Magazine article Artforum International

Elaine Reichek

Magazine article Artforum International

Elaine Reichek

Article excerpt

MUSEUM OF MODERN ART/NICOLE KLAGSBRUN GALLERY

When is the ideological subtext of the modernist white cube most clearly revealed? According to When This You See . . ., 1996-99, Elaine Reichek's installation in the Museum of Modern Art project room, when it is carpeted and painted green, trimmed with molding and picture rails, and filled with the samplers the artist has been sewing since 1996.

In such humorous juxtapositions as a needleworked version of Jasper Johns's 1958 White Numbers and a replica of a nineteenth-century sampler used to teach multiplication tables, Reichek jokingly alludes to the formal affinities between modernist painting and domestic craft, stemming from their mutual dependence on allover composition and geometric grid. Taken as a whole, the thirty-one needleworks on display - featuring everything from conventional decorative motifs to embroidered appropriations of modern and contemporary art to literary quotations addressing the metaphoric implications of sewing and weaving - constitute a kind of perverse cataloguing of the sampler qua artistic medium: "perverse" because modernism's emphasis on medium-specificity is precisely what allows it to distinguish high art from lowly craft (and, by extension, "masculine" aesthetics from "feminine" ornament), but more interestingly because, under Reichek's nimble fingers, the sampler's essential property reveals itself to be the ability to elude the very categorical logic on which a modernist notion of medium is based.

"Experience is never limited," reads a passage from Henry James's The Art of Fiction (1888) in Sampler (A Spider), 1997, "and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness, and catching every air-borne particle in its tissue." The sampler functions similarly (as a kind of domestic, feminized, flatbed picture plane), attracting everything that modernist self-sufficiency expels: narrative, sentiment, personal reference - and, most significantly, subtext. "I don't much like my daughter sewing," confesses Colette in Sampler (Dispositional Hypnoid States), 1996. "She is silent and she - why not write down the word that frightens me - she is thinking."

Given the subtlety of Reichek's vision of the sampler as feminist antimedium, her own tendency then to fall back on clear-cut divisions and hierarchies is unfortunate. On one hand, her installation is an instance of Conceptually based institutional critique, in which the goal of producing aesthetic objects is superseded by that of revealing the power structures that produce aesthetic value. …

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