Written by Marley C. Smit
“In my grandparents’ quaint New England home, there was a framed work of embroidery hanging on the wall of the dining room. “There’s No Place Like Home,” the modest tapestry read in blocky, stitched lettering. Like most of the Western world, I grew to associate embroidery with the domestic sphere, rarely contemplating it’s untapped potential as an artistic medium. Fortunately, Brooklyn-based artist Sophia Narrett has been exploring the capacity of this often overlooked medium, weaving imaginatively surreal scenes into a dreamlike narrative. Her refreshing take on this historical medium is best exemplified by her most recent solo exhibition, “Early in the Game,” on view at Freight + Volume Gallery in New York City until October 23rd, 2016.
We spoke with Sophia Narrett to learn more about her unique choice of medium and the inventive narratives that arise throughout her work.
Can you tell us a bit more about the title of your show, “Early in the Game”? What is the “Game” you refer to, and what are the implications of it being “Early”?
I wanted the title to give the sense of a cliffhanger. The show is broken down into three groups of work, each group is defined by a certain emotional tone, and the beginning of each group or chapter is marked by a miniature embroidery. The first chapter is one of isolation, sadness, and miscommunication. The second chapter describes efforts towards healing and self-care, and the third chapter is characterized by escapism — it’s not really a happy ending per se, but rather a pause from loneliness, kind of a momentary relief, which is joyful without bringing closure. I liked the expression “early in the game” as a way to imply that there’s still time and possibility here and that these characters’ fates aren’t ultimately defined by the few situations shown in these three chapters. Furthermore, the phrase felt fitting since in this narrative I was thinking quite literally about emotional and sexual games people orchestrate, as ways to entertain themselves or to reframe confusing interactions. Sometimes these interactions can be truly transformative. Right now I’d say the game refers to a search for self-actualization.
In 2014 you graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design with an MFA in Painting. What was it that drew you toward embroidery as opposed to painting?
I started embroidering in 2010; back then I was looking for a material that I connected with more intensely than I did with paint. The decision to try embroidery felt random at the time, I had some thread in the studio that I was experimenting with for some sculptures, but once I tried it embroidery immediately solved a lot of the problems I had in painting. The set palette and slow, additive way of image building happened to work really well with the way I make images. It also just felt fun, and really natural, in a way that painting hadn’t really for me. With painting, I had always been most excited about the idea, and then the activity of painting felt mostly like a process of executing the original idea. I get much more excited about embroidering, so with thread, for me, the initial image and the process of making are on an equal footing in terms of how they can both contribute to the content.
The painterly quality of your embroidered work has been likened to that of the Impressionists. Is this a conscious choice or is it more a virtue of the embroidery medium itself? How has your education in painting influenced your thread work?
I think this quality is mostly a virtue of the thread itself, although my painting background has definitely defined the way I make images. Each piece begins as a collage, so compositionally I’m still constructing images the way I did as a painter. And the way I use color, think about light, and render things in general, is all done in terms of the logic of painting, both consciously and unconsciously.
The art world has recently seen a surge of female artists breathing new life into old threadwork mediums. For example, Erin M. Riley with her large, loom-woven tapestries and Caitlin McCormack with her intricate string sculptures. Historically these mediums have been dismissed as ‘women’s work’ and thus not given the respect they deserve. Did the history of embroidery play a role in your choice of this medium?
Not initially, at first it was really a formal, material connection to the thread that first got me invested in embroidery. At the time I thought of thread as another rendering material, like pastels or acrylics as opposed to oils, albeit one that I innately enjoyed more. However, as I continued working in embroidery, this history became something I think about a lot, as well as fiber’s role in feminist art, its recent place in the art world, and what it means that I take to it so naturally in 2016. The historical associations will always be there and inform the way viewers relate to the work. I have an evolving relationship with this history: at times I think it becomes very relevant, especially since gender is something I think about a lot. But embroidery’s history has never really felt like something to push back against, or something that I wanted to work with directly or would somehow inherently promote my message. I think for me embroidery has a more subtle impact on the images, hopefully somehow serving to convey my commitment to the narrative by becoming a physical record of my intimate engagement with the images. Maybe by telling the story in this tactile language it helps to open the images to people’s own projections.
One of the things that really draws me to your work are the unique shapes that some of the pieces take on. As opposed to starting with a rectangular canvas and creating a composition within that space, you tend to let the compositions themselves determine the shape and parameters of the piece. I am curious as to whether this is an intentional or organic process. Do you know what shape you want a piece to take on when you start working on it or does the composition take on more of a life of its own in this process?
It primarily arises out of the process. This is something I really like about embroidery. The narrative is always the driving force for me, so I love that at a certain point the embroidery takes over a little. I work on the central parts of the image on fabric stretched on embroidery hoops, and as a piece gets further along I’ll then cut it out and finish it on the wall. That’s when I will play around with the border elements, the hanging threads, and the overall shape. I try to let these decisions be dictated by the way the image has developed into a physical thing, which is something I can never quite predict.
On a slightly less intellectual note, I have to say I’m very curious about the choice of incorporating the character Ari Gold into your show. For those who don’t know, Ari Gold is the fictional, fast-talking talent agent in the HBO series “Entourage,” expertly played by Jeremy Piven. What is it about the Ari Gold character that compelled you to include him in this narrative?
Haha. That piece is called I Can’t Stop Crying Except Sometimes When I Think of Ari Gold. On some level, this reference to him is a joke. I was looking for a symbol of masculinity that the figure who is laying on the floor in the gray blanket could have a complicated relationship to, and Ari Gold came to mind. I had once seen a woman on a reality dating show name him as her ideal man, and she described him as a powerful alpha male. On Entourage Ari is constantly making sexist, racist, and homophobic comments. He’s always yelling and seems to have an anger problem. I was thinking of the figure on the floor as fantasizing about a protector, but being unable to visualize a healthy version of this, and thus being left with this idea of Ari, which she feels drawn to despite how conflicted she feels about the desire.