Nicole Havekost's new exhibition at the Morris Graves Museum of Art, Massed, explores bodily experience through stitched three-dimensional forms and embroidered wall reliefs. Minnesota-based Havekost writes of one series of artworks on view, the "Sewing and Cooking Dolls," that she "began this body of work when her son was small and she was finding her way as a new mother." Some of the artworks in this show mull the physical changes that accompany pregnancy, childbirth and early motherhood; others map mental and physical separation, individuation and estrangement. All enshrine the body as a portal to experience.
The relief Mass is really a triad; three loosely affiliated groupings of flesh-toned, barnacle- or breast-like forms that seem arrested as they moved apart, linked by a wisp or two filaments like hair. The sculpture "Felt I," made from wool felt, sewing pattern paper, cotton thread and acrylic paint, rests on a low plinth. Its supine position exposes a trunk of a bodily extension and a sequence of paired forms reminiscent of nipples that are encrusted with sewing hardware.
In the series Massed, painted panels sprout coils of dark filament that mimic frizzed tufts of hair. The triptych series "Stitched" features sewing patterns punctuated by embroidered sunbursts of threaded rays, streaming from pinprick-sized centers. These corona effects come in colors found inside the body, from shell pink through various blood reds and browns to black. This selective embellishment makes the panels look as though a moss or lichen had seeded the surface with spores — each of which then fostered a vividly colored colony around a taut O-shaped aperture, cervix or hole.
Havekost writes: "Just as bodies breathe, ooze, pump, scar, repair and release in both beautiful and terrifying ways, these shapes too have ... orifices with interiors that ooze out or expose the shape's interior. Some 'guts' pool to the floor while others are shared, spreading across the negative space."
Works in both series are constructed on a base of square panels built up from lacquered and collaged Butterick sewing patterns. This antiqued finish throws the soft radiance of overdyed embroidery thread into relief, ensuring Havekost's embroidery is always viewed against a backdrop of mass-produced templates for the female form. Anchored in patterns women used to make their own clothing, the pieces are grounded in working-class American women's history.
The embroidered reliefs and stitched sculptural objects Havekost has been working on in recent years draw inspiration from her 2013 "Sewing and Cooking Doll" series: a collection of stitched, stuffed and slightly macabre handmade dolls built on the pincushion principle. The dolls are mounted for viewing speared on pins that thrust them away from the wall and into the viewer's space so they appear suspended, their spidery forms multiplied by shadows cast on the walls behind them.
The display, which simultaneously evokes prepared insect specimens and a medical apparatus, contrasts with the close-up framing of the embroidered reliefs. While the wall reliefs offer detail-oriented views of bodily surfaces, the dolls seem to have been offered up like sacrificial victims to the gaze.
Their pendulous, bottom-loaded female forms appear both strained and drained, fixed in midair with their slender legs dangling absently beneath them. The dolls' bodies have obviously undergone hard use: They are delicate and gaunt in some places, bloated and gross in others. These are abject little cyborgs, signaling trauma through bodily supplements made from bits of sewing hardware and a desaturated flesh-tone palette. The expressions that can be discerned on their rudimentary faces suggest a consciousness that is turned inward and wholly absorbed. Some of the bands that swaddle them turn out to be tape measures.
"Sewing pattern paper, measuring tapes and sewing and cooking tools are part of their bodies," the artist writes, adding, "these are some of the tools the artist identifies with in her conflicted roles as mother, maker, partner, daughter, lover and friend."
In the fearless tradition of Mary Kelly and Louise Bourgeois, these artworks illuminate a bracingly personal experience of motherhood that steers well clear of mommy-blog pieties and empowering "you go, girl" narratives. They do not shy away from rendering the experiences of pregnancy, birth and early motherhood in all their mystery and complexity, even (especially?) the bloody, unspeakable parts that don't work as an Instagram narrative.
Time spent in their company is likely to bring viewers back down to human truths our culture holds, for the most part, to be inconvenient: the body's inevitability, its astonishing capacity for generation and regeneration, the non-negotiable fact of its always-impending dissolution and the insistence of its demands.
Nicole Havekost: Massed will be on view at the Morris Graves Museum of Art through April 21.
Gabrielle Gopinath is an art writer, critic and curator based in Arcata.