Defiant Ornamentation: Ceremonial Vestments at Melanie Flood Projects

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Defiant Ornamentation: Ceremonial Vestments at Melanie Flood Projects

By Lusi Lukova March 6, 2019

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.


In Martha Daghlian’s first solo show at Melanie Flood Projects, the artist and curator presents Ceremonial Vestments, a series of ornately hand-sewn garments. The five dramatically lush works, accompanied by a video performance by Daghlian, serve as tender homages to a set of historic women selected by the artist. Despite their tantalizingly saccharine nature, these works pay tribute neither to the girlhood game of dress-up nor to the careful craft of textile production. Instead, attention is focused on specific incidents of what Daghlian calls “transformational violence,” as she toggles between the limitations imposed by femininity within her own person and similar instances commonly navigated in artistic practices.  

Beneath the exuberant application of lace, beads, brocade, and taffeta, the embroidered panels on the front of each vestment depict grim scenes of violence, which distance them from playful costumes. VAL (2017), the two-piece ensemble immediately to the right of the gallery entrance, consists of a tube top and a flowing skirt made of a rich, green botanical print. Nestled between unabashedly adhered felted flowers and decorative tufts of colorful yarn, the embroidered scene on the skirt reads like a children’s fairytale gone horribly wrong. It commemorates the vicious crocodile attack of the eco-feminist Val Plumwood; the image of the beast tearing into Plumwood’s thigh is painstakingly captured in thread. Despite the brutality, Daghlian documents this scene to highlight the way in which Plumwood’s recovery sparked some of her most valuable philosophical writings on gendered dualisms. Daghlian augments this narrative with a lively visualization of that revelatory moment. The meticulous application of the embroidery envisions the extremity of the violence while the soft, plush medium lessens its visual gruesomeness.

Partly inspired by the embroidery of ecclesiastical textiles, which often portray saints in the throes of unsightly martyrdom, the “transformational violence” that Daghlian displays is not to be confused with either victimization or sainthood. The incidents detailed symbolize profound moments in these women’s lives, ultimately leading to devotion in their careers. Their stories are intense and complex; they may not be summarized within a narrative structure of trauma versus empowerment. Instead, these garments intend to provide a critical access point for Daghlian to consider her role as a woman and an artist. With Daghlian’s self-imposed sparkly femme aesthetic, these works are an attractive attempt to undercut the current of objectification.

Although each of the works in the exhibition presents grandeur and pageantry, FRIDA (2017) is the only work that drapes like a robe of the clergy. As it hangs on the wall, held by a plastic dowel and a cheerfully kitschy chain, FRIDA’s mass of yellow chenille fabric is constructed with a fringed hole for the neck and two brazen stitches that mark armholes on either side. This shabby construction, resplendent with loose stitches and haphazard impracticalities, does little in the way of identifying this as a wearable item. The embroidered scene, however, veers away from Daghlian’s initial visual nonchalance and with skillful precision canonizes Frida Kahlo’s unfortunate bus accident, in which she was impaled by a rod and left with immobilizing chronic pain. The incident became a catalyzing factor in her prolific painting career.

Martha Daghlian. Ceremonial Vestments, 2018; installation view, Melanie Flood Projects. Courtesy of Melanie Flood Projects. Photo: Mario Galluci.

The mastery of these works is in their intended double juxtaposition of a narrative tactfulness and a casual disregard for structural unity. The crude physical construction of each piece gives the appearance that it may rip if handled too roughly. In comparison, the intricate and laboriously detailed embroideries convey grit, equal to the strength of each woman memorialized. The conflation of the girlish and joyful tone of the fabrics is purposefully inconsistent with the complicated and bloody rendition of each narrative. Daghlian demonstrates that loud pinks and floral prints are not equatable solely with feminine frivolity and inferiority. In RONDA AND HOLLY (2017), the famous mixed-martial-arts fighters Ronda Rousey and Holly Holm are shown in the throes of a grisly fight. Daghlian has lavishly embellished the jumper with gold stars and bright yellow thread, ornamentations not characteristic to the two women but fitting with Daghlian’s artistic inclinations. The profession of inflicting pain for sport is realistically reproduced on the upper portion of the garment, amid spirited flourishes of glitter.

For GRISELDA (2017), an image of the infamous “Queen of Narco-Trafficking” Griselda Blanco is emblazoned on the front of a delicate, strappy dress, in the act of cruelly gunning down her husband and usurping his massive drug cartel. As Daghlian has taken the time to carefully capture the way blood vividly spurts out of him as he topples backward, likewise, not a detail is misplaced, down to Blanco’s red pumps, red ribbon on her hat, or her own red blood spattering out of her wound. Daghlian calls Griselda “fascinating in a train-wreck sort of way,” one in which a healthy doses of skepticism and celebration may be employed for this moment of potent upheaval.

Martha Daghlian. Can I Speak of Carnal Art?, 2019; video; installation view, Ceremonial Vestments, Melanie Flood Projects. Courtesy of Melanie Flood Projects. Photo: Mario Galluci.

ORLAN (2017) is named after the artist Saint-ORLAN, infamous for her poetic manipulation of the body. Simple in form, the garment has a straight body that ends below the knees with an unfinished hem. Ornamental hearts, a pink collar-turned-scarf, and excessive fringe complete this indulgent piece. Born Mireille Suzanne Francette Porte, Saint-ORLAN reinvented herself in the 1990s with her most daring performance, a project in which she had routine cosmetic surgery, while fully conscious, transforming herself to more closely resemble classical ideals in Western art. The unabashed nature of Saint-ORLAN’s reincarnation drew Daghlian to reexamine, through the less extreme medium of dress, the manner in which women can manipulate their outward appearances. In Can I Speak of Carnal Art? (2019), an intentionally glitchy video reminiscent of fuzzy VHS recordings, Daghlian wears the ORLAN vestment as she sits in front of a mirror, drawing surgical incisions on her face with makeup, which mimic the ones undergone by the French artist. The performance makes a case for the ease with which one can hide or perform one’s identity.  

Each garment within Ceremonial Vestments is a scene of worship of its subject and her commitment to inhabiting a duality of strength within herself. This personal ideal—that one can be both tough and soft—is the charge behind the overabundance of hearts, sparkles, and stereotypically feminine elements incorporated into the garments. They serve as a biting commentary, in opposition to a masculine fear of unfettered and outwardly dainty expression. In crafting these pieces, Daghlian’s primary objective was to convey these compelling stories of female figures in positions of pain and power. Not intending to make bold statements about how to present one’s gender, these vestments serve as aesthetic meters. They guide examination into the hierarchies one’s work operates within and what inherent biases that reveals. Daghlian says, “These are the types of feminisms that aren’t easy to attach a hashtag to or to organize marches about.” Her esoteric practice confesses her aversion to the implicit judgments that come from unquestioned gender assumptions. The conflation of girlishness and fragility, of delicate textiles and callous imagery, undercuts the gendered chain of command that curtails genuine expression as pomp and vanity. To describe Daghlian’s practice is to honor it as unapologetically loud.

Martha Daghlian: Ceremonial Vestments is on view at Melanie Flood Projects in Portland, Oregon through March 23, 2019.

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