Yarn against patriarchy

Michelle Segre, “I Talk to Trees” (2021), yarn, canvas, muslin, acrylic polymer, thread, thread, sponge and lotus root, 144 x 187 x 33 inches (all images courtesy of the artist and Derek Eller Gallery, New York. Photo by Adam Reich)

When I saw Michelle Segre’s exhibition, two associations came to my mind, night choir, at Derek Eller Gallery (28 April – 28 May 2022). The first was the title of Moby’s song, “We Are All Made of Stars” (2002). The second is an image of the Helix Nebula, known as the “Eye of God.” As I made these and other connections, I realized that I couldn’t separate any cosmological intent from the work’s formal strengths, quirky use of materials, and bold colors. This raises another question: Are Segre’s works also hybrid sculptures of line drawings? Or is it a wall-hanging work of pop-color mixed painting liberated from the rectangle? What does her use of yarn, dry food and weaving indicate?

The fact that Segre’s work resists traditional definitions such as sculpture and painting is not new, nor is she interested in a world that requires observation of scientific instruments. In 2014, when I first reviewed her work, I wrote that her “sources appear to be science fiction movies and TV shows, as well as molecular biology and crystallography.” I was particularly interested in her approach to sculpture as being able to communicate and transmitters of information, as well as an interest in the 16th century English Kabbalist Robert Vlad and his mind Mapping.

As far as I can tell, Segre has stayed true to these concerns, which seem to have little to do with her contemporaries. What has changed in nearly a decade is scale and color. The work got bigger and the colors got thicker. Essentially, Segre has gone from a truly fascinating sculptor, using unlikely materials (namely moldy bread and carrots), to a bold and engaging alternative to consumer culture’s desire for timelessness and The love of shiny substances. She does this by refusing to adapt her work to the market and make it more marketable.

Michelle Segre, “Red Sun” (2021), canvas, acrylic polymer, acrylic ink, yarn, thread, wire and lotus root, 125 x 125 x 9 inches

Made from canvas, acrylic polymer, acrylic ink, yarn, thread, thread and dried lotus root, “Red Sun” (2021) is an eye-like structure of red lines radiating from a central red disc to surrounding double A band of yarn whose circumference is stretched between two rigid linear structures. The suspension of the disc (or star) within the frame is a form Segre explores in the exhibition’s three large sculptures, two mounted on the wall and one freestanding. In the wall-mounted “I Conversations with Trees” (2021), I read the blue circle in the middle of the bright yellow egg-shaped disc with the pupil in red. The yellow eyes are suspended in a woven blue frame-like structure by strips of yellow cloth, but as I expected, Segre didn’t stop there. Two other sections extend from the blue frame: a series of rectangular bands, each with a different color of yarn, and mesh triangles extending from the yarn rectangles.

Yarns are flexible, durable, fragile and pre-industrial. It is the opposite of weathering steel and mirror polished stainless steel. Segre makes no claim that her work can withstand the passage of time. Yarn is better for sweaters than sculpture. However, I don’t think her art can be seen solely through a feminist or mixed-sex lens. Instead of working within the confines of an established discourse, or linking herself to a minimalist or post-minimalist heritage, or reaffirming one of the fundamental forms of sculpture, the column, she dives deeper into her work in A field that it first carved out for itself more than two decades ago.

However, despite her unorthodox material and rejection of perfection and literalism, I think it would be wrong to see her as fringe work. There are some core implications in her rejection of the famous timeless model championed by Richard Serra and Jeff Koons. Her use of impermanent materials such as food in her work underscores our existence in a region of ever-changing emergencies. Her art is more in line with the real world we live in than the ideal world proposed and refined by the art world and its institutions.

Michelle Segre, “Chorus of Eight” (2021), yarn, tinsel, metal, acrylic polymer, pulp, plaster, beeswax, and dried mushrooms, 144 x 166 x 54 inches

Although not explicitly linking them, it seems to me that Segre and Robert Smithson have something in common in their views on impermanence and time. However, while the Smithsonian focuses most of his attention on geological time and entropy, the Segre mushroom becomes stars and eyes, from small objects to large objects, eyes to shamanic projections, and travels through dreams and hallucinations. She celebrates a changed way of seeing the world and being. Whose eyes did she frame in “I Talk to the Tree”? Is her sun red due to pollution and smog in the environment? What does it mean to make structural sculptures out of yarn, thread and strips of cloth? Doesn’t Segre’s brilliant alternative to the timeless patriarchal aesthetic of men upend the legacy of oppression?

Instead of being in awe of the latest evidence of precision manufacturing, we stand in front of a large artisanal object in which the craftsmanship is neither evident nor fascinated. How does the loose, impermanent weave of yarn and strips of frayed colored cloth allow viewers to scrutinize how the work was made, as we do in Jackson Pollock’s “Rhythm of Autumn (No. 30)” (1950)? How We See chaotic, fluid weaves and connections? I can’t think of anyone else who makes art like Segre, especially on this scale. However, they don’t feel monumental or overwhelming. Independent “Eight Body Chorus” (2021) is a 12 feeling high, but not feeling. Segre’s work has a lot going on, when it comes to her use of materials, how we define objects in a post-minimalist era, and the themes she might be tackling , I’ve only scratched the surface.

Michel Segre: Chorus of the Night On view at Derek Eller Gallery (300 Broome Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through May 28. The exhibition is organized by the gallery.

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