Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Elaine Reicheck: Do the Write Thing

BY JESSICA HEMMINGS

American artist Elaine Reichek’s recent work explores themes of communication and reproduction in the broadest sense. The images her embroideries contain are stitched from scanned images, carefully plotted on a grid not dissimilar to the concept of zeroes and ones used to program the first Jacquard loom and early computer operating systems, and then plotted on a grid of thread a stitch. References to modern systems of communication aided by the computer such as the Internet are evident in these works, but so too are examples of alternative systems of communication such as sign language and code. Unusually for textiles containing text, Reichek consistently credits the source of her quoted text. But the gesture is more complicated than it first appears, with juxtapositions between image and text rife.

Reichek’s images are borrowed from a varied stable of artists including Dürer, Michelangelo, Gauguin, Magritte, Barnett Newman, and Robert Smithson. Here text replaces the conventional “Home Sweet Home” of the sampler with quotes attributed to the Bible, Milton, Mary Shelley, Charles Darwin, Ray Bradbury, and David Cronenberg. Juxtaposition, and a hint of irreverence, is at the heart of these pairings. For example “Sampler (Blade Runner)” contains a passage from the Genesis book of the Bible twinned with dialogue from the science fiction film “Blade Runner” directed by Ridley Scott. The composition of the work is divided into two panels. Like a child’s game “How many changes can you see?” a highly stylized image of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is reproduced in embroidered stitch twice, side by side on a single backing cloth. In ornate cursive script beneath the left hand panel the book of Genesis is quoted, “And the LORD God commanded the man saying, of every tree of the garden of thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” To the right

Reichek has appropriated a message of uncanny similarity from“ Blade Runner” :
“Roy Batty android: It’s not an easy thing to meet your Maker.
Elden Tyrell Creator of androids: What can He do for you?
Batty: Can the Maker repair what He makes?
Tyrell: What seems to be the problem?
Batty: Death.”

The comparison is certainly blasphemous, but it is the play of replication, both literal and referential, that is of central importance of this and many other of her recent works. Here and elsewhere references to biblical creation myth are paired with suggestions of alternative forms of “creation”: reproduction, simulacra and the secondary and tertiary lives of iconic works of art.

Reichek’s stylized updating of the sampler is similar in some ways to another American artist, Judy Chicago and her millennial project “Resolutions: A Stitch in Time.” Chicago’s series of contemporary samplers were based on the idea of suggesting new interpretations to age-old proverbs. The series is organized around the theme of certain core values, family, responsibility, conservation, tolerance, human rights, hope and change, which Chicago thinks should continue to be valued in contemporary society. In contrast, Reichek’s works are far more complex than Chicago’s “Resolutions” project. The messages they contain are puns on art history and literature, not the phrases of rote accessibility Chicago addressed. Nonetheless, Reichek’s presentation of her work, like Chicago, is formal. Each sampler is framed with few overt attempts to disrupt the conventions of composition.

“Sampler (Remember)” contains several details from Michelangelo’s famous “Creation of Adam: God” for the Sistine Chapel. Reichek reproduces the central focus of the large work, two fingertips belonging to Adam and the hand of God. In the fresco the space between the two is electric with the possibility of touch and Reichek is faithful in its reproduction. But the large detail and the series of three repeating stills beneath are paired with text from the author of Frankenstein, Mary Shelly, penned in 1818 which includes the passage, “I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy….” The didactic intent of such a pairing is difficult to pin down beyond the notion that reproduction and replication are ancient and modern concerns and that biblical references reverberate throughout centuries of reworked myths.

“Tower of Babel” refers the biblical story that tells of the end to a single language for mankind. Reichek complicates matters with an image of the tower cleverly juxtaposed with a passage from Jorge Luis Borges short story “The Library of Babel” which tells of a library containing all the books in all the languages mankind has ever created or dreamed of. In an example of the slippage possible with language, Reichek’s embroidered rendition of excerpts from the story is not a verbatim copy of Borges – a gesture I think Borges himself would have admired. “The impious maintain that nonsense is normal in the Library. They speak of the ‘feverish Library whose chance volumes affirm, negate and confuse everything like a delirious divinity.’ In truth, the Library includes all verbal structures, all orthographical variations, but not a single example of absolute nonsense. Solitary, infinite, useless, incorruptible, secret, the Library is unlimited and cyclical. If an eternal traveller were to cross it in any direction, after centuries he would that the same volumes were repeated in the same disorder which thus repeated would be an order: the order. My solitude is glassed by this elegant hope.”

Elaine Reichek was born and lives in New York City. Her substantial list of solo exhibitions began in the late 1970’s. She has been honoured with one person exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Palais de Beaux-Arts, Brussels, and the Tel Aviv Museum. Textiles have long played a role in her artistic output and, as these recent embroideries show, they aptly tackle the conceptual concerns of this Fine Artist working in thread.

Embroidery Magazine (May/June 2005: 16-18)

image: Elaine Reicheck detail from the Alpha Beta/After Babel series (2002-3)