YETI, KING KONG, the Muppets and embroidery all get strung through Megan Whitmarsh’s work. It’s monumental and humble, and you could place it somewhere on the art historical spectrum between Claes Oldenberg and Judy Chicago, somewhere in the nexus of his giant lipstick growing out of a tank and her Dinner Party. Whitmarsh calls it a “rueful Pop Art.” And, her work does hearken back to the early 70s (A question we at The Weeklings ponder here, why is that moment so often appearing in contemporary art as a reference point and touchstone now?).
But pop art isn’t the full story. Whitmarsh was born in 1972 with hippy, academic parents, so that era seems an apt reference, but that would ignore the other part of it, the one that takes pop culture and looks at how it informs all culture. In her work there’s no divide, no high V. low – and no judgment. Her sculpture is warm and familiar; by taking the recognizable and remaking it, she questions what it means and how we got there. A couple years ago she recreated her studio in fabric and embroidery and for a recent installation at Jack Hanley similar things again came under her hand – or embroidery needle. Like Dawn Kasper does by moving her life into her gallery, here in Whitmarsh’s hands what things mean come under question, and so too do those actual things by this transformation into “art.” Her recent show at Jack Hanley included abstract paintings done in embroidery.
She started sewing first as she finished her MFA: “I felt like everything cool had been done and done way better then I was going to do it. In retrospect I think embroidery is a natural medium for me partly because I grew up around it (my mom sewed and embroidered); and because I am drawn to limited, simple technologies. I don’t even like to use a sewing machine. I think there is something optimistic about using very simple mediums—it gives the viewer a sense that they too can create. I saw the pilot of The Muppet Show in New York at the Museum of Television and Radio and you could see the puppeteers in the background wearing black leotards and moving around. The sets and everything were so simple you felt like you could go home and make your own Muppet show with some felt and some stuffing. I love that.”
So do I, and I find her response warm while at this moment in art where money in the art world is at a high while the rest of the world is at a low, her work is an interesting take both on materials and also being a woman making things, by returning to stitching and embroidery. It’s humble and smart and engaged. More than that I like the warmth with which Whitmarsh approaches what she does and how it connects to her mother and her childhood and her original creative projects.
“When I was a kid I used to illustrate Buffy Ste. Marie songs and write letters to Janis Joplin and make giant, jointed paper dolls out of manila folders. I made my first comic book when I was 5 about a family of rabbits who did stuff like eat ice cream and watch Mork & Mindy. I see my current artistic process as a slightly evolved continuation of these practices. The slight evolution would be my adult consciousness of the context in which I live. Particularly evident in Los Angeles (where I live) are the contradictions of modern life. It has the beauty and drama of nature existing simultaneously with rampant development and seedy concrete wastelands populated by trash. I am attempting to reconcile the ataxia of this modern world with my naturally optimistic vision of a future populated by supernatural and precious things. In other words, I want to transform the multiplicity of ordinary life into magical yet accessible moments.”
Megan Whitmarsh’s show “Here Comes Purple” is up at New Image Art Gallery in LA until October 20th.