Monday, April 16, 2012

Elaine Reichek and Me

Elaine Reichek is an artist I admire wholeheartedly, who currently has a solo show at New York's Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery, as well as being a standout in the current Whitney Biennial. Intense as my admiration is, though, I find myself avoiding her work, because it is like looking in a much smarter and more talented mirror. It's impossible to say that without sounding like a jerk, so there ya go, I know I sound like a jerk.

I first discovered Reichek about six years ago, when I picked up a shopworn copy of her book When This You See..., beautifully documenting her show of the same name at the Museum of Modern Art in 2000. I was instantly struck with the conceptual similarities between her work and mine, even though hers was of course much smarter and better executed. I bought the book and read it thoroughly, with feverish awe and some jealousy (to be honest). Then I put it on my shelf and studiously avoided it, except for when I had to pack it for moving, when I would be re-acquainted with how brilliant Reichek's work is.

So, while leafing through a recent copy of the New Yorker, I saw that Reichek had a new show. I made a mental note to look it up online, and promptly forgot about it, as happens with mental notes. Two weeks later, leafing through the same New Yorker, I saw the notice again, and this time went and looked her up. The links are at the beginning of this post, and if you didn't check them out when you started reading, go and do it now. I'll wait. Go ahead and Google her as well if you like, since I know you will be amazed. I won't be offended if you don't see any similarity between her work and mine, either.

Remember how I have been talking about the idea of translation as one of the aspects of my exploration of the Codex Canadensis? Read Reichek's artist statement. Gah, I hadn't seen that until ten minutes ago, and there she is, talking about her concept of translation, in a much more coherent and thoughtful way than I ever have.

Here is a quote used at the beginning of When this You See...
Masters of embroidery know that it is not enough to follow faithfully the drawing traced: the expert needlewoman must be in possession of the nature of the drawing, to give to it with each stitch the appearance of life, sometimes life itself. The vibration of a wave lies not only in the perfect placing of the woolen thread, and the passing of the needle in the cloth follows an interior movement that is not exhausted by the mechanical gesture.
- Marta Morazzoni, The Invention of Truth

Just as I was trying to say in my convoluted way in my last couple of postings. If I let myself dwell on it, it could be galling to keep encountering someone who does what I am trying to do, but just does it do much better.

It's not that I think I am as good as Elaine Reichek, or would have been were it not for life's circumstances. It's more like every time I encounter her work I get a good smack upside the head, and need to remind myself that it's not too surprising that similar strategies have appeared in both our work over the years: needlework, knitting, the use of found quotations, mirrored images, flying carpets, a combination of literary references and pattern, feminism and the idea of "women's work", interest in native North American culture, mythology, etc.

These similarities are perhaps not so surprising because we covered the same ground in our educations. Reichek studied under some of the greats of American post-expressionist art. I studied under the next generation of that same tradition, which gave me a similar theoretical groundwork. But I obviously didn't work as hard, nor was I as confident. And I fell off the career path long ago.

One of the interesting things about Reichek's work is that she has always positioned herself as a conceptual artist. None of this tiresome art versus craft debate. It would probably help my muddled thinking if I could be as clear about what I do as she is, and I wouldn't be getting so upset about silly contemporary embroidery books.

So, with that intention, I shall return to my embroidery frame with renewed energy and a great thanks to Elaine Reichek for doing what she does so very, very well.

9 comments:

  1. Oh my, Heather! IMHO I don't think there's anything to be gained by comparing yourself or your work to another's. You will always find yourself coming up short (whether it's true or not) and only make yourself miserable. We are not our own best judges, just sayin'. Besides I bet Elaine Reichek has similar doubts and inadequacies too! And maybe even a ghost writer fluent in ArtSpeak? ;)

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  2. Yes, Louisa, you are right, I know. This was quite a neurotic posting for me, for some reason I felt like I needed to express the weird combination of anxiety and admiration I have for this artist. Normally I can be clear about who I am and am happy with what I can accomplish, but I went over the deep end yesterday. Forgive me if it seemed like I was using my blog to vent insecurity, I really wanted to direct people to Reichek's work.

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  3. hello Heather, firstly The Book of Symbols has arrived, I ordered it after I'd read your praise; I am delighted! Secondly, humpf, admiration, straying from a career, comparing oneself etc and so forth, it IS difficult not to,....but it leads to nothing, except if and when one is inspired to act/do/make/create and 'do what only you can do' (we must bravely soldier on, haha)

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  4. P.S. I hope you don't mind that I have linked your Highly Recommended post to mine re The Book of Symbols?

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  5. I get what you are saying however I think your work is uniquely organic in its own right. I agree with Louisa that Ms. Reichek is swimming in a sea of highly polished curation - and that's awesome, that's what has to be done to put up shows in those venues with thoughtful prose. For a long time I dithered with whether or not I should get a fine arts degree. Even while I was getting my MA in art therapy - and the prerequisite fine arts courses that go along with that - I thought about it. Then my friends from the Art Institute told me not to, said the SAIC would suck the outsider artist right out of me and take away what made my work quirky and likeable.

    I'm currently having a fantasy of giving away all of my possessions and moving to Malfa, TX (although it's probably getting too gentrified as we speak) and just screen printing in the morning and working on my oil bar & wax drawings in the afternoon, then having a margarita. My husband and dogs can come visit on weekends. You will be on the guest list when I "go crazy" and do this. I will remove all mirrors from the ranch.

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  6. Heather, I'm glad you aired your envy. Not only did you expose it but you reconciled it.

    Goodness the things we keep hidden as artists and human beings. I have had these same exact feelings about the artists who work in similar conceptual and visual realms as myself.

    It feels good and important to share the dark side of our creative journeys with each other, so that we can all say - I'm not alone!

    Thanks for your honesty! Good post.

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  7. Anonymous5:47 AM

    I think I'm missing something. I'm really glad that you posted about Elaine Reichek because, not knowing too much about the world of contemporary textile artists, I had never heard of her before. Yes, my bad. So I was happy to hear your description of her work. Then I read the links that you posted and tried to look more closely at her works. Thanks for doing all that for us readers.
    As for the dangers in comparisons with other artists, it can be dangerous if you have no confidence in your own work. I know you have nothing to worry about though. I've seen your work and it is strong and unique and if it isn't exactly what you want it to be right now, it will be some day.
    Keep up posting more stuff that teaches textile-goofs like me something new. Jean-Pierre

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  8. Anonymous5:48 AM

    I think I'm missing something. I'm really glad that you posted about Elaine Reichek because, not knowing too much about the world of contemporary textile artists, I had never heard of her before. Yes, my bad. So I was happy to hear your description of her work. Then I read the links that you posted and tried to look more closely at her works. Thanks for doing all that for us readers.
    As for the dangers in comparisons with other artists, it can be dangerous if you have no confidence in your own work. I know you have nothing to worry about though. I've seen your work and it is strong and unique and if it isn't exactly what you want it to be right now, it will be some day.
    Keep up posting more stuff that teaches textile-goofs like me something new. Jean-Pierre

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  9. I had thought about you and Elaine Reichek before. Those handkerchiefs that you embroidered about a year ago were very Elaine - but also not.

    I totally understand what you are saying in this post.

    For me, this goes on with Dorothy Caldwell's work and mine. The only good thing is that she rarely writes about it herself - just lots of other people say how great she is. So I don't really know if she has the same belief system I do about touching and knowing - even though I have studied with her twice.

    KNowing her as a teacher taught me that you don't need to express your own philosophy all the time (like you and I do) - you can just do your work. Your work is the queen.

    And I think that's what's happening in the series you are working on now - with these weird appropriated animals. They are so contemporary, so Canadian - so ancient, so mythical, so felt -

    Really powerful.

    Thanks however for the new information about Reichek. I had read about her being in the Whitney, but had not seen the work. Now I have.

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