"Strange Brew", Patrik Andersson, originally published in Made Magazine, Winter 2002
PATRIK ANDERSSON I'm a bit embarrassed to say, but my first impression of your new work at the Western Front is that it looks rather dumb. I mean, the giant pom-pom you have placed on the floor appears to just sit there and stare back at you like a character from the Muppet Show or something. I also just rented Bob and Doug McKenzie's Strange Brew and cannot seem to get Doug's toque out of my mind. A more obvious reference might be cheerleaders, but they are not exactly known to be connected to conceptual art practices either. Obviously this exhibition at the Western Front is not meant to be a comedy or half-time entertainment show. How would you describe this strange brew of pop cultural references and minimalist art you have made?
KATHY SLADE I think I know what you mean and it is actually my favourite thing about this work. Pom-poms are pretty dumb and they do just sit there. They are mute, purely decorative objects (as in toques rather than cheerleaders who make an exception to the strictly decorative rule by putting pom-poms to good use!) When I was a kid my Aunt used to make pom-pom animals for church sales and Xmas decorations. They were always really elaborate and they sort of, well, fascinated me.
PA In the exhibition the pom-pom is accompanied by a large number of embroidered monochrome squares and a series of Os or zeros also monochrome, embroidered white on white. How do these relate to the sculpture?
KS The pom-pom is a sculptural extension of the wall works. There is definitely a high/low thing going on there with an obvious feminist agenda when you consider the materials and the histories of textiles and minimalism. Also there is a funny play between the idea of the void, particularly the negative space inside the embroidered Os, and this big round fluffy object. But, what is really best about the pom-pom is how silly it is -- especially at this scale.
PA Tell me more about the Os. Not only do they allude to modernist art (Jasper Johns' monochromatic target paintings and Kenneth Noland's post painterly abstractions come to mind), but as you say, they also evoke the art of craft. How do you see these two artistic realms coming together in your work, and is there not also a number of literary references woven into this allegorical structure?
KS The series consists of several different types of Os in various numbers and groupings and sometimes they form targets. I hardly think it possible to make or see a target without thinking of Johns, but I consider the Os to be ambiguous. You can fix them with whatever meaning you like. I made the first O years ago, for Sophie, after reading a passage from Rousseau's Emile where the female hero (Sophie) is described as a young girl who obsessively embroiders Os. A more obvious reference would be to Pauline Reage's erotic novel The Story of O. Also the Os refer to the zero/female half of binary code that was employed to run the first textile machines and to the complex relationship between zero and nothing. Craft is cited in my work as an historical index of the artistic production of women while the actual embroidery is done by computers and machines so that the work becomes almost anti-craft at the same time.
PA The numerous small monochromes are presented in a grid spanning the entire wall. Can you say something about the installation of these?
KS The monochromes are manufactured ready-mades. They are produced by industrial machines using a fill stitch which is a commonly found in small quantities for background areas in commercial designs and logos. Fill stitch is the most labour-intensive activity the machines can perform. Using a solid fill stitch to this degree is a little ridiculous, its time consuming, costly and it really pushes the machines to the max. Like the Os, the monochromes are repetitive and have an obsessive quality to them, and also like Os, monochromes are ambiguous. For Malevich they represented the death and rebirth of painting while for Klein they are more of a Jungian spiritual trip. With the exception of Elaine Reichek, a big hero of mine who has been working (by hand) for years with embroidery's relationship to painting, this is pretty foreign territory for embroidery. Embroidery is about decoration, monograms and logos. In the context of the gallery space the very idea of embroidery is not only funny, it is uncanny. I agree with you that mass producing them, organizing them in a design format and using them to decorate the gallery this way does make for a 'strange brew.'