Queer Threads: Crafting Identity and Community, currently on view at the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, confirms how productive a dialogue between queer theory and critical craft theory can be. The twenty-four participating artists in the exhibition interpret and complicate the rich histories of these theoretical frameworks in a variety of ways. The resulting conversation illuminates certain commonalities between the two fields, in particular a shared struggle against marginalization and denigration.
The terms “queer” and “craft” have both been reclaimed by their communities to dislodge disparaging and ghettoizing stereotypes (in considering the reclamation of terms historically associated with marginalized communities into ones of agency and empowerment, I am indebted to L.J. Roberts’ article, “Put Your Thing Down, Flip It and Reverse It: Re-imaging Craft Identities Using Queer Theory”). “Queer” became employed as a term of agency and empowerment in the 1980s, embraced for its ability to recognize a wide and fluid range of sexual identifications, and for shedding the associations with which the term “gay” was saddled at the height of the AIDS crisis. “Queer” is by nature ambiguous, rejecting simplistic heteronormative labels and systems. Likewise, in the early 2000s, the field of craft was in dire need of reclamation. Connotations of craft as amateurish, hobbyist, traditionally feminine, or conceptually empty spurred several major art institutions to drop the term from their official title. In 2002, the Bay Area art school California College of Arts and Crafts became just California College of the Arts, despite the institution’s deep history with the Arts and Crafts movement. In 2003, the American Craft Museum in New York became the Museum of Arts and Design. These very public dissociations from the word “craft” have prompted a new generation of craft activists and theorists to fight against craft’s second-class status in visual culture. New terms like “critical craft” or “contemporary craft” are being employed to shape a new progressive discourse around the medium.
Consideration of these fields’ analogous backgrounds of repression and reclamation underscores why craft can be so advantageous in articulating queer experiences and queer identities. Disidentification, a queer theoretical tactic, is about the “recycling and rethinking of encoded meaning.” Craft has been burdened with a host of gendered and disempowering assumptions, but these assumptions become assets in the hands of artists aimed at exposing essentializing and exclusionary cultural messages about identity, sexuality, and desire.
For Queer Threads, artist Nathan Vincent created Locker Room (2011), a life-size installation of a men’s locker room made entirely out of crocheted yarn. This site, loaded with heteronormative machismo and a history of vulnerability and exposure for queer bodies, is now completely covered with the ultra-feminine handicraft of crochet. The clever mixing of references dismantles the stability and validity of both sets of gendered assumptions.
Melanie Braverman’s piece, titled Queer (date), is a handmade patchwork quilt embroidered with a series of queer terms. Words like “top,” “pussy,” and “fag” are carefully embroidered in the palest of pink silk ribbon. The quilt itself is small and delicate, conjuring up a girlish childhood item of comfort and protection. The text on top raises both the queer notions of being “born this way” and the enculturation of gender norms inescapable in childhood. The quilt can thus fluctuate between acting as a metaphor for the “blanket” conventions of gender that society and parents enforce on children, and the experience of knowing at a young age one’s own dissonance from such conventions.
Also invested in working with familial allusions is the artist Sheila Pepe, whose Your Granny’s Not Square (2008) is a clever play on the granny-square crochet technique and a reference to the grandmotherly associations tied to the medium. Pepe also directly references her own family in her material choice, using shoelaces in addition to yarn as a nod to her father, who was a shoemaker. She seeks to position the work formally and theoretically with seminal fiber works by Eva Hesse and Faith Wilding, putting herself in conversation with the history of textiles in feminist art practices. She is literally interweaving her personal history within a larger network of craft-specific art history.
Similarly concerned with a forging of new queer connections is the artist LJ Roberts, whose work, The Queer Houses of Brooklyn in the Three Towns of Brueklen, Boswyck, and Midwout During the 41st Year of the Stonewall Era (2011), is a vibrant assemblage of knitting, embroidery, and quilting that documents queer collectives in Brooklyn. Making reference to both the AIDS quilt and ACT UP iconography, it aligns itself with a lineage of queer advocacy. Its DIY aesthetic, overwhelming scale, and the detail of the work are ripe for examining the effort and endurance required to make new safe spaces for the queer community. It is an archive of the new families that are built in an enduring quest for belonging.
Queer Threads is a thoughtful record of the ongoing conversation between queer theoretical investments and critical craft theory. It also accentuates a shared potency between craft and queer thought: the ability to articulate difference and even flexibility within their own labels. As the art historian Julia Bryan Wilson has said, “Craft objects, like queer desires, are multiple….they refuse to be any one thing.” The works in this show epitomize this ability to oscillate in their meaning. They underscore the strength of critical frameworks that disavow overdetermined and essentializing expectations, and thus make space for a richer multiplicity of identities, practices, and interpretations.
Queer Threads: Crafting Identity and Community is on view at the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art through March 16, 2014.
 L.J. Roberts, “Put Your Thing Down, Flip It, and Reverse It: Re-Imaging Craft Identities Using Queer Theory,” in Extra/Ordinary: Craft Culture and Contemporary Art, ed. Maria Elena Buszek (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2011).