SOPHIA NARRETT STUDIO VISIT
Originality in concept and medium is at times difficult for artists to achieve. Sophia Narrett has developed a style and body of work that is distinctly moving, and completely her own. She has elevated a medium (embroidery) typically reserved for crafts and clothing to fine art. She was gracious enough to walk us through her latest body of work and talk to us about developing narratives for each piece as well as an already packed 2016.
1. Can you walk us through the narrative of the show that you had at Arts + Leisure this summer titled, “This Meant Nothing”?
This Meant Nothing follows two women through a love story, which begins on the set of The Bachelor. When they first meet it briefly seems that their relationship might have a chance. Kendrick Lamar sings for them in an underwater garden, “I’ll take your girlfriend and put that pussy on a pedestal.” The story resolves itself painfully, when the women encounter a disturbing scene that they have no control over. One day they go backstage and accidentally intrude on a crewmember massaging a dead contestant on top of an aquarium. As the dead contestant’s girlfriend cries at her feet and tries to shoot the crewmember, the women part in a state of confusion and regret. In the final scene the abandoned woman slits her wrists as the Bachelor proposes to one of the other original contestants.
The narrative is cast with images of Lauren Morelli and Samira Wiley, the former of which is a writer for the TV show Orange is the New Black, and recently left her real life husband to be with Samira, one of the show’s actresses.
2. When beginning a new series do you have an idea of what the entire body of work will look like or does one piece evolve into the next?
This depends on the project. For This Meant Nothing I wrote the narrative before I began drafting the images, so I knew roughly how the plot would progress, and then as I began to design the images the narrative evolved further. I build the images in Photoshop before starting to embroider, and source most of the references online. By coincidence, the week that I was beginning my source collages to illustrate This Meant Nothing, I read about how Lauren Morelli and Samira Wiley had started dating. Their story, which itself blends fiction and reality, seemed like a perfect way to both illustrate and expand the narrative I had designed.
Other times the plot itself grows from one piece to the next. The narrative I’m currently developing is more an example of that, the final body of work will depict anecdotes and rules about a group of people who are playing emotional games with each other. Some pieces will work more to describe the setting or the particular history that has developed this community, while others will show singular interactions. This narrative is branching rather than directly sequential, so it has lent itself to a more piece-by-piece evolution.
3. Crying is a theme that is evident in the work in your studio right now. What is the narrative thus far of this body of work?
I cry a lot, when things are sad or beautiful, when I’m overwhelmed or feel alone. Sometimes it feels like an uncontrollable bodily function, like a sneeze, other times I wonder if it's a performance, an attempt at communication or plea for comfort or attention, even if there is no one watching. Crying is a visible manifestation of a feeling. As I attempt telling stories through still images, I’m incredibly interested in these types of demonstrations. I’m also drawn to the exaggeration that can sometimes be a part of crying. Melodrama can give a voice to emotions that feel too big to express, or perhaps being over the top is the only honest way to describe real feelings. A lot of the new narrative I’m working on is about people's attempts to communicate with, or even to manipulate each other, and how difficult but tempting this can be. Crying feels like a desperate and potentially cathartic way to try to share a one’s feelings.
4. How have sites like Tumblr and Instagram influenced your embroideries?
Tumblr is one of my main sources for imagery. It’s a network where there are so many interesting personalities and sexualities expressed through images which are often more organic and self-styled than those available in magazines or other mainstream media sources, but at the same time remain performative and staged. I’m drawn to these spaces of eroticism that may be idiosyncratic or softcore, and can explore identity, fashion, fetishes, and fantasy in general. Combining images from different sources is an exciting way to complicate and expand my initial ideas, by allowing the history of each layer to flavor the final image. While this is initially a process of genuine fantasy and exploration, it is also very important to me to think critically about what each image signifies in the real world and what it means to use it in a new context.
Instagram hasn’t influenced my work as directly yet, although it’s been a fun way to keep up with people’s work and lives.
5. Some of the themes you explore are explicit, yet the material you use seems to tame them. Is this intentional or just a byproduct of your chosen medium?
Embroidery erases the specificity of source images, a naked body embroidered is probably inherently less erotic than a photograph. With less detail perhaps things are less provocative or threatening. But I think this taming is also a product of miniaturization and narrative framing, in the same way that Victorian fairy painting made an acceptable space for eroticism. Situating sexual imagery within narratives or allegory creates a more open space to work things out, perhaps in the same way that sexual roleplay relies on theatrical bracketing.
This is a complicated question, and one I think about often. It’s not really an end goal to tame the images, although I think my work is about repression, shyness, and hesitation, as much as it is about liberation or desire, so this specific volume of eroticism is something I’m intentionally trying to calibrate. At the same time I don’t consider any of the initial reference images that I work with to be shocking. I’m not interested in embroidering these images for the reason that it might seem like the history of embroidery puts it at odds with eroticism, and that it might now be some kind of joke or transgression to collide the two. My ultimate motivation is to make images I need to see, and to describe specific fantasies and fears, and explicit imagery is a part of this.
Embroidery unites disparate source images into one image, which is simultaneously a physical object, and its physicality, as much as the image it depicts, is a testament to desire. So while the bodies may be adjusted to a tamer level of eroticism, I think they are also imbued with a different type of intensity stemming from the commitment that it takes to render them in thread.
6. The figures in both your sculptures and embroidered paintings are based on the scale of dolls but a lot of the smaller consumer goods (i.e. tissue boxes, necklaces, etc.) are to scale. What does this relationship in size mean to you?
The scale of the figures has always been a natural impulse for me, the 1:12 ratio (or 1 inch to 1 foot) is the scale of most dollhouses. I love the way that Susan Stewart talks about miniatures as vehicles of fantasy and projection in her book, On Longing. Stewart describes the freedom of the miniature from lived historical time, stating, “The miniature always tends towards tableau rather than toward narrative, toward silence and spatial boundaries rather than toward expository closure. Whereas speech unfolds in time, the miniature unfolds in space. The observer is offered a transcendent and simultaneous view of the miniature, yet is trapped outside the possibility of a lived reality of the miniature.” She explains that the borders and edges of a dollhouse are essential aspects that allow it to be a space for projection. As I create frozen images and tableaus that strive to embody a simultaneity of action, and favor description of set, characters, and narrative set-up over the explicit plot of written or other time based forms of narrative, the to-scale objects, which recently include jewelry, used tissues, house keys, drugs, fruit, cosmetics, and floral elements, become ways to frame and contain the fantasy, as well as to further elaborate the story. I think of the life size objects as props, and hope that they provide readable clues to the story.
7. Can you give people who are new to your work a quick overview of how you jumped from painting to embroidery?
I began making art as an oil painter. I struggled because I was always more interested in the idea of an image rather than in physically working with the paint. A few years ago I was experimenting with making small sculptures and painting on wooden plaques. At the time I was using embroidery thread in the sculptures, and I was incredibly drawn to the formal qualities of the thread, its luminosity, the way it existed as a set palette, and the way stitches function additively. My work had always been about telling stories so it seemed natural to try making a simple drawing out of the thread. From there I became addicted, and wanted to figure out how to make more elaborate images with embroidery. Embroidery turned out to be a tangible way to sublimate the ideas and emotions I was interested in depicting into the physicality of the objects themselves, in addition to portraying them through the image.
8. You have a residency program and solo show coming up in 2016 at Lux Art Institute in California, what are your plans for that?
While at Lux I plan to continue developing embroideries relating to the narrative I’ve recently begun around love and sex games, and a group of people engaged in them. The show will consist of new work made on site, as well as some of the embroideries I have created over the past few years.
9. What artists push you to look outside of your own worldview?
Hilary Harkness, Lisa Yuskavage, Rashid Johnson, Angela Dufresne, Hernan Bas, Chitra Ganesh, Marlene Dumas, Florine Stettheimer, Michaël Borremans, Naomi Fisher, Robert Graham
10. You have a busy 2016 ahead, what are your other plans post Lux residency?
I’m excited to be planning a solo show at Freight + Volume in September 2016. It will include the entire narrative I’m currently in the midst of.