“He is survived by his longtime companion”: Feeling in the Work of Josh Faught

6.3 / Dimensions: Expanded Measures of Textiles

“He is survived by his longtime companion”: Feeling in the Work of Josh Faught

By Elissa Auther February 26, 2015

This essay has been excerpted and revised from the forthcoming publication, Nation Building: Craft and Contemporary American Culture (London: Bloomsbury Press in cooperation with the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2015).

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Josh Faught has long associated his work with the past in a way that moves readily between personal and social history. His 2012 solo exhibition at Lisa Cooley in New York titled Longtime Companion was exemplary in this regard. Faught’s title was drawn from the euphemism in the phrase, “he is survived by his longtime companion,” one often applied in obituaries in the New York Times and other mainstream news outlets in the early years of the AIDS crisis to refer to the same-sex partners of gay men. Longtime Companion is also the title of the first feature-length film about AIDS to receive wide distribution in the United States. Released in 1989 and directed by Norman René, the film charts the devastation of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s through the personal stories of a group of gay white men residing in New York City. René’s decision to build his narrative around his characters’ emotional challenges in response to AIDS—ranging from fear, denial, and shame to acceptance and grief—came under fire from film critics and AIDS activists as clichéd, sentimental, and politically compromised.1 With the rise of ACT UP in the late 1980s and its promotion of a brand of activism that sought to convert individual grief over the loss of friends, lovers, and community to collective anger over government inaction, representations like the film Longtime Companion, as well as popular forms of mourning such as the candlelight vigil, were increasingly shunned as ineffectual, irrelevant, and even embarrassing.

Josh Faught. It Takes a Lifetime to Get Exactly Where You Are, 2012; handwoven sequin trim, handwoven hemp, cedar blocks, cotton, polyester, wool, cochineal dye (from ground cochineal insects), straw hat with lace, toilet paper, paper towels, scrapbooking letters, Jacquard-woven reproduction of a panel from the AIDS Memorial Quilt, silk handkerchief, indigo dye, political pins, disaster blanket, gourd, gold leaf, plaster cat, cedar blocks, and nail polish; 8 x 20 ft. Courtesy of Lisa Cooley, New York.

With these references in mind, Faught’s exhibition Longtime Companion captured a moment in the mid-1980s to early 1990s surrounding the representational politics of AIDS. Faught explored this moment alongside the history and practice of craft, despite how incongruous—even trivial—the pairing might seem. These histories directly intersected in a specific component of the exhibition: woven replicas of portions of the Names Project’s AIDS Memorial Quilt (1987–present), the largest ongoing, community fiber project in the world dedicated to the memorialization of people lost to the AIDS pandemic. Like the film Longtime Companion, the quilt’s sentimentality and its function as a vehicle for grieving was received with skepticism by many AIDS activists, not to mention prominent members of the art world, where the same attributes were, and often continue to be, regarded as hallmarks of non-serious art. As many observers and supporters of the quilt have noted, its aesthetic and emotional power is rooted in the very terms of its dismissal; for instance, its amateurish quality is a form of craft that highlights a human touch and fosters emotional connections to handwork and materials. Faught’s signature style of decoratively dense eccentricity in fiber is similarly charged, and throughout his installation, craft was deployed in the service of a broad investigation of dismissed or suppressed histories, lifestyles, and feelings.

Faught’s Longtime Companion consisted of a group of eight wall-mounted fiber works and two large cedar structures occupying the gallery’s center. The fiber works featured Faught’s distinctively loose, pieced, asymmetrical, or irregular weavings with crocheted pods and pockets, webs, draped fabric, fringe, frayed knots, sequins, and loose threads. A cochineal dye was the source of the works’ color palette, ranging from blood red to a softer petal pink. These works also extended his previous use of pin-back badges with tongue-in-cheek catchphrases like “Destined To Be An Old Broad With Plenty To Bitch About” and “Call Me A Romantic, But I Still Give Head.” Other works, such as Calendar (2012), which included personal mementos like greeting cards received from his mother and grandmother, referred to the passing of time and seasonal transitions. Also related to Faught’s iconography of transitions was his use of the colonial American reversible weaving technique, Summer and Winter, in a series of woven bands; elsewhere in the gallery, the works reappeared in reverse.

Josh Faught. Longtime Companion, 2012; installation view. Courtesy of Lisa Cooley, New York. Courtesy of Lisa Cooley, New York.

Housed within the wooden structures, which combined hanging and shelving spaces like a chifforobe, were a series of books and sundry tchotchkes. The structure titled Summer (Dona Z. Meilach) (2012) contained some craft publications written by Meilach, the very popular author of how-to books of the 1970s and 1980s, which are now available on the Internet for as little as ninety-nine cents. Encased within the exterior frame of this piece was a woven replica of a newsletter by the organization PFLAG (formerly known as Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) from the summer of 1995, the year Faught himself came out. Summer (Dona Z. Meilach) also housed two felt replicas of plaid, long-sleeve shirts illustrated in another how-to publication, Beverly Gordon’s Feltmaking.2 The pair of shirts immediately brought to mind Brokeback Mountain (2005)—one of the most widely viewed films featuring a homosexual relationship—particularly the tear-jerking scene in which Ennis discovers his lost shirt hanging with one belonging to his deceased lover Jack, who had preserved them in his childhood bedroom; Ennis lifts the shirts to his face and silently weeps. In the exhibition, on the shelf above the shirts was a fabric-covered jar labeled “Josh’s lip gloss,” among other homemade items. Soft sculptures of pies rested on top of the structure and on the floor. An identical wooden structure titled Winter (Ann Rule) (2012) was a pendant work and included a different series of books (Rule’s true-crime investigations), versions of the felt shirts shown from the rear and in reverse pattern, and a replica of a PFLAG newsletter from the winter of 1995.

Faught’s Longtime Companion recovered a particular moment in the history of the gay community

The exhibition’s centerpiece was It Takes a Lifetime to Get Exactly Where You Are (2012; hereafter, It Takes a Lifetime) a twenty-foot-long sewn assemblage of woven bands and panels with applied buttons, sequins, hanging bells, adhesive letters and numbers, aromatic cedar blocks, and a woman’s straw hat. Two dried gourds and a lifelike ceramic cat sat on the floor in front of the work. The right end of this monumental work consisted of a woven replica of a segment of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. It highlighted some of the quilt’s most distinctive features, including the placement of panels devoted to celebrities—in this case, Liberace—next to those of ordinary citizens, the tombstone convention of birth and death dates, and the creative cacophony of the juxtaposition of personalized, handmade panels.

Faught’s Longtime Companion recovered a particular moment in the history of the gay community that has passed and that many fear may be forgotten, as the early association of AIDS with gay men wanes and the virus becomes more accepted as a chronic but manageable condition. Unlike the recent revival of interest in the art and heroic activism of ACT UP, Faught’s installation focused on forms of activism hardly recognized as such, including forms of caregiving and grassroots networks of support that are not usually integrated into official histories and are often subject to dismissal as merely creative, ameliorative, or apolitical.

These archives are brought to life through the medium of fiber

In this regard, Faught was inspired by a recent retrospective on AIDS: David Weissman and Bill Weber’s 2011 documentary, We Were Here.3 The film is a first for its reflective and emotional view of the arrival and devastation of AIDS in San Francisco through the personal stories of five individuals (four men and one woman) who lived through it as caregivers: a professional nurse, a volunteer hospice worker, a lover and primary caretaker at home, a neighborhood florist providing discounted funeral arrangements, and a grassroots community organizer. Faught attended the film’s premiere in San Francisco at the Castro Theater, a landmark institution in the historically gay Castro neighborhood, and he has remarked how, in this context, the screening functioned as a very moving, public form of mourning.The stories told in We Were Here enabled this function by approaching the psychological, cultural, and social devastation wrought by AIDS through lived experiences and feelings generally absent from histories of the epidemic. Weissman and Weber validated these experiences and feelings by including them in the film as legitimate forms of historical evidence. Faught’s exhibition was a non-narrative parallel to this strategy. Longtime Companion combined historical yet otherwise unremarkable ephemera and an approach to craft that accentuated the fiber medium’s tactile relationship to the body and its myriad cultural associations with home, family and private life, security, and comfort.

In Longtime Companion, the ephemera primarily appeared in the form of archives documenting networks of care and support that have been translated or integrated into fiber works that preserved and enhanced a variety of emotional attributes.5 The archive of networks included the woven replicas of the AIDS quilt, how-to and other books, woven PFLAG newsletters, pin-back badges, greeting cards, and a wide array of fiber techniques. Within the exhibition, these archival elements represented forms of support, some of which extend to networks and the creation of communities and identities. Remnants of cultural traces and lifestyles that sit uncomfortably within the historical record, these archives were brought to life through the medium of fiber—and Faught’s manipulation of this medium—which invested them with a renewed affective character.

Josh Faught. Summer (Dona Z. Meilach), 2012 (detail of Dona Z. Meilach library); 66 x 51.5 x 37 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

If the replicated portions of the AIDS Memorial Quilt composed the most recognizable archival reference in Longtime Companion, one of the more obscure, and humorous, examples was the Dona Z. Meilach library. Meilach is arguably the most prominent author of the how-to-book genre, which has defined craft—and especially fiber-based work—as a lesser artistic form since its inception. With this collection, Faught recuperated a late 1960s and 1970s moment in craft history marked by studio craft’s bid for artistic status, a revival of craft within the counterculture, and the related popularity of hobby-based craft among the general public. Faught’s own history as an artist was implicated here. The artist has variously explained the way his encounters with craft—at summer camp, as a fibers-department student at the industry-oriented Fashion Institute of Technology, then as a graduate student in the more theoretically open Fiber and Material Studies program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and in the established medium-specific world of fiber art, where he has been received as something of a gadfly—contributed to his irreverent, bricoleur approach to craft. His amalgam of attention to technique and the look of improvisational free play (in loose ends and visible joins), the elevation of forms like crochet, and the juxtaposition of inharmonious materials illustrates Faught’s complicated relationship to aesthetic norms. His work is a declaration of, to use the words of Lauren Berlant, “the freedom to give up getting legitimacy in normal terms.”6

Another archive was incorporated into It Takes a Lifetime, a series of woven bands with phrases like “Police at the Door,” “Unwanted Marks,” and “Difficulty Breathing”: the chapter titles of the how-to guide Dungeon Emergencies and Supplies that Faught picked up in a store catering to the leather subculture.7 The bands, woven in the Summer and Winter technique, visually translated the potential sex-dungeon reversal of pleasure into disaster as a reversible pattern. Works like Laugh All You Want But Someday We’ll Be In Charge (2011), made of pieced and sutured felt blankets, furthered the installation’s theme of the reversal of fortune. The author of Dungeon Emergencies and Supplies, Jay Wiseman, is the Dona Z. Meilach of the BDSM community with eleven books, three videos, a popular workshop program, and a website full of lifestyle resources to his credit. On his website Wiseman also records the history of the San Francisco BDSM community’s vexed relationship to the sexual mainstream (both gay and straight) in the late 1960s and 1970s as a shameful perversion, a story that in its general contours mirrors that of the studio-craft world’s disavowal of popular and DIY practices.

Pin-backed badges or buttons on the surface of Faught’s works symbolize a kind of support network for the socially marginal. In some cases, their passive-aggressive humor is the stock-in-trade of the beleaguered administrative assistant—illustrated by the slogan “Your Deadline Is Not My Emergency”—who barely keeps a lid on anger over power relations in the workplace. Other buttons capture politically incorrect feelings and desires or compensate for personal disappointment and frustration, as in “I Don’t Drink, I Don’t Dance, I Hate Astrology, and I Have No Phone.” Their inclusion in Longtime Companion, as in other Faught works, functioned as a form of address that establishes an “I” speaking to a “you” and imbues the techniques of crochet, weaving, and sewing—techniques historically associated with craft—with a pathos even more alien to the contemporary art world in their speaking subject’s demand for recognition. The attachment of the buttons to the surface of the works also supported another connection between craft and social networks. Faught says, “There’s something about the process of crochet and weaving that lends itself to accumulation and collection. I really do see a lot of those works as a kind of handspun pegboard like the kind that people hang in their garages…[with] all the tools you need for survival or just to get through the day…Craft on all levels (particularly those crafts taught in Dona Meilach’s books) also function as a kind of support system in that way.”8

Josh Faught. Untitled, 2012; disaster blanket, nail polish, and linen thread on canvas; 43 x 36 x 2 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Lest the viewer of Longtime Companion try losing him- or herself in the exhibition’s hopeful self-help declarations, the utopian aspirations of the how-to book, or the comforting memorials and materials, Faught undercut it all with an equally sinister iconography: of disaster blankets; blood-red, cochineal-soaked crochet; Rule’s books about neighbors and coworkers who turn out to be serial killers; disease; personality disorder; and sexual encounters gone terribly wrong. These elements and themes—of mishap, catastrophe, and dysfunction—constituted their own, equally powerful narrative that ran parallel to the more aspiring, hopeful, or heartfelt sentiments highlighted in this essay. Of course, these two threads are intertwined in reality, and we experience disappointment and disaster as much as we enjoy the comforts of creative practice, identification, and companionship. Ultimately, Faught shows us that fiber is just as easily marshaled for discomfort and fear as it is for nostalgia and belonging, suggesting that a thin line exists between the affective states associated with pleasure and danger.

Notes

  1. For a recent assessment of reactions to Longtime Companion, see David Román, “Remembering AIDS: A Reconsideration of the Film Longtime Companion,” GLQ 12, no. 2 (2006): 281–301.
  2. Beverly Gordon, Feltmaking (New York: Watson-Guptill, 1980).
  3. David Weissman and Bill Weber, We Were Here, New Video, 2011.
  4. As told in conversation with the author, September 25, 2012.
  5. On the subject of archives and affect in Faught’s work, I am indebted to the insights of Ann Cvetkovich’s An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures (Durham: Duke University, 2003).
  6. Sina Najafi, David Serlin, and Lauren Berlant, “The Broken Circuit: An Interview with Lauren Berlant,” Cabinet Magazine 31 (Fall 2008), accessed October 2012, http://cabinetmagazine.org/issues/31/najafi_serlin.php.
  7. Jay Wiseman, Dungeon Emergencies and Supplies (San Francisco: Greenery Press Toybag Guides, 2004).
  8. From an email correspondence with the author, September 27, 2012.

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