works (her) ancient looms.
Minerva wins this epic tale and hopes that when humans would learn about Arachne’s fate, they would revere the mighty gods, In other versions of the story Minerva wins the tapestry contest with a far superior work, causing Arachne to be ashamed; Minerva takes pity on Arachne and turns her into spider so that she can continue to spin and weave for infinity. In both versions, the reader finds the Manichean theme of man versus god, the capriciousness of fate, as well as the internal struggles of the creative process.
Weaving has for centuries been considered a female occupation, and primarily a domestic talent, before being developed on an industrial scale. Fabric is produced by the interlacing of the warp, or the vertical component, and the woof, which comprises the horizontal filling. Weaving and embroidery were originally associated with women and hence, craft, and separated from the refined status of fine art. Rozsika Parker’s breakthrough 1984 book The Subversive Stitch reevaluated this craft, which had been relegated to the pejorative “women’s work” category, and seen as inferior to the traditional fine arts of painting and sculpture. Feminists responded to this challenge by incorporating stitching and craft into many of their practices. Today weaving and embroidery are used by mainstream artists as disparate as Louise Bourgeois, Tracey Emin, Francesco Vezzoli, and Andrea Zittel.
Weaving is also slang for the telling of stories: for example, a person is said to weave a web of deceit. The artists in this exhibition, like Arachne, tell stories that are bold and unapologetic. Although they come from far-flung parts of the world, they share common ground in creating their work without regard for commercial trends or mainstream expectations. Their creative processes are each anchored in traditional image making; however, their practices are idiosyncratic and move beyond the proverbial brush applying paint to canvas. From printing and stitching to burning, pouring, spraying, or using found imagery, each artist’s creative process is unique, and yet intersects and overlaps with others within the exhibition.
Elham Rokni’s The Wedding, 2015 is the sole video in Arachne’s Woof. In this twelve-minute piece Rokni employs found and constructed footage, along with spoken narrative and subtitles, in an attempt to discover the precise date of her parent’s marriage, which neither could remember. Rokni, a Jewish Iranian whose family relocated to Tel Aviv in 1989, went on a quest for the details that were so hazy in her family’s recollection. The Wedding begins with shots of her older parents, dancing together, at her cousin’s wedding in Israel in 2015. The bulk of the piece, however, uses footage from their actual wedding in 1978, shot by her uncles. The wedding celebration was hosted at home because of riots that were taking place in the city. Each person that Rokni asks, including her mother, father, and uncles, has differing reasoning for the date they propose; each of these dates coincides with an important date in Iranian history, including the student takeover of the American Embassy. The artist finally finds the Ketubah, or traditional prenuptial agreement in a traditional Jewish marriage, which reveals a precise date; however, her mother tells her they were married “six or seven days” after the signing of the Ketubah, signaling the artist’s ongoing frustration from the inconsistent reports. The Wedding is witness to the artist’s attempt to weave a narrative of family history through clouded memories and long displaced documents.
The Wedding is poignant in its images of a pre-revolutionary Iran, where guests are dressed in fashionable clothing of the time and women are not covered. The couple and their guests dance, kiss and revel in the occasion, actions that are not typical in depictions of Iranian culture today. Rokni’s accompanying paintings, in acrylic on paper, are rendered in black and white and depict in reverse silhouette her parents dancing, with her uncle Parviz shining a light on them for the purposes of photography. The artist had asked the trio to reconstruct the scene for her video during her uncle’s visit to Israel in 2015. Black Eclipse, #5 2015, is drawn from one frame of this video. Three Eclipse works abstract this frame, which becomes more and more obscured to only a point of light, suggestive of the blackout that her uncle’s actions brought about. The title of this series is suggestive of lunar activity, referring to both the passage of time as well as her mother’s menstruation, which is used in futility as a gauge for determining the date of the marriage in the video. As a whole, Rokni’s work illustrates how far Iranian women including the artist, who left their homeland, have traveled, both physically and metaphorically. Like the myth of Arachne, this tale of her parents marriage and subsequent emigration could be told in several ways; however, in any iteration it suggests both the sadness of a lost motherland and a dislocation from the past, as well as the changing and ultra conservative bent towards women in contemporary Iran. Like other artists in this exhibition, Rokni’s work reflects themes of diaspora and the persistence of cultural identity.
Tschabalala Self has created two ovoid works, which can be considered as a diptych or as individual panels. Each contains a variety of elements and processes, including stamping, printmaking, stitching and sewing forms to the canvases. Eyes That See I, 2015 includes the artist’s trademark eye forms, printed on the canvas; these forms, in their regularized pattern, riff on the Dutch wax textiles produced across the African continent. Random black markings, which can be read as eyelashes or hair, are created by the artist using the pressure of a printing press, and are also reminiscent of African culture. In the center is a head seen in profile, stitched to the canvas with red thread. On the head one exaggerated eye looks to the right and is contextualized with the other forms found in the work. Eyes That See II, 2015 contains the same eye shapes but seen above a grid made of stitched threads. Here another profile looks to the left, as if creating a dialogue with the other anonymous head. Taken together, the two ovals look like a pair of eyes, with the faces transformed into pupils, together forming a metatheater of the individual concerns within the work.
Is Self’s diptych a self-portrait (no pun intended)? Her work may be seen in the legacy of feminist creativity. Born in Harlem and now living and working in New Haven, CT, Self’s debt to 1970s painters including Audrey Flack and Sylvia Sleigh intersects with the cultural specificity of the African American diaspora, her personal heritage. Self’s practice, which sees several layers of process, includes painting, printmaking, stitching and dyeing. In this work she is literally weaving threads into a grid, as well as sewing faces and their individual elements on to the canvases. Like Arachne, she is challenging the viewer: confronting notions of the tradition of painting as a Eurocentric, white male legacy, which has been literally mythologized in the annals of history. The insertion of elements of African culture also poses a threat to the status quo: she subverts the traditional materials of painting, substituting stitching and printing for oil on canvas. Self’s use of the oval, so typical of portraiture from eighteenth century Dutch to Colonial American and Portrait Miniatures, is literally turned on its side: here the ovals are rotated and seen as eyes rather than vertical compositional structures.
Daniella Sheinman, an artist based in Tel Aviv, whose work has rejected color for the past twenty-one years. Sheinman also creates portraiture of female subject matter, albeit more specific than Self’s, for this exhibition, presenting three works that begin as small black and white drawings that are transferred to ceramic painting on glass. Untitled (My Mona Lisa I, II and III) are portraits of her granddaughter created in 2015. All three works use an interior oval compositional structure to visually contain the portraits of the young woman: in each piece she is seen drawn, in ceramic printing on glass panels, from the bust up in black on a white surface, in the same pose as Leonardo da Vinci’s infamous heroin. While in Untitled (My Mona Lisa II and III) the viewer sees the woman as timeless, Untitled (My Mona Lisa I) includes the young woman wearing a logo sweatshirt, signaling her existence within a contemporary era. The titles are a nod to the artist’s affection for her progeny, elevating her from a typical young woman to one of the most mysterious and captivating figures in the history of art.
In each work the oval structures are disrupted by an overlay of erratic lines that may be read as web-like in places and landscape elements in others. In addition to obscuring some of the facial details in the works, this overlay of abstract lines disrupts the discreteness of the oval shaped portraits. The oval portraits are direct references to both the history of portrait and miniature painting, as mentioned above. Sheinman seems to call her subjects from another historical epoch, suggesting these are women of importance; however, she disturbs the sanctity of the portraiture with the web of lines, which is a typical motif of her work in painting as well as sculpture. Like Rauschenberg’s erased de Kooning, she obliterates her own handiwork, suggesting the process of reworking and rethinking the composition. One literally sees the angst and vulnerability of the creative process in the works—the ebb and flow of creative confidence and deflation. Using what appears at first to be straightforward portraiture, the artist tells the story of the creative process, as well as the story of women’s achievement, both past and present.
New York and Pennsylvania based artist Angela Fraleigh’s work has a similarly ambivalent relationship with the history of art and the representation of women. Her paintings, at once astonishingly skillful in their meticulous renderings of figures, are also more expressive in places, ultimately signaling a mix of control and chaos. Fraleigh adopts the poses of female figures from Baroque and Rococo masters and elevates them from their previous roles as submissive women or side players to the main protagonists in her tableau. You Weren’t Haunted Those Two Days, 2013 depicts a woman seen lying on her back, almost floating amidst a deep greenish black background. Her fair hair and skin contrasts with both the moss like background as well as the pink slip she wears. The composition calls to mind Sir John Everett Millais’s Ophelia from 1851-2, where the Shakespearean character is seen drowning to her death in a cold Danish river. But Fraleigh’s female protagonist is alive, eyes open, seemingly lost in reverie. In Fraleigh’s typical style, her process is multifaceted, which is evidenced on the canvas: hyperrealistic detail is seen in the hair, eyes, nose, mouth, and teeth while her shoulders and chest devolve into areas of abstraction and experimentation. Likewise, touches of white paint, on her cheek and in the background, signal the artist’s creative process, which ranges from the precision noted above to more expressionistic patches of mark making.
You’ll See Me From A Trillion Miles Away, 2014 features the same tidal struggle with the past. Here four figures are seen in what appears to be an almost limbic, hallucinogenic state. The entire foreground and middleground of the painting is consumed with areas of pigment that remind of Polke’s abstract, hallucinogenic canvases. Swirling colors are juxtaposed with deep greens, suggesting a forest setting. Meticulous small details like stenciled leaves contrast with the larger areas of pigment applied in looser and freer gestures. The figures in this scene seem to emerge from the large swathes of color: three men and one female are seen in some kind of consort. The female figure is fair and contrasts with the man seen to the right, who appears to be a Native American Indian. Both are seen without clothes. While it is not unusual to see a nude female, it is atypical to see a topless male in a classical painting. Fraleigh is defying the history of art that she exists within, challenging accepted norms of nude versus clothed, figuration and abstraction, male versus female power structures, as well as narrative and expression.
Maya Bloch’s Untitled (The Viewers), 2013 has a similar ambivalence as Fraleigh’s group scene. In this painting we see in the foreground four figures, painted almost entirely in silhouette against a cobalt blue wall and three figures in the background. The three figures that inhabit the background are more articulated, yet still sketchy and undefined, reminiscent of Francis Bacon’s treatment of the human figure. The title suggests viewers and indeed the figures in the background seem to inhabit a painting on a wall; however, the foreground figures, rather than looking at that work, look forward, catching the actual viewer’s eye. Thus the title of the painting refers to us rather than the viewers within the canvas, asking us to project meaning into the work.
Like Sheinman, albeit of the generation of Self and Berrio, although originally from Tel Aviv, Bloch lives and works in New York. Once again we see that the artists within the exhibition traverse miles and cultures through similar techniques and references. In Untitled (3 Figures), 2011, Bloch employs the same type of portraiture as in The Viewers: figures melt into each other and contain a ghostlike presence that owes in equal measure to Munch and Surrealist artists. In this canvas three figures seem to be almost intertwined. Psychologically it is fraught with conjecture: is it a lovers’ triangle? Is their intimacy based on familial or sexual connection? Rather than spell this out of the viewer Bloch instead leaves one in the same limbic state as the characters in her paintings, never capitulating to narrative or resolved meanings.
Maria Berrio’s works share Bloch’s Surreal approach as well as Fraleigh’s homage and resistance to the legacy of art history. Like Self, Barrio collages elements of paper, sequin, and other materials, as well as paint, to create her otherworldly compositions. El jardin de mi Corazon, 2013 depicts a female, who appears to stand within and atop of a tree, surrounded by various creatures: a seated monkey on an adjacent branch that makes eye contact with the viewer; a smaller scale black figure that could be human or metaphysical slumps over the female’s shoulders; and over scale birds cohabit the tree and are seen in the background of the painting. The image calls to mind both the magical realism of writers such as Gabriel García Marquez, as well as the surreal self-portraiture of Frida Kahlo and the naïve exoticism of Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian scenes. Born in Bogota, Columbia, the legacy of Latin American painting and literature, where humans and animals at times morph into fantastical creatures, bears mentioning alongside her work; however, having attended art school and now living in New York, the references may also be read as wider than any cultural specificity.
The Harvest, 2014 is another intriguing composition that features two female figures: one is lying prone on a table, covered with various elements, while the other is seen standing behind the table, dressed in ethnic style clothing with flowers in her hair. The entire composition is busy with objects and decorative elements: from candles, framed Guadalupe Madonna pictures and skulls to an abundance of flowers and a framed Geisha portrait hanging in the background. The figure on the table is impossibly contorted, with legs kicked up as only someone lying on their stomach could manage; however, she is lying on her back with the standing figure arranging something on her stomach. The suggestion is that the woman on the table is a sacrifice or devotional object; rather than a nefarious connotation, though, the feeling that she imparts is one of giving life as witnessed in the title of the work. In this piece, Berrio’s use of patterned Japanese paper creates an almost hallucinogenic clash of motifs that adds to the energy of the scene. Berrio is from the same emerging generation as Self. Living and working between New York and Buenos Aires, while her work contains different themes, it is empathetic to Self’s, where mythical female protagonists claim their power and confront a viewer.
Betty Tompkins is an artist who has never feared challenging the status quo. The senior stateswoman in the show, Tompkins, who lives and works in downtown New York, has a cult following for her realistic renderings of pornographic scenes shown in intimate detail. Like many feminist artists of her generation she refused to accept the tyranny of the imagery of centuries of male painting that depicts idealized female nudes. The classic “female nude” is subverted in her magnified paintings of body parts in sexual actions. Her work in this exhibition is typical of a more visually restrained and smaller scale than other bodies of her work, but is nevertheless as impactful. In this exhibition she presents seven small text paintings each feature a word or phrase that is used to describe a female, including BOX, DAME, GIRLY GIRL, VIXEN, QUEEN BEE, WIFE and BETTY. This is part of the artist’s ongoing project in which she solicits viewers to contribute words or phrases to her lexicon of female slang.
Tompkins works, all from 2015, allow the artist to play and by her own account “have a lot of fun”. In Girly Girl #2 she pits plain text and color against each other; in Vixen #1 she wrote the word over and over on the canvas so that the composition is just a repetition of itself; in Betty #3 and Box #3 created the painting by spraying through her fingers in different ways, including also through lace; in Dame #2 she emulated Richter’s squeegee paintings using a six-inch comb. In the larger series that these derive from, which include hundreds of these miniature paintings, she riffs on Willem DeKooning, Jasper Johns and other iconic artists. While these paintings don’t depict the female figure, they conjure it in the mind of the viewer using various techniques of abstraction and text. More diminutive and playful than her large scale anatomical paintings, these create an equal impact with their commentary on language and representation.
The artists in Arachne’s Woof span generations as well as continents, yet they share a similar approach to the history of art as well as the creative process. Situated within the legacy of a feminist trajectory, each artist challenges the representation of the figure within the academic tradition of painting and sculpture. Their challenges, like Arachne’s, are based on an unflinching belief in the creative process, from painting and collage to video and printmaking. Mario Berrio, Maya Bloch, Angela Fraleigh, Elham Rokni, Tschabalala Self, Daniella Sheinman and Betty Tompkins form a tightly woven group that suggest both the founding and the legacy of female artists’ resistance. They resist expectation and traditional roles within compositional structures, as well as the tradition of white male painting. Cross generational and across cultures, Arachne’s Woof reminds us that nothing risked is nothing gained and that the epic themes of darkness versus light and figure versus abstraction, are as relevant today as they were in the classical era.