My great aunt, nearly bedridden in all of the time I’d known her, had a penchant for fabric art and would put her intricate work up for display on the wall. I’d gaze at the cross-stitches curiously while stuffing my face with Russian poppy seed pastries and half-listening to my great uncle tell, once again, the story of how he lost his leg in the war. My aunt’s works depicted distant worlds: horses parading near a forest, beautiful women with flowing red hair staring into the distance, little wooded cabins nestled between a row of pines. Neutral things. Passive things. Things that, at most, make you go “huh” when you look at them.
Leah Emery’s cross-stitches are not like these. They aren’t the sort of works you’d expect on the wall of your great aunt’s place, unless you have one freaky aunt. Emery’s work takes the traditional ideas that we’ve grown to associate with cross-stitching in particular—a delicate, uncontroversial idea of “femininity,” a pastoral sentiment and aesthetic—and turn them on their heads by producing fabric art that visibly confronts our sociosexual reality.
Emery’s pieces demand reconciliation: We either admit the seriousness of cross-stitching (which often faces skepticism from the artistic status quo) or the ridiculousness of our voracious cultural obsession over pornography (whether pro- or anti-). Hers is a subtle humor but an insidious one, making those viewers who do not instinctively laugh wonder, perhaps, why they’re so damn uptight. Instead of being viscerally explicit, Emery compresses images to a hyper-pixelated state, giving them the whimsical quality of early-internet lo-res GIFs.
Her work relies on the power of suggestion, the importance of a shadow or the depiction of a movement and how this suggestibility can be even more confrontational than an outright show of sexuality. This puts the onus of interpretation on the viewer and makes the work a space upon which they ultimately end up projecting their own personal constructs and constraints over anything else.
PRØHBTD spoke with Emery about her process, her inspirations and how her work harkens back to a more free, open and exploratory era of human sexuality.
How did you become interested in cross-stitching? What interests you about it as a medium?
I’d never cross-stitched before I made my first pornographic work. Oh, wait—I think I remember a plastic Rainbow Bright canvas that was a disaster, but that’s about it. During my 20s, I worked as a 3D modeler at a video game dev company when I started to receive some extremely explicit spam emails [sent to] my work inbox. I kept a folder of these images, making plans to explore my response to being the recipient of unsolicited hardcore porn—and how unsurprised and un-shocked I was, even as a non-consumer of porn, at having sex appear across my two monitors each morning at work.
I'd always been a drawer, collager and obsessive maker [and was also] focusing on my digital art at the time, always on the lookout for inspiration to fuel my projects. When I had the revelation that a beautifully discordant way to explore these images was through cross-stitch, the concept took on a life of its own. I loved the chaos the juxtaposition of subject and medium created. I set about learning how to cross-stitch, and it became a great exercise that's allowed me to delve into exploring the big bad world of readily available smut through a beautiful and intricate means and will probably continue to entertain me forever. Over the last few years, my practice has expanded into a "fully fleshed" research project that's still pushing me to try to probe the limits of the world of the aesthetic and representational world of the sexual expression of humans.
What does the process of making a piece look like?
My current work involves quite a bit of digital collage and construction. I like to use isolated shapes such as fruit or thick font words and morph pornographic imagery within the confines of the silhouette. Once this is done and I'm ready to produce the pattern, I spend some time walking to and from the screen to see how the image resolves once I'm further away, as close up the picture is usually pretty discordant. When the balance is struck, I print my pattern and get excited about hitting the blank canvas like any other artist. The rest of it is largely grunt work, but is extremely meditative and I'd be technically classified as addicted because I get agitated if I can't get to stitching for too long.
What made you turn to the type of imagery you’re now focused on?
As much as I hadn't been a consumer of pornography prior to beginning these works, I've obviously had loads of exposure [to it]—as we all have. My bemused response to the world of pornography definitely didn't start with [a] chance encounter. I loved the novelty section of sex shops as a youth and would buy penis and boob ice cube trays to use as molds for making chocolates for friends' parties. Consuming novelty items by the dozen was probably my slightly unorthodox way of engaging with my new world of sexuality. I've always seemed to favorably respond to dealing with issues when [they are] enshrouded in whimsy or satire or have a comical presentation. This feeds my work, too.
After the initial bemusement of my work inbox fare subsided, I began infusing more conceptuality into my works [to] use them as a protest against the cultural etiquette of withholding healthy public access on topics surrounding sex and intimacy despite those being such quintessential human functions. Another issue that rubs me the wrong way that I feel obliged to address is the cultural tendency to promote and reward an unhealthy, manipulated [and] homogenized body aesthetic. Pairing explicit content with such a beautiful, laborious medium is an effective avenue to dampen the confronting impact of the images and adds a humorous permission to engage with imagery that would usually be purely voyeuristic. Vintage pornography is particularly successful in providing a refreshingly authentic display of carnality thanks to its candid nature and rejection of blemish-free subjects, instead offering flailing limbs, natural hirsuteness, emotion and candor.
What do you see as the relationship between cross-stitching and pornography? What interests you about putting these two things together?
The way the image appears pixelated to the eye is the perfect tip of the hat to the digital origin of most of today's porn consumption. Additionally, the mosaic effect also serves to abstract the explicit nature of the images. Creating an image through stitching means that at close proximity it becomes quite illegible and it's only as you distance yourself from the work that the image is given room to resolve.
Pornography is an infinite black hole of resource material. It wasn't my intention to work with this content indefinitely, but I feel like I haven't quite exhausted the possibilities of what my practice can achieve through this awkward coupling of subject and medium. I've been working with pornographic content for more than 10 years now, and it's served well in allowing me to explore not only my own response to the subject, but also the greater cultural impact of both exposure to sexual imagery—particularly without enough of a public narrative to guide choices and temper attitudes sufficiently—and the homogenization of body image through the dictation of the media.