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Bedspreads and tablecloths your grandmother might have owned are embroidered with nudes, some in sexual positions, in Orly Cogan’s show at Carl Hammer. The exhibit is provocative–sort of grannies gone wild–with Cogan using her own family and their relationships to get at universal truths.

Her colorful figures are made with running stitches–they’re like sketches that become part of the original prints and patterns, like contingent thoughts. The repeated figures on the tablecloth in Tangled Up in You include her and her boyfriend; she’s both an adult woman smiling at him and Cinderella sitting on his shoulder, and the picket fence around the edge adds a touch of domesticity. Allegory shows multiple female nudes, including one touching another’s genitals, and a group clustered around the lone male–“symbolically blinding him with their feminine wiles,” says Cogan. Sometimes the same woman is seen in different poses, affectionate in one, standoffish in another.

Cogan’s grandparents on her father’s side collected figurative art, and her father liked to tell her the stories behind the paintings and sculptures. Her maternal grandmother collected quilts, and her mother liked folk art and collected samplers and duck decoys. Her mother also told her fairy tales, some of which she made up herself. “I believed in fairies and gnomes and goblins,” says Cogan, who sees her parents’ sensibilities in her work. “Subconsciously I was trying to appeal to both of them.”

When Cogan was around 12 she realized her parents’ marriage was in trouble. “There was a lot of tension,” she says. “It got so bad the divorce was a relief.” She traces some of her interest in relationships to watching theirs fall apart. “I could see both sides. There’s a range in my work–jealousy, power struggles, flirtation, humor, and love,” she says. “I think they still see me a bit as extensions of themselves, and in a strange way I still see myself as attached to them. And that keeps me more childlike, in a dreamy, romanticized place.”

During art school in Baltimore and New York City, Cogan made abstract collages and surrealist-inspired paintings, work that in time became “more emotional, with more psychology behind it.” She graduated in 1994 and later took a one-day class in embellishing quilts. “I did a little naked female in my embellished quilt square,” she says, “and the old women in my class were tickled pink.” Clothing, she says, suggests occupation and class, but nudity universalizes.

She began making small pieces “with these funky little figures cavorting around–a spring festival of nature and sex and playfulness.” But they were just for herself; she still believed that serious art meant big paintings. Around 1999 an art critic who visited her studio told her she should be putting her energy into her fabric work, not her painting. She agreed. “There was no reason I was doing these nature-oriented abstract paintings. I was a city girl mostly concerned with my social life and my love life. You and your work have to tie into each other.”

Fairy Tale includes some of those early cavorting figures–couples copulate, a man pees into a birdbath, and two women appear to ride through the air on large penises. Eventually she started worrying that her figures might become too cute, so she made them bigger and added characters in “humorous vignettes,” including a lobster, a symbol of luxury, superimposed on a woman and “caressing her chin but also her genital area” and a man who appears to be masturbating into a pot. She also started shifting from printed cloth to quilted or embroidered fabrics that “already had a history,” some from her own grandmother’s collection. As she explains, “I got a kick out of taking these pieces that have this prudish, spinster history and giving them my own sort of feminist flair.”

Orly Cogan

When: Through 7/8

Where: Carl Hammer, 740 N. Wells

Info: 312-266-8512