Stitching Stories: Garfen, Dezso & Cogan

Stitching Statements: Caren Garfen, Andrea Dezsö & Orly Cogan

Stitching positive domestic stereotypes in cloth has long been the realm of “home sweet home” cross-stitch genre. But we all know that women today embody far more complicated and multi-faceted identities. Some contemporary embroidery is set on capturing the contradictions and complexities of women’s roles today. As a result, identities judged as both positive and negative, knowing and naïve are presented as a collage of conflicting values.

The stitch work of Orly Cogan, Andrea Dezsö & Caren Garfen interrogates female identity in a variety of ways. Sexuality, folklore and domestic duties are themes, often with a sizable dash of humour and dislike for anything that takes itself too seriously. As a result, another new generation of what was once comfortably called feminism is evident in stitch. Few today embrace the term, but the content of recent work continues to challenge and question ingrained stereotypes – arguably still a working definition of feminism. Often seductively simple, much of this work first passes as what could be understood as just a throwaway comment or jest. Careful reading reveals an underlying content with unexpected weight.

British artist Caren Garfen graduated from the University of Hertfordshire, England with a First Class Honours degree in Applied Arts in 2007. In a relatively short space of time Garfen has moved her professional career as a maker of doll’s house samplers into a sophisticated, detail rich textile practice. Most recently, her remarkably intricate hand embroidered and printed work was selected and won the top award at One Year On, an annual show of selected student work from New Designers, London that charts the progress of students in the first year after completing their studies.

At the heart of Garfen’s practice is a critique of the domestic duties that so often absorb women’s time. Text from household symbols such as washing care labels and altered text from advertisements for cleaning products appear as stitched tags and labels on pristine white backgrounds decorated with a combination of print and stitch. Garfen stitches a knowing balance of critique and humour. “She had made her own bed, now she could lie in it”, for example, appears in stitch on a tiny tag summing up many of the tensions she humorously tackles through her work. Most recently, Garfen has explored the discrepancy in roles for women on TV programmes and the stereotypes that continue to be portrayed during the commercial break. Questioning the progress of commercial depictions of cleaning products acts as a reminder that we may not have come that far after all. “Women have more control than in the past,” Garfen observes, “but advertisements in the twenty-first century reflect even stronger stereotypes.” While the work raises a smile, it is underpinned by a serious commentary about television and magazine marketing techniques directed quite specifically to age-old roles for women.

Instead of commercial myths, Andrea Dezsö stitches myths she remembers from her childhood in Transylvania to highlight the absurdity of their messages. Like Garfen, Dezsö is interested in the rational voice (here medical rather than commercial knowledge) and how bizarrely persuasive it can be. Her collection of embroideries, “Lessons From My Mother” are a response to her observation that disease, in particular, has often been used as a symbol to pass judgement and label individuals. “Medical science changes,” she explains of a world we often expect to be regulated by truth rather than rumour. Dezsö explains, “Values regarding morality, ethics, honesty were, and are, often combined with the kind of diseases a person caught.” As a result, ideas of sickness and health communicate more than just coincidence, but provide an effective tool for the critique of private actions real or imagined.

Dezsö does not see this type of thinking as particular to a specific culture. Stumbling across a medical book published in Boston in 1916 she realised that its contents “resonated with the things I heard as a child growing up. The book’s authoritarian tone, written as truth under the cloak of science, was just as unscientific as what my mother and grandmother would say. People can be manipulated and controlled by others who are in a position to claim they are telling the truth.” While Dezsö’s stitched comments read as far-fetched or even naive, they somehow also touch upon a raw nerve. Beyond the bizarre façade are disquieting grains of truth: regrets about marriage, pregnancy and the transmission of disease. An initial chuckle, soon gives way to a more disturbing reflection on the comments and judgements that continue to be passed today on precisely the same subjects.

Garfen critiques the male voice of advertising in much the same way that Dezsö critiques the strange power of folklore. Dezsö points the finger not only at gossip, but also ideas that were once considered “truth”. Garfen raises similar questions, particularly about the persuasive, albeit dated power, of commercial values. She reminds us that it is female models are often used with a male voice-over for the sale of house hold cleaning products suggesting, ironically, that the purchase is a luxury rather than toil.

Orly Cogan is yet another artist using embroidery to communicate subject material that critiques expectations of the female identity. Rather than the public or domestic, Cogan proclaims that her work “evolves from the personal mythologies of memories.” Her chosen material, vintage fabric and found embroideries, “becomes the foundation” for what she explains is “a fantastical, exotic extrapolation” of her ideas. Female stereotypes such as the Madonna/whore, pin-up girl, Lolita and the Femme Fetale are often layered together on these recycled surfaces to create a collage of contradictory values. Her characters are depicted picking their noses, snorting a line of cocaine or gazing longingly at themselves or a male counterpart.

Cogan explains that she acts “as a collaborator, modernizing women’s traditional work and altering its original purpose. The fabric then becomes a fantastical dialogue between the old and the new.” The questions Cogan poses through her work could be those of Garfen’s or Dezsö’s: “What role do women want to play in society? Who do we want to be? What kind of relationships do we want? Who are our role models?” The answers are far from simple. What these three artists make clear is the impossibility of a single answer.

Surface Design Journal (fall 2008: 20-25)

image: Caren Garfen "Turning a Blind Eye" (2008)