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Contemporary Needlework: Tattoo!

Carolyn Kastner, Curator
Museum of Craft & Folk Art

The Museum of Craft & Folk Art is pleased to present Sherri Wood's Tattoo Baby Doll Project, which creates a totally new art form by bringing together the needlework traditions of tattoo and embroidery. Her project fuses these traditionally distinct and gendered domains of female-craft (embroidery) and male-folk art (tattoo). The body decoration of the dolls designed by women tattooists and embroidered by Wood defies the hierarchies of contemporary art, craft and folk art. Further, Wood's installation explores our gender-bound notions of the body and demonstrates the history of images, technique and design shared by these previously distinct traditions.

Wood began the Tattoo Baby Doll Project in 1998 when she was a resident at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Sausalito, California. Contemplating the history of embroidery in the formation of women's identity, the North Carolina artist began to see the parallels in the contemporary body decoration that she saw on the streets of San Francisco. She invited women tattoo artists to collaborate with her on the project. Wood began with cloth-bodied baby dolls found in thrift shops. She sent one doll to each tattoo artist, who then drew original tattoos directly on the dolls before returning them to Wood, who hand-embroidered the images on the cloth bodies. The finished dolls, installed on their pedestals in front of mirrors, push the viewer beyond tradition into new territory with visual questions of gender identity and women's work. Intended to be covered by clothing, the decorated soft bodies of the dolls engage the language of the gendered gaze and the impulse to voyeurism associated with the "tattooed women" of the early 20th century.

The imagery of the dolls resists the conventional realm of embroidery that dates from 18th-century notions of the feminine. The provocative designs rendered in precise stitches challenge gendered stereotypes of the past and participate in the 20th-century practice of recovering and redefining the medium of needlework to explore the boundaries of the feminine. The dolls, like Judy Chicago's 1979 installation, The Dinner Party, which included embroidered place settings, pay tribute to the anonymous creativity of women passed from generation to generation. In addition, the dolls complicate the simplistic notion of embroidery as merely decorative. Wood is part of a generation of women artists creating a new genre for embroidery. She confuses and tantalizes her viewers with her complex installation that from a distance seems beguilingly simple, in the same way that contemporary artist Ghada Amer draws viewers to her series Intimate Confessions. Amer's work appears to be abstract paintings. However, at close range the dripping paint turns out to be thread and the abstract compositions resolve into pornographic images sewn onto the canvas. Both projects challenge art history's phallocentric bias and the previously gender-bound medium of needlework

The tattooed and embroidered bodies of the baby dolls contest and conflate high art and popular culture. Tattooist Denise de la Cerda's doll, Hot Ass Baby, is layered with meaning. The punning title draws our attention to the flames rising over her cotton tushy. But the artist complicates this simple reference by floating the letters "LHOOQ" over the flames. De la Cerda appropriates the letters from Marcel Duchamp's 1919 Readymade, in which he appropriated the image of the Mona Lisa and made it his own by writing the same letters over the famous Da Vinci icon. The joke for Duchamp and de la Cerda is in the French pronunciation of the letters that sound like "she has a hot ass." Relocating the sexualized language on the body of a doll, de la Cerda reclaims the joke about women for women. In a similar act of naming and reclaiming, Sara Peacock borrows the title for her doll, Lydia's Protégé, from a popular culture reference to a character from a Marx Brothers movie. Peacock emancipates "the tattooed lady" from her origins in slapstick comedy and resituates her in a place of honor. Lydia's Protégé proudly wears her mentor's name and image on her back.

Wood's project reminds us that like the earlier embroidery samplers and mementos, created by women, tattoos often function as ritual markers to commemorate relationships, and to mark events and time. For example, Sailor Feebee's tattoos memorialize an event from tattooist Kate Hellenbrand's life. Hellenbrand designed Sailor Feebee's tattoos in remembrance of her own effort to receive a clipper ship tattoo in 1972. To receive her clipper ship, she defied the taunts of the men in the tattoo shop, who told her that a bunny, a squirrel, or a skunk would be more appropriate for a girl. Hellenbrand bestowed Sailor Feebee with the same image in an act of pride and remembrance.

Hellenbrand was not alone in her quest to claim and mark her body as the visual expression of her individual power and freedom. During the 1970s women tattooists and their female clients redirected the male-dominated practice of decorating women's bodies that began one hundred years earlier. At the turn of the 19th century "tattooed women" worked as circus attractions and billboards for their tattooist husbands. As living advertisements for their husband's expertise, they traveled with the circus in the summer, and displayed their bodies in dime museums during the off-season. In 1904 Maud Stevens became the first American woman tattooist when she agreed to be tattooed by her husband, on the condition that he also teach her how to tattoo. Between 1920 and 1940 Mildred Hull billed herself as the "only lady tattooist in New York City." As an experienced embroiderer, she found those skills helpful in her new career. In a reversal of roles, her husband wore her tattoos. By the 1950s and 60s women began to expose their tattoos proudly as signs of membership in the counter-culture. But, it was not until the 1970s that women tattooists overcame their novelty role in the profession. Vyvyn Lazonga established a new era for women in the business when she opened her own shop in 1979. Her work motivated a new generation of tattooists and her own tattoos inspired women to decorate their bodies as an act of self-possession and freedom. During the 1980s and 90s women increasingly expressed their individual power and creativity with tattoos.

Sherri Wood's Tattoo Baby Doll Project embraces the traditions of tattoo and embroidery and redefines them as contemporary needlework. As our view oscillates from the outrageous and colorful designs of the doll bodies to the sweet and beguiling baby faces, we leave the well-defined roles of male and female, craft and folk art. It is hard not to smile back at these mute figures that teach us that the art of the 21st century has no boundaries.

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