Through September 9, 2018, the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) presents Surface/Depth: The Decorative After Miriam Schapiro, an exhibition that showcases 29 collage paintings by the pioneering feminist artist Miriam Schapiro in conversation with 28 works by nine contemporary artists. They include Sanford Biggers, Josh Blackwell, Edie Fake, Jeffrey Gibson, Judy Ledgerwood, Jodie Mack, Sara Rahbar, Ruth Root and Jasmin Sian. Bringing into focus the key, but unheralded, role Schapiro played in the reframing of craft and decoration in the American art world, this juxtaposition of historic and contemporary work highlights ways in which the decorative continues to be utilized as a critical tool in art today.
Historically marginalized as ornament, pattern, or craft, decoration is often dismissed as mere surface, an attractive object with no underlying depth or meaning. To this day, to dismiss a work of art as “decorative” is to judge it as minor, reveling in surface-level expression over any commitment to intellectual rigor or cultural critique. In the early 1970s, within the context of the women’s art movement, Schapiro reappropriated the decorative in a new type of work she would come to call femmage (a combination of feminine and collage), a collage-painting hybrid inspired by women’s domestic arts and handicrafts.
Her objective in embracing the decorative was to catalyze a seismic transformation in the perception of materials, processes, and styles rooted in craft, women’s experience in the home, and everyday forms of making, recasting practices like embroidery, crochet, paper crafts, and even decoupage as legitimately artistic. For Schapiro, the absence of such work from the cultural record was a reflection of the broader patriarchal devaluation of the woman artist, and she viewed her work as a feminist intervention in the history of art.
In Surface/Depth, Miriam Schapiro’s 29 works on view are exhibited alongside a range of archival material, including her writings, fabric swatches, costume jewelry, and women’s needlework, all of which contextualize her invention of the femmage by illustrating the rich vein of material culture she mined.
Biggers, Blackwell, Fake, Gibson, Ledgerwood, Mack, Rahbar, Root, and Sian expand Schapiro’s initial exploration of the decorative as a language of abstraction tied to the personal and the political. Like Schapiro, these artists refuse received opinion of the decorative as artistically trivial and use abstract, decorative elements to address a range of topics and concerns—from gender, racial, and sexual identity to issues of aesthetic hierarchy, migration, community, and loss—exposing the hollowness of the surface/depth divide and the separation of appearance from meaning.
SELECTED EXHIBITION HIGHLIGHTS
- Surface/Depth presents Miriam Schapiro’s earliest femmages,including Curtains (1972) and Beauty of Summer (1973–1974), as well as later works inspired by Persian miniature painting, such as Gates of Paradise (1980) and Tapestry of Paradise (1980). Also on view are several of the artist’s shaped canvases referencing the feminine and domestic realms: Orange Crush (1979) and Mexican Memory (1981) take the shape of a lady’s handheld fan, with its connotations of female decorum, while the heart-shaped Baby Block Bouquet (1981), Mardi Gras (1982), and Pagoda (1982) evoke associations with valentine making and scrapbooking, both traditionally considered women’s domestic craft forms. Schapiro’s monumentally sized hearts are treated with a surface density that, combined with the works’ sentimental, folk art, and romantic connotations, elevated decoration to a new height. In Baby Block Bouquet, for example,she combines the heart with the quilt pattern “Baby Blocks,” which dates back as far as ancient Greece. The artist drew inspiration from a wide variety of visual and material traditions, as further evidenced by the Asian-inspired patterns in Pagoda and the use of glitter and sequins in the carnival-themed Mardi Gras.
- A site-specific tempera mural by Judy Ledgerwood, Chromatic Patterns for the Museum of Arts and Design is inspired by the history of abstract painting as well as a range of domestic textiles. Reveling in the promiscuity of pattern and the association of the decorative with the female body, sensuality, and immersive experience, Ledgerwood offsets the gallery’s architecture and the logic of her underlying gridded composition with an animated floral motif and a seductively intense color palette.
- Ruth Root’s inventively shaped paintings are comprised of two separate, interlocking units: a painted lower panel, hung from a buckle-like upper panel made of canvas and covered in a fabric of the artist’s own design. In the two untitled works made for Surface/Depth, photographs of feminist artists and cultural icons like Judy Chicago and Patti Smith appear alongside miniature sculptures by Eva Hesse and Lee Bontecou, Schapiro’s femmage Mexican Memory, and works by Josef Albers, among others.
- For her ongoing project No Kill Shelter (2013–2018), experimental animator Jodie Mack creates fabric collage animations that function as screen savers for obsolete monitors and computers, which are further preserved in a protective decoupage sheath of floral wrapping paper.Through animations of textile patterns—from paisleys to kente cloth—that highlight the connections between high abstraction and popular design, Mack unleashes the kinetic energy in the everyday materials that surround us.
- The intricate drawings and paper cuts by New York–based Filipino artist Jasmin Sian reflect a range of decorative sources usually found on the ornamented borders of religious imagery. Through a labor-intensive process of drawing, painting in ink and gouache, and cutting minuscule shapes to create nets, filigrees, and floral motifs, she treats secular images—trees from Yosemite, plants from New York City’s parks and community gardens, and animals from the Central Park Zoo—with devotion, transforming what is usually understood as a decorative border into the subject of the work of art, and elevating the ornately decorative to the level of the divine.
- American/Iranian artist Sara Rahbar’s ongoing “Flag”series comprises assemblages that combine the American flag with a variety of Middle Eastern textiles, livestock tack, equestrian gear, tags, embroidered badges, and camouflage. The collision of decorative surfaces and ethnic patterns with the American flag—itself a patchwork textile—reflects both personal and political issues related to the restless feeling of living between two countries.
- Known for his sculpture and performances that incorporate the use of materials such as clay and found objects, and in particular the beads, ribbons, and metal jingle cones essential to Native American ceremonial garments and dance regalia worn at powwows, Jeffrey Gibson (who is Choctaw and Cherokee) speaks to the power of ornament to transport the wearer from the secular to the spiritual realm, blurring the boundaries between creative practice and everyday forms of activity. In the video Like a Hammer,Gibson wears a heavily embellished garment of his own design in a performance that features trance-like pacing, drumming, and drawing, capturing a state of being poised between the human and the animal.
- Ooo Oui and Dagu exemplify Sanford Biggers’ embellishment of found quilts with his own abstract language, including cosmic and celestial imagery, and sequins to highlight the nearly hidden geometry of a Tumbling Blocks pattern constructed in the “crazy quilt” style. Biggers has described his practice of incorporating objects and images—from antique quilts to African sculptures—into his work as vehicles for the discussion of history and race as a “conceptual form of patchwork.”
- Tapping into the false dichotomy between surface and depth, and reclaiming the decorative, Edie Fake’s series of drawings, “Memory Palaces,” commemorates the loss of friends and activists, as well as real or imagined spaces of queer and feminist social life in Chicago, while conflating unrestrained color and kaleidoscopic patterning with queer history. Rather than constituting a faithful documentary of the buildings in his queer “neighborhood,” as Fake has described the subject of his series, his decorative, mosaic-like patterns of façades and gateways transport the viewer to an otherworldly realm of utopian community.
- Josh Blackwell’s embroidered sculptures bridge feminist and queer art worlds. Inspired by the feminist elevation of women’s needlecraft, his work also addresses the construction of homosexuality as a condition of all surface and no depth. His Neveruses, hybrid objects made from recovered plastic bags and colored fibers such as wool yarn, silk thread, and patterned cloth, reference baskets, textiles, and ceramics as well as techniques that are traditionally marginalized under the category of “craft.”