I don’t much like my daughter sewing,” the novelist Colette remarked. “She is silent, and she—why not write down the word that frightens me—she is thinking.” For centuries, needlework and knitting kept women’s hands occupied while their minds worked in secret. The act of embroidery, so seemingly submissive to feminine domestic ideals, also served as a vast alibi for generations routinely denied the privacy and time for contemplation. Over the course of two decades, artist Elaine Reichek has stitched her way through works that draw upon the legacy of minimalist and conceptual art to explore the hidden terrain of unconscious processes and gender identification.

Currently, Reichek has transformed the Projects Room at MOMA into a quasi-domestic interior (soft gray walls, carpeting, and molding) for the display of samplers, based upon the small linen squares that girls and women traditionally embroidered with alphabets and homilies for their greater edification. Reichek’s sewn quotations (literary, mythological, etc.) suggest a tangle of cultural associations between feminine needlework, the unfurling of fate and fantasy, and the intricate webs of art and experience. (An engaging videotape by the artist, showing concurrently at Nicole Klagsbrun, uses clips from classic and contemporary films in which women knit and sew while concocting schemes of seduction and betrayal.)

Reichek’s references to art history mix high and popular culture—contrasting ornament, traditionally derided as lowly and feminine, with the stoicism and strictures of modernism, in particular, and linking 19th-century schoolgirl sewing to the language-based work of Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer. Yet her witty and highly deliberate art is most moving when its patiently elaborated form endows pattern and language with a strangely corporeal presence in which the passage of time mingles with the pathos of anonymous toil.