A local art instructor recently told me about a student who was complaining about a hole in her childhood experiences. The student's mother had apparently never taught the girl how to sew, and now the young woman held her mom responsible for this gap in her worldly knowledge.
When I was in art school a decade ago, another artist furiously darned fabrics into angry, oversized doilies (they do exist) as a dainty protest against the same childhood lessons that the aforementioned student had missed out on. The difference in the two artists' attitudes over 10 years is hardly atypical, and is reflected in New Embroidery: Not Your Grandma's Doily, a lively and playful investigation of how contemporary artists are using embroidery today.
Stretching across all of the Contemporary Craft Museum's four galleries, New Embroidery highlights the work of 21 artists using embroidery, which is the closest you can come to drawing with needle and thread. The pieces are largely light-hearted with heavy doses of kitsch, and several stand out from the crowd.
Karen Reimer's "Boundary Troubles 9" is a great riff on post-minimalism, with a napkin and part of a shirt stitched into an oblong geometric shape, highlighted by a wonderfully sorry little yellow trim. Susie Brandt of Baltimore took an ugly quilt that looked like a state fair reject and covered it in miles of dense black thread lines, almost entirely negating its original appearance. China Marks' "Sea Change" threatens to steal the whole show: On a beautiful aged yellow-and-black pattern with 19th century engravings of sea castles and whimsical gardens, Marks adds elements of fantasy, so that fishermen reel in giant heads and sprout butterfly wings.
Local artists hold their own, too, with Shanon Schollian exhibiting charming, lumpy sculptures that look like home-ec projects gone awry, and Dana Fenwick, who intervened in the disintegration of a flimsy blanket, and traced the hole-ridden skeleton of the fabric in delicate red thread.
Unfortunately, New Embroidery could have used a tighter edit, as many of the pieces are either redundant or don't hold up to the innovative standards established by the show's stronger works. Similarly, if the show had been opened up to include other fiber techniques popular now, like crochet and knitting, stronger works could have bumped some of the show's weaker links. The show's highlights, and its rigorous curatorial premise, though, make New Embroidery a solid exhibition from one of Portland's often-overlooked institutions.