A couple of airy new exhibitions opened this past weekend at the Boca Museum of Art, both of which deal primarily with needles and thread.
The largest and most prominent of the two, “Afghan Rugs: The Contemporary Art of Central Asia,” is something of a disappointment. Important as the subject may be—more than 40 wool rugs, woven largely by Afghani women, which serve as a therapeutic outlet for documenting the violence, topography and foreign influence around them—the exhibition is crippled by an unavoidable sameness, both in the works themselves and the regimented way in which they are displayed. We can only see so many renderings of Middle Eastern maps, guns, tanks, warplanes and military men before we yearn for a bit more variety, which finally arrives at the tail end of the exhibition.
I was more taken with the other show, a survey of works from 1972 to 1995 by New York-based conceptual artist Elaine Reichek. Titled “The Eye of the Needle,” it’s the far more oblique of the two exhibitions, and I can’t say I “got” all of it. But the mysteries in Reichek’s multimedia investigations kept me glued to her pieces.
In her early works, all untitled abstracts from the early ‘70s, there doesn’t seem to be much to “get;” they simply expand the vocabulary of abstract art from painting to needlework. The works grow richer as Reichek incorporates other media, such as photography, to comment on her sewn art and vice versa. “Bikini,” from 1982, is a triptych displaying a two-piece bikini made of knitted metallic yarn; a pencil drawing of an abstract, hourglass-shaped object; and a black-and-white photograph of the artist’s own bikini-clad torso. Reichek isn’t the kind of artist to spell anything out for her audience, but this triptych presents an undeniable expression of the “ideal” female body and our cultural objectification of it.
Human forms also encompass such uniquely transgressive works as “Navajo,” which juxtaposes a controversial Edward Curtis photograph of a shrouded Native American man with Reichek’s own vision of the same image, knitted from yarn. Curtis’ photos were criticized for manipulating his subjects and eschewing documentary truth; as a commentary on a commentary, Reichek goes even further. Her woven portrait, while faithful to Curtis’ print, looks downright monstrous in three-dimensional form, further enforcing the Otherness of the man behind the mask.
Reichek has a tendency, as in “Navajo,” to present works that are seemingly fantastical or humorous in nature, but which hide dark truths upon deeper scrutiny. I appreciated the aesthetic purity of “Blue Men”—a pair of blue-splotched figures, nude and anatomically correct, knitted alongside a photograph of the same. “Yellow Men” does the same for a figure wearing a conical hat, and Reichek’s 3D renderings look like sci-fi characters on a budget. But there’s tragedy beneath this art: Reichek’s subject is the indigenous peoples of Tierra Del Fuego, who had oiled their bodies to protect against a freezing climate, only to suffer more when the clothing they were “gifted” by 19th century missionaries contained germs that decimated their population. One thinks of the unjustly sainted Christopher Columbus, whose brutal colonization of native peoples is satirized in another of Reichek’s works, “Sampler,” an ironic depiction of cultural harmony within which is stitched a quote from Columbus himself: “Their manners are decorous and praiseworthy.”
Other pieces brimming with buried social meaning include “Farm Security Administration,” which upturns a photograph of a rural farm by Walker Evans and overlays the image with stenciled quotations from Baudelaire, Flaubert and Evans himself. Next to it hangs the artist’s knit vision of the same house, turned right side up. Aside from miraculous fidelity to the source material—she even gets the angle of sunlight right, as it casts its slanted glow across a portion of the front porch—the piece expresses a world turned upside-down for those suffering from the sort of poverty to which Evans gravitated, while at the same time playfully riffing on the bellows camera apparatus, which viewed images upside-down before printing them right-side up.
Much of the contextual understanding of these works and others in “The Eye of the Needle” is contained within an essential, four-page primer available to pick up at the beginning of the exhibition. Inexplicably, there is no information on the gallery walls—nor is there any sort of an introduction to “Afghan Rugs.” The decision to omit at least an introductory placard for each of these shows is a curious one, because museumgoers unaware of the supplementary material may feel a bit like they’re wandering blind.
That said, “The Eye of the Needle” is provocative and original enough without the academic assistance. With it, it becomes illuminating and brilliant.
“Afghan Rugs” and “The Eye of the Needle” run through July 27 at Boca Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real, Boca Raton. Admission costs $8 adults, $6 seniors and $5 students. For information, call 561/392-2500 or visit bocamuseum.org.