'Recognize My Sign' breathes new life into embroidery
Art is often seen as untouchable and distant, roped off from visitors and meant to be viewed from afar. Saturday night at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston offered an opposing sight: visitors leaning in close to examine the minute details of Nicolas Moufarrege’s “Recognize My Sign.” The latest exhibition hosted at CAMH and Moufarrege’s first solo museum exhibition, “Recognize My Sign” tempts interaction from visitors through its painstaking detail and diversity of cultural references.
As a medium traditionally associated with the feminine, embroidery and its users have unfortunately remained in the background of mainstream contemporary art. Moufarrege belongs to a new wave of artists seeking to reclaim the skill through radical, bold expression. In “Recognize My Sign,” Moufarrege’s landscapes dance on the line between painting and embroidery, oftentimes intermingling the two. While some pieces feature pure embroidery, others, such as “The Weather Last Tuesday,” show the artist’s painterly mark in combination with his threaded subjects.
With nearly 40 tapestries, canvases, photographs and drawings, Moufarrege’s 10-year career is chronicled in detail — in that short time span, he shows a shocking amount of progress. Visitors begin with his earliest embroidery works; muted with earth tones, these early works feature visuals that fit best with traditional conceptions of embroidery. Their content, however, speaks to a less traditional rebellion: “Le sang du phénix,” for example, contains symbolism referencing the Lebanese Civil War and its aftermath. Rather than follow a preliminary sketch, Moufarrege instead chose to improvise as he went, a method he called “experimental weaving.” The unplanned nature of this style gives an abstract quality to his pieces, showcasing a budding rebellious spirit.
The next section of the exhibition features developments to Moufarrege’s collage style, with tapestries combining multiple representations, patterns and references. This playful experimentation breathes life into the tapestries, as the viewer’s eye is drawn from one conflicting element to the next. In “The First Time Ever I Saw A Volcano,” a painstakingly detailed volcano crosses into a Renaissance-styled tasteful nude, while five different repeating patterns clash for attention in the background.
This collage style reaches a peak in the final section of the exhibition, which showcases the influence of New York City on Moufarrege’s artwork and identity. As an out, queer artist in the ’80s, his New-York-era work addresses his sexuality in a direct manner — with glitter dispersed across most works and bright, gaudy pinks and blues, Moufarrege’s last pieces are a far cry from his earliest, muted pieces. These pieces are also the most interesting — combining elements of embroidery with painting and sketching, they include a distinct mark otherwise lacking in pure embroidery. In “Look Mickey,” an embroidered Mickey Mouse comic with the dialogue “Look Mickey, I’ve hooked a big one!!” is juxtaposed with stitch work of a nude, muscular male body and a panel of black paint.
In particular, Moufarrege’s last works delve into the trend of appropriation, a facet made more interesting by Moufarrege’s own appropriation of embroidery. Multiple works in the exhibit are ironically clear copies of Roy Lichtenstein’s work, an interesting choice given Lichtenstein’s own propensity to trace artwork from comic books. Unlike past work, however, the end product feels intentional: rather than forced to collaborate on a single canvas, each element of the tapestry cooperates.
Visitors to “Recognize My Sign” can experience the cyclical style of Moufarrege’s experimentation: as an artist unafraid to start anew, each turn around the corner offers a new perspective on the potential of embroidery in contemporary art. The exhibition is on view until Feb. 17. Admission is free, as always.