1.5 / Review

On Being Blue

By Elyse Mallouk December 16, 2009

On view at She Works Flexible Now, Lynne McCabe’s home and gallery space in Berkeley, are new works by Amy Keefer. The space houses the work ad rem, opening it up to associations of domesticity, repetition, and care.

Bling Sling (2009) is a medical sling meant to keep the arm inert, painstakingly embroidered with three thousand royal blue vintage sequins. When worn, the arm looks fluid despite its rigidity, animated by the light that ripples off its surface. An apparatus meant only for stiffening support turns into an adornment. Sequins signify the value of the limb beneath them, and the cost of taking care. They function as a way to alter the kind of attention given to an injury and its mending. The piece is an emblem of devoted defiance. It is unabashed about the disobedience that must have occurred in its making: the sling cannot be worked upon and worn at the same time; its making requires the same motion it restricts. Keefer repeats a forbidden embellishment on the surface of the very object that forbids movement, and in doing so, performs the quiet resistance that runs like a rill through her work.

The past bores into Keefer’s work. It presses into every piece with each repeated stitch, with each new casting of the same mold, just as marks of lived-in use pervade the gallery— the home in which the works are shown. Hand embroidery, crochet, natural dyeing, and bobbin lace are old, laborious forms. Keefer’s process of steady, expansive attention collects in the objects as they are made, imbuing her work with significance that grows along with the time and care spent on their creation.

Eclipse (2009) is a series of twenty-eight soaps, hand-cast using indigo and laid out on an antique crocheted tablecloth. The symbolic resonance of hand washing is as old as the act itself. It evokes attempts to cleanse guilt, renounce responsibility, and conceal crimes. Indigo has its own ancient history and arduous production process.

Indigo has a volatile history of desire and overblown value, but has been largely replaced by synthetic dye. Originally, the plant leaves were bruised and fermented, and when the liquid

Eclipse (detail), 2009; crocheted tablecloth with handmade indigo soap; dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Artist and She Works Flexible Now, Berkeley.

Bling Sling, 2009; medical sling with three thousand vintage sequins; 8 x 17 in. Courtesy of the Artist and She Works Flexible Now, Berkeley.

dried, its erratic crystalline powder could be collected. Because Keefer makes her soaps with indigo in the oil, they dye the skin of the washer, making the signs of scouring visible, and thereby ineffectual. Forgetting is not allowed; some things cannot be washed away. The attempt to slough dyes the skin and uncovers rawness beneath. This is construction by means of subtraction and transfer, shedding and staining. It uses both the immediate and the ancient past in order to build a new, present relevance for age-old methods and metaphors.

Let Us Dream of Gold/Viva La Revolución, 2009; hand-knit gold lace; 8 x 18 in. Courtesy of the Artist and She Works Flexible Now, Berkeley.

Let Us Dream of Gold/Viva La Revolución (2009) is a hand-knit lace glove, constructed around needles placed at meridian points in the arm. These points are the sites for inserting acupuncture needles to release an overstrained grip. In this piece, they become tiny concentrated webs as the glove’s entire pattern develops around the minute punctures.

Keefer’s insistence on smallness and slowness demands attention to detail. Her work runs counter to more popular displays of shock and awe and results in a politics that is radical in its romance. "On Being Blue" is political in the poetic potential of its effort, not only in its effect. It creates and utilizes a space for slow, quiet, creeping resistance. On the surface, these pieces display pain and vulnerability, but each one also contains a hidden power: a threatening stillness, a building, changing repetition.

"On Being Blue" is on view at She Works Flexible Now in Berkeley through January 30, 2010. The gallery is open by appointment.


Elyse Mallouk is an artist and writer based in San Francisco, where she is currently a candidate for an MA in Visual and Critical Studies at California College of the Arts. Her thesis work concerns the social activity already always present in viewing. 

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