On her website, artist Martha Daghlian refers to her work as “artless fashions and unfashionable art.” It’s a great catchphrase and one that does a decent job of summing up her difficult-to-define aesthetic, which utilizes traditionally feminine craft—like sewing and embroidery—as both celebration and commentary on the place and plight of women in the world.
That’s never been more apparent than in Ceremonial Vestments, Daghlian’s new exhibit at Portland contemporary art gallery Melanie Flood Projects. The five garments on display each present literal pictures of women going through, as she calls it, “incidents of transformational violence.”
“They’re inspired by embroidery from the Catholic church over the years,” Daghlian says of this new exhibit. “You’d have really graphic depictions of saints getting martyred, and Mexican votive paintings that are usually a depiction of a terrible thing that happened to someone that they’re really grateful to have survived. They’re meant to convey an event and the formal details are a little bit beside the point. The visual inspiration is pretty loose and kind of stylized formally, so I didn’t have to be too precious with it.”
Daghlian wasn’t precious with her choice of the women and moments she highlighted, either. They were simply ones that had an impact on her. The jumping-off point was her interest in the work of the French artist Orlan. A confrontational figure in her home country, Orlan is best known for a project she undertook in the ’90s in which she underwent multiple plastic surgeries to take on the features of women famously depicted in paintings and sculptures made by men (such as the chin of Botticelli’s Venus and the forehead of Mona Lisa).
Daghlian’s depiction is set on a panel stitched onto a lovely silver cocktail dress with mesh sleeves. Orlan lies on the operating table, blood pouring from her face as she holds a microphone in one hand and an arts journal in the other. The cumulative effect is both beautiful and arresting.
The rest of the garments are less formal, but equally bold. On a colorful hupil, Daghlian pays tribute to another inspiration, Frida Kahlo, and the bus accident that left the Mexican artist with a broken spine. On a cute blue and tan romper, Daghlian showcases the 2015 UFC bout between Ronda Rousey and Holly Holm that gave the former her first career defeat.
“Initially it felt like a kind of girl dress-up,” says Melanie Floods, owner and curator of the gallery. “A teenager in her bedroom on a Friday night with friends. But the panels created a tension between these really playful garments and these very life-altering situations that happened in these women’s lives.”
For Daghlian, this exhibit comes at a perfect juncture in her life and career. She recently closed down Grapefruit Arts Center, the gallery that she helped found and co-ran, and with it the publication of the Artists Resource Guide, which included a list of galleries, schools, and grants. While she’s looking forward to an online update to the guide, she’s more excited about having time to focus on her artistic creations.
“We had a great response,” she says, “and I feel very fortunate, but I feel like it makes sense to not hog all the good resources. There’s going to be a new gallery opening up in that space soon, which I think is cool and healthy. But I just wanted to focus on my own projects for a little bit.”