When needlework, stitching, and sewing first entered the fine arts landscape (as opposed to the applied or decorative arts) it was perhaps not surprisingly introduced by a generation of women in the late 1960s. In a time more drastically polarized along the gender lines than now, artists such as Eva Hesse, Bea Nettles, and Lynda Benglis began to create work that trounced the idea of "women's work" (knitting, darning, and decorating). Soon afterwards, in response to the ultra-macho artistic personas perpetuated by Richard Serra and company, male artists began to employ more "feminine" approaches to creating art, and soon we saw Richard Tuttle making cut felt pieces, and Keith Sonnier using gauze and flocking to post-minimal ends. A decade or two later, when it began to be hip to be pitiful, and I'm-a-loser-baby-so-why-don't-you-kill-me was a dominant mindset among artists before Beck ever sang it, Mike Kelley was darning together bundles of thrift-shop stuffed animals and sewing felt banners that proclaimed "Pants Shitter & Proud--PS. Jerk-Off Too."

Now, in our relentlessly image-driven culture in which icons, symbols, and techniques are being sampled and reconfigured without much, if any, reference to their original meanings and contexts, it's not surprising to see a new wave of artists use needle and thread to create art with radically different results. Stitch by Stitch, at Elizabeth Leach Gallery, showcases twelve artists ranging from young Portlanders to elder matriarchs, such as Louise Bourgeois, who are using textiles and stitching in a fine-arts context, and in ways completely unexpected.

One of the most surprising uses of needle and thread came from New Yorker Rob Wynne, whose portraits of Picasso, Dali, Mozart, and Byron looked like ink line drawings but were actually thread sewn onto vellum. Most engrossing was the visible "underside" of the drawings-- the tangles and knots of thread in back of the vellum that created a dense web of stringy pentimento. Vietnamese artist Dinh Q. Le also used thread as a drawing agent in his ghostly white fabric piece. Le is best known for his photographic works, in which he literally weaves large-format photographs together into dizzying meditations on violence and spirituality. In Stitch by Stitch, he deviates on his technique, but remains thematically true to his better-known work. On a stretched white damask cloth, faces appear in white thread, barely visible to the viewer. They appear to be anonymous young men, but the numbers around their neck betray their fate--they are prisoners of the Khmer Rouge being sent to their deaths.

One of my Leach Gallery favorites, Christine Bourdette, was included, with one of her quizzical and evocative sculptures, "Reach." An arm at least six feet long reaches for an antlered bunch of bananas overhead. The leather that is wrapped around the form of the arm has the stitching of an old catcher's mitt, but also a flesh-like pathos that brings the horrors of Ed Gein to mind.

Mark Newport got back to some of those gender roles discussed earlier with his quirky embroidery work. Newport took resolutely "boy stuff"--comic books and Betty Page cards--and enhanced them with his own stitching. On an old Punisher comic book cover, for instance, Newport embroidered Punisher's outfit directly on the illustration. For good measure, he outlined the comic's title in blue and white thread. He also created "Freedom Bedcover," a five-by-seven-foot quilt of comic book pages, also selectively decorated. Definitely a twist on what little boys are up to in those clubhouses after school. Another young artist, Katherine Nelson, just received her MFA from PSU and got a nice little rub in this show with the inclusion of five pieces, including a few books, a large multi-paneled wall piece, and "Harvest," a supremely inviting floor sculpture. "Harvest" is about three feet tall, looks like a mutant muppet, and smells like the best afternoon of your life. Its bottom half is a patchwork of cornhusks that have been dipped in beeswax, then stitched together to create its round form and aroma. The top half of the piece is a mess of floppy maroon cotton tubes that look like dreadlocks or alien tentacles.

I have to admit that when I heard about this show, my eyes didn't exactly light up. I expected a redundant show with women making doilies with appropriated quotes about how women should behave, and guys