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Execute Magazine Feature

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Sacred Adornment in the Anthropocene, By Jason Stopa

There has been a recent spate of exhibitions dedicated to women using textiles. The list includes the radical quilts of Rosie Lee Tompkins. Her stunning retrospective at the Berkeley Art Museum gave audiences a fresh look at a formerly unknown, overlooked artistic heavyweight. Her experimental work used a variety of fabrics including: printed velvet, faux fur, denim and even printed t-shirts with the faces of icons and celebrities. In 2018, the Met Cloisters launched “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” Teams of designers set about to reimagine medieval sacred garments, the silk threads, gold lace, and intricate embroidery left viewers in awe and solemn reverence at its arcane simplicity. Patricia Miranda’s exhibition at Odetta joins the fold. Textiles can often get a bad rap, however. Think of the overlooked “Pattern & Decoration” movement of the 70s, at the time, no one knew how to address all of the feminist iconography on display - the hearts, ebullient patterns, and French curves. Historically, gendered labor is typically seen as lacking in symbolic significance, primarily utilitarian in nature, and more concerned with adornment and seemingly empty celebrations of taste. Nothing could be further from the case in Miranda’s work. First, she isn’t a textile artist, not in a traditional sense, her practice is interdisciplinary. Second, her installation-based practice uses readymade linens to examine the role women play in invisible, domestic labor. In doing so, Miranda offers an ecofeminist critique of the Anthropocene and highlights the oft unspoken relationship between fibers and funerary rites.

Miranda’s work is part found object, part labor, all memento mori. She is engaged in a gift economy, defying expectations of overconsumption. The artist sources vintage linens from her Italian and Irish grandmothers along with friends and strangers from around the country. She then submerges the linens using natural dyes from oak gall wasp nests, cochineal insects, turmeric, indigo, and clay. The linen bears an emotional resonance, embedded in the social life of the wearer. Historically, the level of poverty experienced in Ireland during and after the famine is almost inconceivable. Children seldom wore shoes or stockings. The peasant class rarely took off their clothes in general, as blankets were hard to come by. The average person wore the same clothes until it was merely threads. Miranda’s sourced linens are transfigured into wall tapestries, others float in site specific installations. “Dreaming Awake,” (2010) is one such floating work. It is a thin, hanging gown nearly monastic in appearance, dyed in cochineal red. The fabric is saturated. It is weathered and worn. The collar is embroidered with buttons all down the center. Small, hanging white cast plaster droplets affixed to the dress read as eyes or organs, lending it a ceremonial quality. The title leads us to read this work as a garment for a body in-between consciousness, in some state of transition. Funerary rites, and their accompanying images and objects, draw attention to transition. It is not lost on Miranda that women, throughout time, have produced the material that mark such transitions – children’s blankets, doilies for one’s first home, wedding dresses, one’s final garment in death. This work is full of such associations. There is the particularly striking case of Xin Zhui, the Marquis of Dai, whose body was found draped in a silk funerary banner. Her tomb was discovered in Mawangdui in Changsha, China, in the early 1970s, yet Zhui died in 163 BC. The well-preserved banner adorning her body was a rich representation of Han Dynasty mythology, depicting the heavens, Lady Dai rising upwards to meet it, and her family praying for safe passage into the great beyond. Miranda’s work doesn’t rely on obvious symbolism, rather the material and its treatment carry the message.

“Lamentations to Ermenegilda,” (2020) is a prime example of tableau vivant; where a series of vignettes make explicit how an object presents itself and what it presents. The goal is a third place of meaning. Here, Miranda employs a language of shaped cochineal linen doilies – stars, triangles, rectangles, circles – all arranged in a cluster with varying sizes and density. The artist has paid great attention to the negative space, letting the resulting work read less like a patchwork quilt, and closer to a tapestry. Ermenegilda is an old, rare Italian name, Lamentations is a song or poem of grief. We can read this work as both a celebration and a mourning of domestic labor, the countless hours sewing, washing the tablecloth for a meal, now all repurposed and elevated beyond their utility.

In The Origin of the Work of Art (1935), Martin Heidegger famously wrote about Van Gogh’s painting titled “A Pair of Shoes,” (1886). With a palette of umbers and ochres Van Gogh manages to derive a pathos for the rough, worn leather, the shoes being a possible symbol of the artists’ uneasy passage through life. Heidegger examines the worn insides of the shoes, the disappearing tread on the bottom, the heaviness as they sludge through fields of rich soil. As evening comes, the shoes take on a lighter quality, the work day is done, they vibrate in an unspoken relationship with the earth. He writes, “This equipment is pervaded by uncomplaining anxiety as to the certainty of bread, the wordless joy of having once more withstood want, the trembling before the impending childbed and shivering at the surrounding menace of death. This equipment belongs to the earth, and it is protected in the world of the peasant woman. From out of this protected belonging the equipment itself rises to its resting-within-itself.”

Miranda’s work comes from this same protected equipment, a raw material resting in a complex relationship to other objects around it. Her dyes come from the earth - insects and clay - now repurposed in the Anthropocene. Her linens have exchanged hands and generations, passing on a container for the corporeal body, an article that adorns and protects. One gets the sense that the artist’s recent body of work is as invested in recognizing the mundane, materiality of everyday life, as it is in acknowledging that which cannot be seen: domestic labor is sacred labor.

Jason Stopa, August 2020

Artist, Editorial Coordinator, The Journal of Philosophy, Columbia University; Visiting Assistant Professor, Pratt Institute; Adjunct Faculty, The School of Visual Arts

Sacred Adornment in the Anthropocene, By Jason Stopa