San Antonio artist Bettie Ward collaborated with a family of artisans
in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, to create many of the works from the
narrative embroidery series entitled The Marvelous Hysterical: Threaded
Currently on exhibit at Southwest School of Art & Craft, this series of work deserves careful contemplation for its ability to provoke and allure.
The sentimental aspect of embroidery raises the question of whether sentimental art is a “closet indulgence, much like that box of bon bons behind the bourbon,”1 or a source of catharsis, a revelation of the inner life turned outward in a series of narratives of delicate objects. Much as Louise Bourgeois’ fabric book of accumulated clothes called Ode to Forgetfulness pays homage to French tapestries in minimalist forms and a muted ochre color schema, Ward takes an emotional journey with thread and delicate, lacy materials.
Michael Kimmelman declared a sentimental trend on the rise among young artists when he covered the 2004 Whitney Biennial for the New York Times. What does this mean for contemporary crafts and the artists that embrace, revisit and perpetuate such meticulous pastimes as embroidery? Perhaps this sentimental trend creates an interstitial space where artists can find ample inspiration in a consumer-driven culture otherwise devoid of substance or substantial investments of time, energy and talents, where one rarely cultivates long-term interests or labor-intensive crafts.
The Argus-eyed curators want to quantify every artist’s Weltanschauung. When this happens, a small group of artists working in a mimetic medium suddenly embodies a trend. In the case of Bettie Ward, hers is one of personal catharsis manifest — art at its apex of emotive energy. Her work fuels an attempt to cleanse and process all that accumulates around the human heart. The end result is a feeling of beatitude or state of supreme happiness that could never surface otherwise. She exhausts all avenues, however circuitous and surprising, sinister or lascivious, to puncture tender-hearted memories and dreams. Fantastic creatures plucked from simple threads become a metaphor for all the invisible threads connecting lovers and those we dote on throughout a lifetime. A quixotic ideal renders objects of desire in a pulchritudinous body of work even as Ward rekindles her love of nimble-fingered needlecraft.
Is it escapism? Are these scenes subconscious effluvia of a Jungian conversation? Possibilities abound in these embroidered oddities and the audience is left to decipher their meanings for itself.
In Mrs. Hamburger Spin, a soft penis sprouts seeds. Nearby, a pair of detached breasts hangs on a ring. A gray meat patty spins on a wand, emulating a penciled nimbus as it gyrates. The drawings are darker somehow than the actual embroidered works. This could be because the darker colors in the drawings become brighter as they get transferred to bleached white handkerchiefs. ’There’s a wonderful disparity between the two mediums and Ward wields a steady hand whether creating a sketch or a sewn sculpture.
Shot Off at the Knees is a curious drawing that features cleft toes with bright blue nail polish, and a penis pistol with a red bullet and dotted cartoon lines of energy. Cherries become kneecaps and a lovely, golden butterscotch checkered basket holds unseen potential. An exhumed eyeball sits upon a scale with tears, somehow evoking the ominous Masons’ eye of the American dollar bill.
Ward enjoys long-winded titles such as The Flower Headed Girl Jumping Through Hoops in Order to Live and Woman with Her Hair as a River Kissing the Future with Benevolence. The latter features a bizarre clock man and guns, imagery that evokes killing time with every single stitch.
A video documentary of the artist that follows her as she lives and works in Mexico gives us insight as well as a wonderful musical soundtrack to the entire show. The video’s peals of laughter and singalong outbursts add a vivacity to the space, making everything fresh and alive. It’s a delightful way to know more about the artist behind the work.
Ward invites us into the tangled world of relationships with loaded imagery and fantastic creatures. She decorates a womb with candy yellow and pink stripes. There’s a cock-and-bull story told through doilies and pistols. Alive in Spite of My Pink Phone features a gray-green vacuum near a decapitated, alien-green female holding her own head. A roseate and obsolete rotary phone swings from her uterus. One sidekick is a Mexican sacred heart with legs, which are getting shot off by a rudimentary pistol. Alluring ice cream sundaes hover nearby like unattainable dreams. A dotted line connects to a peacock laying fresh eggs in another checkered golden basket while wearing a noose wound loosely around its neck.
An elderly lady gasped at the opening reception, murmuring to her friend, "Oh, it’s quite provocative!" Certainly an understatement when you’re looking at The Girl in the Dark Retrieving the 100th Monkey Under the Blooming Penis Arbor.
From recumbent females getting pleasured to Our Lady of the Cupcakes, Bettie Ward covers the libido landscape with art that needles the comfortable.
1. Nick Capasso, "A Sentimental Journey, or How Did We Get Here?" in Pretty Sweet: The Sentimental Image in Contemporary Art, exh. cat. (Lincoln, Mass.: DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park); available at http://www.tfaoi.com/aa/5aa/5aa192a.htm (Jan. 26, 2005).
Images courtesy Southwest School of Art of Craft
Michelle Gonzalez-Valdez is an artist and writer living in San Antonio.