Threading My Labyrinth

By Elaine Reichek
Published for the exhibition Frances Trombly: Paintings
Girls’ Club, Fort Lauderdale, FL, United States

When I first began working with embroidery I actually didn’t see myself as working with embroidery—I’d trained as a painter, and I thought it might be interesting to use thread as another way to make a line. I liked the idea that a line could exist independently from its support, whether canvas or paper, and that a needle and thread could penetrate the support and loop behind it, instead of just lying on top of it like a brushstroke or a pencil mark. The first works I made using thread were shown in the 1970s. When I looked at what I’d done, I realized that I was embroidering, and I thought that was just great, but what could I do with it? Thread was not a considered a “real” art material. But then I decided that was an opportunity—the possibility of exploring alternate histories in an alternative medium seemed like a completely interesting trajectory. I’m really a conceptual artist, I’ve never thought of my work as being just about embroidery, and now that there are many other artists using thread I am hoping that all our work can be seen as something more than the way we have chosen to produce it.

That said, embroidery has a fascinating history that certainly rivals painting’s for longevity and value. The gender politics and historical connotations associated with embroidery I find absorbing and important, and I’m fascinated by its connection with the digital: it’s been called the hypertext of the Silk Route, and the Jacquard loom, a weaving and pattern-making loom invented at the beginning of the nineteenth century, provided the binary system that Charles Babbage adopted for his Analytical Engine, the first prototype for the computer.

The body of work I’m making now, Adriadne’s Thread, uses thread as a primary metaphor. As a contemporary artist, I’m somewhat surprised to have repeatedly found my work returning to Greek legend and myth. I’ve dealt with figures from these stories a number of times: Penelope, Arachne, Philomela, the Fates. The story of Ariadne is often told first as the story of Theseus, the hero who killed the Minotaur, the monster—half bull, half man—of the Cretan labyrinth. That feat would have been impossible without Ariadne, who gave Theseus the clue that allowed him, having found his way into the labyrinth, to then find his way out. Her reward: Theseus eloped with her only to desert her, abandoning her on the island of Naxos. Actually he sailed away while she was asleep. The god Dionysus (whom the Romans called Bacchus), however, picked this moment of despair to propose to her, and as Dionysus’s wife, the wife of a god, she became immortal, her crown becoming one of the constellations in the night sky, where it stands to this day.

The story has many turning meanings, and over the centuries has fascinated numerous artists and writers, from Titian to Warhol, from Ovid to Eliot and Borges. For me, an artist who embroiders, it is powerful and symbolic as the story of a thread—for the key, the clue or clew, that Ariadne gives Theseus is in fact a thread, which he lays down to guide himself through the labyrinth. The labyrinth itself, of course, is an enduring symbol, around the world and across the millennia—one of those images that is invested with significance in the unconscious. The Minotaur, as a fusion of animal and man, has been seen as a sign for the struggle to understand what it is to be human. And the story is one of emotional risk, in which both the punishments and the prizes that risk entails are fully realized. In loving Theseus, and helping him and running away with him, Ariadne cuts herself off from her previous life. She gives up everything, and loses—but then she triumphs, trading in a king for a god, the Apollonian for the Dionysian.

I am exploring this story through a series of embroideries, making some by hand, some by digital sewing machine, and one, for the first time in my work, by designing and commissioning a tapestry. That work, on the scale of a history painting and in fact based on a Titian, was woven with computerized technology in a Belgian mill. The series as a whole, then, appropriately for the story of Ariadne, is a kind of minicompendium of the possibilities of thread, and of the possibilities that the medium of embroidery can offer an artist interested in expanding the canon of art. What seemed in the 1970s like a simple gesture, substituting needle and thread for the traditional paintbrush or pencil, has opened onto a world.