Lou Cabeen: Mapping Desire

at Carl Hammer Gallery, through December 30

Lou Cabeen’s fascination with women’s clothes goes back to kindergarten or first grade. “I figured out a way to draw Cinderella’s dress,” she says. Though it looked like a simple child’s drawing, back then “I knew it was good because it looked the way I wanted.” In junior high and high school, Cabeen painted pictures of elaborately costumed women on the lids of cardboard gift boxes. By the time she graduated from college in 1973 she’d moved on to weaving, though it was only in the late 80s, while in grad school, that Cabeen says she found her artistic voice.

Critics have stressed the feminist ideas in Cabeen’s fabric collages. Though she no longer weaves the cloth herself, 16 recent works now on view at Carl Hammer Gallery show her still using its association with “craft” to make explicit, often biting, references to women’s roles.

Labor I Meditation began as a large white tablecloth, with a white damask leaf design. Cabeen burned circular brown marks into the fabric with an electric range, a slightly mordant reference to cooking, that disrupt the fabric’s clean white surface. She stitched into the center a traditional Christian prayer, replacing the word “Christ” with “labor”– “Labor is the foundation of this home the unrecognized source of every meal.” One barely notices the white-on-white design in the original fabric; like so much traditional household decor, it has a gentle, effacing quality. While the burn marks are jarring, it’s the white text that gives the piece its edge. Like the leaf design, it’s almost buried in the fabric of the white cloth, requiring a little work to read. Housework, central to every home, is an often thankless job; the near invisibility of the words becomes a bitter reference to the lack of recognition accorded to “women’s work.”

The series “Domestic Shield” consists of three aprons made of stitched-together fabric pieces. The center of Domestic Shield #1 is filled with photocopied headlines from a supermarket tabloid; at the top we read “Women’s Top 5 Fears,” and below are a few stories that could be taken as examples, from one about refrigerator cleaning to an account of a woman’s murder. A border around this central area is stitched together from cartoonlike printed fabric scenes of women making quilts, looking absurdly happy because they’re depicted as children, infantilizing the practitioners of this significant, though often trivialized, art.

While Cabeen’s feminist concerns are clear, this piece also presents a complex and very busy surface. At the edge, for example, are repeated groupings of three pins, pointing outward; at the top is a band of different-sized buttons. Over the black-and-white headlines an enigmatic text is embroidered in red–“Sweet are the thoughts that savor of content”–punning on the word “content” but also breaking up the stark black-and-white newspaper surface. The whole hovers between being truly captivating and a bit confusing.

Domestic Shield #2 captivates with its humorous yet troubling mix of text, embroidery, and plastic snakes. The central area is made of a fabric marketed during the gulf war, showing faces in desert camouflage; these heads with flowing hair look to me like faceless women. An embroidered text begins “O Gate of Heaven,” and the snakes seem to swim around it. There’s an obvious reference to Eve and the serpent, recalling the ways the tale has been used against women. But the piece works because Cabeen achieves a remarkable balance between its parts. The plastic snakes are a tan color not unlike the tans in the fabric, and their tiny red tongues and eyes echo the red text; the brightly colored houses that form the border are not large enough to disrupt the overall design. One’s eye moves from one part to the next; all seem equally important, and none seems reducible to a single theme. One tendency in recent feminist art has been to avoid judgment, and the hierarchical structure that a work usually must have to make judgments, in the interest of forging a more modest, less imperial relationship between artist and materials, artist and world. This complex, multifaceted surface sets viewers free to wander and reach different conclusions. The aprons in “Domestic Shields” do not strictly conform to a “traditional feminist read,” Cabeen says. “I call them domestic shields because although there’s certainly a critique present I also know from my own life the pleasure of the domestic role.”

Cabeen, 45, was born in Danville, grew up in various towns in central Illinois, and lived in Chicago in the 1980s and early 90s (she moved to Seattle two years ago). She recalls watching her great-grandmother, who had been a professional seamstress, do embroidery; Cabeen’s grandmother taught her to stitch. Her present work has been directly influenced by her study of art history. While she has investigated women painters and crafts traditionally performed by women, Cabeen says as an undergraduate she “was particularly excited by the northern Renaissance.” She found an “evenness of surface that you scan like a text; if you think of van Eyck or Breughel those are encyclopedic paintings….The role of the viewer in northern Renaissance painting is close to the role for the viewer that I seek. I’m not as interested in directing the viewer’s gaze in a compositionally controlled way as I am in presenting the viewer with a surface or an object that contains everything I know about that particular idea but is there for the viewer to participate in.”

Here Cabeen goes beyond gender-specific issues to seek alternative ways of seeing and thinking. For all their evenness, northern Renaissance paintings still have focal points and one or two clear concepts. What’s wonderful about Cabeen’s La Fioretti II is its spatial multidirectionality and profusion of themes. It’s stitched together from different maps of Seattle and the Chicago area placed upright, upside down, and diagonally, giving no location or direction or orientation priority over another. At its center is a hand-colored picture of a heart that was photocopied from a science poster. Different colored threads emerge from the heart and form a network that suggests, without looking like, the human circulatory system. Over this network is printed a complex circular maze with a single, though twisted, route to its center.

The convoluted arrangement of map fragments, disjunct locales abutting each other, evokes the way most artists rearrange geography to suit their purposes. It also suggests a metaphor of the city as labyrinth or circulatory system (recalling terms like “traffic circulation”) and resembles the natural patterns in the green stitching around the border. While comparing city to stitching suggests that an equivalence is being drawn between our “great,” male-designed metropolises and women’s work, the overall piece suggests that no one metaphor is more correct, just as no single direction has priority over any other. Cabeen’s response to the long subordination of women seems to have evolved from bitterly identifying it to trying to escape any hierarchical ordering. Her meticulously detailed surface persuades the eye to stop at multiple points, resting momentarily on the heart or on a map fragment before setting out again. The viewer experiences the piece as a never-ending journey.

“La Fioretti” means “little flowers.” Cabeen took the title from a collection of legends about saints Francis and Clare of Assisi. Francis, Cabeen says, “started this idea of the traveling preacher dependent on the gifts of the people.” But there are no obvious suggestions of travel in this exhibit’s finest work, La Fioretti III, whose dense design is tightly collaged in concentric oval rings. It suggests an almost mystical equivalence between materials, modes of representation, and actual objects.

Cabeen started with an oval-shaped section of commercial fabric printed with an image of stones at the center; the image is partially obscured by a thin piece of silk covering it. On the silk are tiny sequin stars trailed by green threads, evoking shooting stars or comets. At the outer edge is an enlarged photocopy of the stones, its edges cut irregularly to match the outlines of individual stones; inside that border the fabric is repeated in an oval band. Ringing the central image is a band of cloth flowers in various colors; at the center of each is an actual stone, bound with thread, where the flower seeds normally would be. Actual stones, it seems, are equivalent to printed ones. The concentric bands of flowers and stones combine to suggest a picture frame, making the center a kind of window. Yet the center’s silk covering serves as a barrier, arresting the gaze while the stars on the silk contradictorily offer a vista on infinity. Just as the bound stones are also seed clusters, so the center is both an obstruction and an opening. The work’s depth, which comes from embracing multiple possibilities, reflects a kind of thinking that includes the richness of experience without wanting to give any particular vision hegemony over any other.