For women, photos are the things we live up to — and get shown up by — every single day. We get it: Once you’re in the pages of Vogue, your thighs and breasts belong to surgery or Photoshop, or both. It’s not reality.
Yet our mammalian brains, impervious to logic and fond of fantasy, remain willing to think, if for a moment: Could this be real? And, more important: Should this be me?
So let the weak among us bid welcome to photography shows alert to the lies photos tell us. “The Embroidered Image,” at Chelsea’s Robert Mann Gallery, is one such enterprise; it collects 11 artists who alter photos with needle and brightly hued thread, adding the most flagrant of adornments to found and new images. Each reminds us of a photograph’s inclination to enhance, exposing the artifice inside every frame.
Traditionally, sewing is women’s work, and many of these artists (all but two are women) address the constraints of gender. Several use portraits of 1950s-era ladies done up in bouffants, or old Hollywood movie stars, or generally gorgeous folk. Jessica Wohl sews starburst-like masks across sitters’ faces, lending them a mystical, almost animal quality that suggests a wildness lurking below the costumes of polite society. Hagar Vardimon stitches cheerful colored threads in fishnet patterns across headshots of black-and-white movie stars like Joan Fontaine, as if plotting out a face lift or a skin disease. Whether it’s to ruin or enhance her subjects’ beauty remains unclear.
Some artists here deploy thread to obscure rather than embellish. Working with two found postwar European photos, Flore Gardner stitches horizontal lines across the figures to emphasize their silhouettes but eliminate identifying details. After Gardner’s intervention, a simple scene of a couple strolling side by side invites as many questions as you’re willing to ask. That the lines of thread Gardner sews in echo the squeegeed pigment in Gerhard Richter’s blurry family portraits only heightens the drama.
Not so when Gardner wanders into the realms of cartoon and illustration. The fiber she used to create the oversize tears streaming from a crying child’s eyes and the crucifixes hovering above a woman in prayer might have been more useful mending a sock. Likewise Matthew Cox’s elaborate embroidered head of Snow White attached to an X-ray (one of a series of such pieces).
There is something violent about the act of sewing, with its constant piercing and jabbing, and Orly Cogan ably harnesses that aggression. Cogan — who’s also the show’s curator — inserts playful Cat in the Hat and Babar figures into the pages of auction catalogs, as if a little elephant and his wife scurrying around an Adam Fuss photo (estimated value: $40,000 to $60,000, according to the text) might pierce the art market’s bubble.
Diane Meyer’s modifications of contemporary photos of Berlin are subtler, and they’re the most conceptually rich works here. At once handmade, technologically aware, and documentary, Meyer’s artworks resurrect the Berlin Wall in thread, on photographs of streets where the partition once stood. In Bernauer Strasse, Meyer has embroidered the wall not as opaque screen but in a pixelated pattern: We see the present-day view, sans wall, blurred where the wall would have stood. Here fiber stands in for what’s no longer there, reminding us of the ghosts haunting that city and asking us to make peace with history’s blemishes. Would that women looked at ourselves with the same compassion.