Daughters of Necessity
When centuries pass and civilizations fall, textiles are often the first cultural evidence to disappear. Like most organic material, textiles degrade in wet weather, unravel back into the dense weave of roots and stones and soil. If we’re lucky, we’re left with scraps. We have precious few examples of the kipu, knotted storytelling strings that encoded whole histories of cities, wars, and trade routes across the Incan empire. But not enough of them to know precisely how the patterns made meaning. From the indigenous Caribbean, we have the word hammock, but no surviving cotton webbing from those original cocoons—only colonial chronicles that tell us how mothers tied maracas to the corners so they could hear their children toss and turn. Sometimes when my fingers snag on a tangle in the thread I use to bind a button, I think of all the world’s many literacies, and what it takes to maintain them. “I’ve lost the thread,” we confess to one another, overwhelmed by the intense complexity of our communications across generations. Across cultures.
Elizabeth Duffy knows the thread can always be taken up again, differently. Textiles survive best not through preservation, but through the tradition of making them. And making, often, involves unmaking. Textiles aren’t really meant to last, so the question of what to do with remainders, with what’s worn out, is a creative question central to the craft. It’s not a question raised later by the aesthetic theory of the leisure class. When Elizabeth Duffy unbraids the rugs made by working people, probably women, whose names we’ll never know, she is both repeating and revealing a profound predicament. This is what we have at hand: what can be done with it?
As a child, my favorite cinematic scene was from Cinderella, when the little mice in hats and shoes modernize her mother’s dusty, old-fashioned dress so she has something to wear to the ball. Then, the evil stepsisters rip the dress off Cinderella’s body in a fit of aristocratic rage, and she’s left, despondent, weeping in the courtyard she spent the afternoon scrubbing. What happens next is magic—a fairy godmother, a glittering ballgown that seems spun from blue moonlight. But I always mourned that other dress, the one that had been pieced together from the leavings of the dead, the one that had been labored over. Cinderella was an indentured servant, the victim of domestic abuse. But her hands must have contained, inside her numbing daily labors, a sense of what craft could do—its expressive possibilities. And she must have known that human beauty is never made by magic. The silver doesn’t polish itself. A hand-embroidered collar bears the signature of cramped fingers.
I thought of Cinderella’s first dress when I saw the writer Becky Hagenston wearing one of Elizabeth Duffy’s recreations. Becky is a delicate, fresh-faced, blue-eyed beauty—the kind of woman Cinderella might age into decades later, if figures in fairy tales were permitted to age. The dress’s meticulous construction and festive proliferation of color and print spell special occasion, and Becky was indeed transformed, like the servant girl at the palace, into a minor celebrity while she wore it in the open studio. But it was also true, up close, that we could see the fabric’s many holes, where hundreds of footsteps had worn through the rug, a map of quotidian movement. With Elizabeth Duffy’s careful technique of pressing and stitching each rag ribbon into an elaborate design, the holes took on, from some angles, the elegance of eyelet lace. The overall effect was uncanny: Becky looked genteel like the wife of a prosperous farmer—almost a Southern belle—but haunted by histories of labor too too numerous to name.
Aesthetic labor is not the same as domestic labor or wage labor—Elizabeth Duffy enjoys the freedom of design. The freedom to transform a utilitarian object into a Rothko-like tapestry of sunshine and sky blue. But she does not articulate this freedom as an escape from her source material. In fact, she leaves the connection explicitly intact, so that, if you try to wear the dress, you’re held by a coiled braid to the rag rug it once was. Sometimes this connection seems punishing, a reminder of all the ways so-called women’s work has tied us down. But sometimes the connection seems umbilical, nourishing, the only possible technology for staying alive.
In Greek mythology, the Fates are the three fatherless daughters of the goddess Necessity, and together they spin, weave, and cut the thread of human life. Aren’t we all, really, daughters of Necessity? I like thinking of Elizabeth Duffy this way, spending long hours working over the lives that pass through her hands.
With Thanks so Cerys Wilson, in the May/June issue of Art New England
Elizabeth Duffy’s hallmark environments emerge from an obsessive focus on atmospheric design—in particular, certain demure compositions that, like a Bauhaus chair, manifest pure, understated functionality. The purpose of these compositions is to obfuscate other images; self-effacing and banal, they disclose their textures only via the cellophane window of an empty billing envelope. Since 2007 Duffy has been appropriating the “data protection patterns” printed inside envelopes to conceal sensitive contents, casting their simple red, grey, and blue geometric permutations on textiles, glass, wallpaper, and even food in immersive installations modeled after private spaces. Her exaggeration of overlooked and ultimately disposable prints subverts their purpose to conceal and secure tokens of wealth and credit—instead they morph into omnipresent decorative motifs. dm contemporary’s location in an upscale residential building has given Duffy the opportunity to create her most extensive installation to date: the implied dwelling of an aspiring collector aptly titled Apartment 2B. Whereas in a conventional gallery setting, Duffy often amplifies the patterning within her constructed sets to produce a monotonous and claustrophobic tone, in Apartment 2B she implements a subtler (yet no less insistent) approach, echoing the reticent visibility of the envelope designs in their intended habitat. Spanning a living room, bedroom, bathroom, and the hallway that connects them, a combination of found, altered, and hand-made furnishings cohere into an elegant interior with an ulterior pulse. Duffy’s patterns gently interfere with the modernist simplicity of the apartment’s central space, where a scrambled logjam pattern is incised into the leather seats of Le Corbusier-inspired sofas, and recursive diagonals are etched into a coffee table’s glass inset. Two-tone prints further abound in the adjoining bedroom, on upholstery and linens, wallpaper and lampshades. As the artist describes, the figurative palette these institutional patterns span is surprisingly diverse and evocative: “There are literally thousands of variations, from corporate logos, to patterns that depict water, wood grain, text and symbols of every imaginable kind. Some of the designs are the same that can be found in Greek temples (and the NYC coffee cup) and on Victorian cushions.” As such, Duffy’s interventions vibrate with other ready-made collectibles and housewares in the installation, from latticed coral in a curio cabinet to a cross-stitched throw and houndstooth wicker chair. Some items—like a doctored specimen drawing of a butterfly’s wings, or an overprinted cushion made of speckled animal hair—modestly rework appropriated natural patterns. Apartment 2B’s expansive tableau has enabled Duffy to evoke another icon of her source material: the curved-edge rectangular window of a billing envelope. In the living room, the trademark circular aperture in the marble base of an Arco lamp is extended to this subtle yet distinctive form, which is reflected again in a silkscreened accent on the natural cowhide rug. The emphasis on this shape extends beyond the artist’s orchestration to the gallery itself: suddenly oblong windows begin to appear in unremarkable infrastructural details like the metal covers of heaters and electrical breaker boxes. Duffy’s choice to accent the window shape—especially in an urban space with floor-to-ceiling windows facing an adjacent high-rise—enhances her installation’s allusions to veils and screens, and more broadly the surveillance of private space. In tandem with Cheryl Yun’s concurrent installation in dm contemporary’s project space, comprising handbags and lingerie whose printed patterns are abstracted from news media imagery, the latent commentary of Duffy’s work on today’s pervasive and highly controlled transmission of information through images imbues an otherwise comfortable space with a paranoid unease. Kaegan Sparks is a NYC based curator and writer
Do you see a pattern here? Patterns and colors from protective envelope liners inspire artist Elizabeth Duffy’s home decor insallation ‘OVERLANDER’ BY JESS BRALEY A full-sized horse carriage in the middle of the room seizes your attention upon entering Salve Regina University’s Hamilton Gallery. When you realize it’s more or less parked in a stiflingly patterned living room, you find yourself searching for more answers than you’re readily given. The more you look, the more you realize, you’ve seen these patterns and shapes before. Checks, dashes and grids line the inside of the carriage and the couch on the far wall. Birds and envelopes line the wallpaper covering the walls. The shapes on the wall, in the frames are so familiar without being obvious. Finally it all clicks. The patterns on the walls, the furniture and the clothing, even in the lining of the carriage, are the same ones found lining the protective envelopes containing the bills you get in the mail. Part installation, part restoration project and part exhibition of her technical mastery in textile manipulation, Elizabeth Duffy’s “ Overlander” show at Salve is an amazingly well thought-out, coherent exhibition that is truly a one-of a kind, can’t-miss show. There is an overwhelming feeling of misguided comfort in the room, an uneasy coziness evoked by the evasiveness of the very patterns on the walls. “ That’s exactly what I was after — evasiveness is a good word for it —they are there, but they are hidden and there is something anxiety provoking about that, I think,” Duffy said. Duffy became interested in using physical mail as a material because it is rapidly disappearing. Security envelopes made to protect individual privacy have become akin to a cultural artifact as they become replaced by passwords on a computer. “Its current profusion through mass mailings yet rapid disappearance due to the digital age are indicative of the exponential change that pervades our culture,” she said. “Offers of credit lines and low interest mortgages have provided us an illusory material wealth. Also, what we discard and how much we consume have become topical issues in this increasingly environmentally minded and digitized (nonpaper) moment in history. For these reasons, these throwaway envelopes are compelling for both their symbolic cultural resonance and impending obsolescence.” As someone who constantly moved, the idea of security is something Duffy often revisits in her work. In 2010, she created Insidious Objects, a line of limited edition home furnishings, apparel and accessories with data protection patterning. When presented with the opportunity to exhibit at the carriage house-turned gallery at Salve, security came immediately to mind. “My own experience of dislocation compels me to investigate the persistent human need to find comfort and stability, however illusory and short-lived,” Duffy said. “ This opportunity to show my work in a gallery that was formerly a carriage house — a place associated with change — felt auspicious.” For Duffy, the work was neither solely driven by the space nor was its progression a culmination of her past work. “I saw the beautiful spaces of the Antone Art Center and learned a bit of their history and decided I wanted to make the carriage. I like juxtaposing ideas of movement and change against stasis: the living room.” The seating area in the far side of the room is painstakingly detailed. Patterned slippers sit on a stitched rug in a different pattern, flanked by a couch and set of period chairs, flawlessly upholstered in yet other patterns. Another pattern adorns a tablecloth covering a side table. On top, sit books and towels, and a tea set, all with different patterns. Even the ceramic teapot and the pastries, feature patterns. A patterned dress hangs on an old dressform behind the table. To put into perspective the lengths to which Duffy goes to replicate her patterns in unique ways, consider the fact that the pastries, albeit surely stale, are real food, made and decorated by the artist. “They are real cookies I made,” Duffy said. “I just frosted and decorated them with security envelope patterns. I like the way in domestic house museums they leave food out as if someone just left the room. These are really stale (though) and I wouldn’t recommend eating them.” The wallpaper, which extends across most of the gallery space wraps around behind the chairs and couch, extending between two windows, covered in patterned blinds, shades and drapes. Even the side windows are covered in a patterned film. On a high perch, a tiny little patterned toy bird sits watching down on the whole thing, a little toy big brother, watching your every move. On the other wall a “Storm at Sea” patterned quilt hangs in front of a pedestal case filled with a patterned period hat and riding gloves. The beauty of “Overlander” isn’t just the design and execution of its pieces, although the craftsmanship is impeccable. It’s the thorough and seamless integration of pattern into practice. Would it work without one of the pieces? Sure, even a big one, but it just wouldn’t be the same. With everything going on in the main gallery, be sure not to miss the cases in the hallway, especially the one nestled in the corner facing the entrance to the gallery. Paint chips line clear glass shelves, behind them clear envelope shapes fill the wall held up by red tacks. “It was very subtle, but it’s a new piece that I made spontaneously.” Duffy said. “I cut the shapes of the envelope silhouettes (when opened) out of plexi and then pinned them up with map tacks against the wallpaper. I like the way the light gave a slight shadow of the envelope shape onto the back wall, and how the wallpaper showed through. The paint chip parts were the windows, as if fallen out of the envelopes above.”
Elizabeth Duffy's hallmark environments employ a similar disproportion of source and presentation, though to opposite ends, creating an immersive whole from banal source imagery discernable only as the viewer zooms in. Collecting and reproducing a variety of data protection patterns found on the inside of envelopes, Duffy creates intricate drawings and embroideries, furniture upholstery, rugs, curtains and various other objects. The exaggerated amplification of an overlooked, functional, and ultimately disposable print subverts its purpose to conceal and secure tokens of wealth and credit--instead it morphs into an overwhelmingly monotonous decorative motif.