Alex McQuilkin tells Kari Adelaide Razdow about needlepoint, motherhood … and Sol Lewitt

89 Greene Gallery: Alex McQuilkin, installation view, courtesy of the artist.

Contributed by Kari Adelaide Razdow / Alex McQuilkin’s recent solo shows at de boer gallery in Los Angeles and signs and symbols project space in New York featured needlepoint works on two- to three-foot-wide industrially fabricated aluminum hoops. The pastel monochrome hoops align aesthetically with Minimalism and display quoted passages from“Sentences on Conceptual Art,” Sol Lewitt’s seminal 1967 essay in Artforum. McQuilkin embroidered lines such as “perception of ideas leads to new ideas,” “illogical judgements lead to new experience,” and “the conventions of art are altered by works of art” onto dyed Birdseye fabric, originally used for cloth diapers. Combined with the automotive enamel coating on the hoops and the hand-sewn cursive letters, these declarative statements come across as benignly didactic, like messages on bumper stickers. 

More broadly, McQuilkin’s work incorporates meditations on “feminized labor,” and her embroidery radiates its history and underlying sentiment. For example, in the 1922 edition of Home Arts and Entertainment Supplement to Woman’s Weekly, step-by-step embroidery instructions are framed as “fancywork” that “suggests novelties but keeps within practical lines,” encouraging women to embroider, create, and function within one’s “daily routine” and use prescribed palettes such as “three shades of pink, two shades of green.” The so-called fancywork is described as a game of sorts, purportedly burnished by an anecdote: “The famous magician, Houdini, was said to have trained his powers of observation by games involving concentration and rapid observation, glancing into a shop window and then trying to see how many objects he could name of those he had seen.” This interjection of Houdini into embroidery instructions may seem forced – an awkward attempt to glamorize a mundane task with a suggestion of potential magic or sleight-of-hand. But McQuilkin finds it interesting because she is concerned with disruptions of surfaces and stirrings below them, however oblique, and seeks access to the psychological underpinnings and drivers of labor. Below is a conversation with her.

 “Foreword.” Home Arts Entertainment, Supplement to Woman’s Weekly, 1922, p. 5.

Alex McQuilkin, Illogical Judgements, 2023, Birdseye fabric, thread, dye, aluminum and enamel, 24 inches diameter (61 cm), courtesy of the artist.

Kari Adelaide Razdow: You’ve described how embroidering Sol Lewitt’s meditations on diaper cloth was both “cathartic and comical.”  How did you approach learning embroidery skills? Will you continue exploring and including embroidery work in your practice? 

Alex McQuilkin: The idea for embroidering Lewitt’s sentences came to me during an earlier postpartum period, after the birth of my son in 2017. I thought it would be absurdly funny to transcribe this lofty abstract manifesto into the medium of embroidery which is so laden with sentimentality and a sort of decorative fussiness. Embroidery carries associations of a sort of hobbyist busywork designed to pass time while waiting (waiting for…).  It’s an incredibly tedious and labor-intensive skill but one whose history is more connected to home décor than art history – though of course there are exceptions. Victorian samplers, in all their aesthetic intricacy, served to advertise a young girl’s value through a demonstration of the skills she would later need to mend holes in her family’s clothes. Funnily enough I taught myself embroidery through ordering a sampler kit off Etsy that was designed to hang in a baby’s room. I figured I’d kill two birds with one stone but quit after the letter E. I put the idea aside and wrote it off, got back to painting and forgot about it. When pregnant with my daughter in 2021 the idea returned, and I knew I had to actualize it. So much of my painting investigates the politics of textiles, patterns and home décor so it was a natural extension for me and one that I’m sure will continue to factor into my work.

Alex McQuilkin, Perception of Ideas, 2023, Birdseye fabric, thread, dye, aluminum and enamel, 24 inches diameter (61 cm), courtesy of artist.

KAR: As these works sprung out of postpartum dynamics and stretches of time, you earnestly and humorously investigate archival ephemera, motherhood, and psychoanalysis, and your pieces come across self-involuting and symbolically complex field notes. How does this body of work braid theory with personal dimensions?

AM: I had an incredible amount of anxiety about becoming a mother – mainly relating to the effect it might have on my studio time and my work. After the birth of my son, I was so desperate not to let it affect my artistic productivity – which is hilarious in retrospect because I had physically just grown and birthed another human being and there I was hitting the ground running trying to squeeze every second of time for my work – staying up late painting when my body was physically breaking down with exhaustion and sleep deprivation. When I had my second child, a daughter, I surrendered to the reality a lot more – it was impossible to get any real painting done and even when I could get her to nap in the swing in the studio. It was a set-up for frustration and resentment. Nursing a child releases such bizarre hormones in the body and I would find myself breastfeeding my daughter and spaced out and thinking about all these ideas and having so much inspiration, but the reality was I was too exhausted to execute any of it. So it was in this very strange state when this work came to me.

I thought about what Sarah Ahmed refers to in her book Orientations as “the political economy of attention.” Ahmed writes: “there is an uneven distribution of attention time among those who arrive at the writing table, which affects what they can do once they arrive (and of course, many do not even make it).” This project became the only way I could arrive at the table, so to speak. But it was important to me that the work also acknowledged that political economy on its sleeve. My sister had made me all these burp cloths out of Birdseye diaper material, and I was spending so much time with it and obsessing over beautiful industrial utilitarian fabric that was literally designed to hold urine and excrement, which was also intertwined with my own material reality at that moment. 

Alex McQuilkin, What Lies Beneath (Castleberry Tulip Pink), 2023, Flashe on paper, 29.5 x 29.5 inches (75 x 75 cm), courtesy of artist.

KAR: In your show at 89 Greene, your needlepoint works hang on wallpaper sourced from your childhood Laura Ashley bedsheets that you scanned to capture and paint. The wallpaper’s innocuous tulips are evenly spaced out and grid-like, evoking uncannily familiar bed linens from 20 or 30 years ago, haunting the space with half-formed specificity and provoking partial recall of the 1990s for at least some viewers. Can you tell us more about how your works are often inspired by interior design aesthetics, with references to home textiles from another time and place?

Alex McQuilkin, “Surface Nature,” 2023, flashe on paper on panel, 30 x 23 inches, courtesy of artist.

AM: That pattern, Castlebury Tulip, is emblematic of my childhood in the late 80s/early 90s. It was incorporated into the bedroom sets of so many female film and TV characters as well as on the beds of all my friends in my suburban Massachusetts town. It’s such a strangely specific cultural reference laced with class aspirations, racial and gender roles, and social expectations. In my paintings, I often use these types of superficially anodyne but culturally loaded patterns that seem to extend everywhere but effectively go nowhere. In a nod to the all-encompassing nature of feminized labor, I execute them with such adherence to the original that my own particular labor becomes imperceptible. Recently I began layering archival fragments of historical wallcoverings (often sourced from a website called Historic New England) in a claustrophobically shallow trompe l’oeil space on top of these repeat patterns. The fragments include representations of women and domesticity: images from a time that we have supposedly moved beyond but that, like The Yellow Wallpaper, still resonate. The specificity of these material objects, with their cracks, wrinkles, and imperfections, complicates the façade of neutrality in the repeat patterns and disrupts their grid-like ability to function beneath the level of our awareness.

In the most recent works, the paint sits more and more on the surface in discrete marks. I think a lot about surfaces and what is both hidden and revealed by them. Recently, reading The Correspondence of Berthe Morisot, I came across a referenced 1898 passage by the writer/critic George Moore, explaining why he thought it was that quite a few female impressionists were able to excel. According to Moore, women had a facility with impressionism because, like the style itself, women “do not penetrate below the surface.” Women, said Moore, “see the universe like a gracious and mobile surface. Only a woman has the right to rigorously practice the Impressionist system, she alone can limit her effort to the translation of impressions.” This viewpoint, which condescendingly places both women and the decorative/ornamental in the realm of the superficial, is at odds with ideas of abstract, intellectual, or conceptual thought. I have attempted to pick it apart time and time again in my work – including video and painting – and have continued to do so in these new embroidery pieces.

Alex McQuilkin: What Lies Beneath at 89 Greene,” 249 E. Houston Street, New York, NY. May 4–June 10, 2023.

Alex McQuilkin: Use What You Have To Make What You Need,” de boer gallery, 3311 E. Pico Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA. October 22, 2022–January 1, 2023.

About the author: Kari Adelaide Razdow curates independently at The Sphinx Northeast, an itinerant curatorial project. Her writing has appeared in BOMB, Eyes Towards the Dove, Huffington Post, Hyperallergic, NYLON, the Walker Art Center Blog, and elsewhere, as well as Two Coats of Paint. Her book, Enchanted Pedagogies: Archetypes, Magic, and Knowledge, is forthcoming at the end of the month.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *