Thursday, June 4, 2009
Sewing as performance
"As a female artist who sews, it is strange to watch another woman in the act. Calderón is unbelievably graceful..."
Last night, Metro North was behind schedule so I accidentally boarded the wrong train. As a result, on my way to a joint opening at Longwood Art Gallery in the Bronx, I had to walk an unlucky thirteen streets from Fordham train station to the Fordham subway station…in the rain, without an umbrella. My ride home was much more pleasant because I took the Bronx Culture Trolley, with cheerful passengers (literally, they were cheering with excitement at riding the replica of an early 20th century trolley).
Both exhibitions are curated by BRIO (Bronx Recognizes Its Own) award winner, Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz: Bangin’ highlights the work of nine emerging women artists (Emma Amos, Clarissa Cummings, Heather Hart, Swati Khurana, Wonder Koch, Tamara Kostianovsky, Emily North, Traci Tullius, and Alison Ward), and Linger is a performance by Melissa A. Calderón.
Bangin’ really sets the tone for Linger. Viewing the array of unique pieces in this group show of drawing, painting, photography, sculpture, and video caused a series of words to flash through my mind, namely, 'sewing', ‘women’, and ‘nature’ (I am aware of my own bias and realize that I may be projecting my own artistic interests). There is stitching, both by hand and machine, both utilitarian and expressive. And there are bodies, mostly female—bodies of all ages, races, and sizes, including miniature and larger-than-life; disfigured bodies; idealized bodies; androgynous bodies; bodies in drag; bodies superimposed with animals, interacting with animals, and wearing animal masks. There are dragons, butterflies, birds, elephants, cows, bamboo, flowers, and other signifiers of nature I have likely overlooked.
The project room at the back of the gallery provides an intimate setting for Linger, a performance by Melissa A. Calderón in which she takes on the persona of a bird while meditatively stitching. The Bronx-based artist sits in the centre of a nest about six feet wide in diameter. Its size might accommodate additional inhabitants, but the nest is nonetheless uninviting: criss-crossed branches and brambles form a barrier reminiscent of barbed wire, discouraging the viewer from approaching the delicate egg-like shells that rest within.
The ‘egg shells’ are made of tissue, which is material the artist has been working with for several years, and the same material from which her garment is constructed. Whereas her garment, which could be described as angelic, has a look of softness and freshness to it, the eggs are hardened and wrinkled. My eyes fixate on a small, scarred patch of skin on her arm that resembles the texture of the large egg shells, oddly making the imagined former inhabitants of the eggs seem more weathered than their mother figure.
Although the artist has assumed the persona of the bird, the viewer is reminded of her humanity by snippets of braided hair, the same colour as Calderón’s, strewn subtly throughout the nest. This detail lends an eerie dimension to her work, for as young children, we are taught—often after making this tragic mistake—never to touch birds’ eggs.
When Calderón completes the loose stitching to fuse the curve of two halves of each egg, she stands up and exits her nest. Apparently bereft, she exposes a few crumpled tissues that lay beneath her and gingerly places the newly sewn egg in a pile with the others in a corner. After watching her carefully rearrange the pile, in what feels like an obsessive attempt to control uncontrollable loss, I notice a video playing nearby on a tiny screen. By showing the artist performing a similar act, though in a forest (possibly constructing the nest), the video underscores the continuous nature of her loss.
Calderón’s avoidance of eye contact with the audience keeps her on task, so she may have missed a touching complement to her performance as caretaker: a young girl runs up to watch the artist stitching and seconds later, retreats to the safety of her mother’s legs with trepidation.
As a female artist who sews, it is strange to watch another woman in the act. Calderón is unbelievably graceful: when threading the needle, she looks like she is preening, and then she smoothes out the strand of thread in an almost affectionate manner, as if petting an animal. Through her sewing in particular, she appears simultaneously maternal and animalistic, and altogether enchanting.