'STILL BURNING' Embroidery thread and fabric, approximately 57 by 50 inches, by Sophia Narrett.
Though still in the MFA program at the Rhode Island School of Design, Sophia Narrett has already received considerable critical attention. That may be partially due to her choice of media, paintings and embroideries, falling right into the trend of abolishing distinctions between craft and fine art. (Maybe it is actually time to finally take it for granted that the two are intricately linked and artistic tools of equal value and stop talking about it.) But the work's conceptual depth and exacting execution alone merits commendation.
Narrett has created "embroidered paintings" since 2011. Five of them, together with eleven acrylic-on-board paintings, are currently on view in SPACE's annex gallery, showcasing the continuities between the two media. Technically, the acrylics have luscious, variegated surfaces not unlike the textural quality of the embroideries. But the paintings are messier, built up of liquid layers, which causes edges, forms, and depth to become indeterminate. Figures are distorted, emerging out of fluid seas of color as if morphing from the aqueous to the human medium. These images remind me of the paintings by Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901) in which mythical water creatures cavort among the waves, embodying a sexual tension between lust and fear.
Similar ambivalence pervades the subjects of Narrett's paintings and embroideries. Warrens of vegetative entanglement have a strangling hold on the human body — maybe on its imagination of love and escape too? Nature is hardly a safe haven in these scenes of nude bodies suspended, but also potentially protecting and communing with nature.
The largest embroidery, "Still Burning," offers great evidence of Narrett's magnificent use of embroidery floss as she mirrors paint handling. Clouds are suggested through loosely hanging strands of floss in the appropriate colors, whereas elsewhere it is stitched in various lengths, shapes, and directions, suggesting the texture and quality of the depicted subjects. Unlike her paintings though, Narrett's embroideries do not adhere to a rectilinear format but are instead comprised of solid and empty spaces that achieve meaning by themselves in these tableaux of strange Arcadias. Like multiple Ophelias, nude maidens lie embedded in grass and marsh, some reaching upward. Are they being mourned or courted by the men holding flowers in their hands? Horses grazing throughout this scene seem indifferent to the suggestion of longing for transcendence or immersion.
Narrett lists literary works, song lyrics, music videos, and reality shows among her inspirations for the narrative scenarios and titles of her works. This show's title, "I Was Dreaming This," is taken from Willa Cather's O Pioneers!. There is something of the ambivalence of the Romantics toward nature in Narrett's work. The late-18th and 19th-century movement responded to the weakening of the human bond to the natural environment through increasing industrialization by transferring a range of human emotions onto nature. Narrett's work posits a certain awe of the land while also portraying it as alien. In her images nature is intertwined with the relationships between humans, conflating romance with romanticism. But there is also a sense of desperation and futility in the figures' actions toward each other and toward their surroundings. Their interaction with nature is a very physical one, not just a visual or ambulatory appreciation.