Discovering Elaine Reichek's Sharp Conceptual Embroidery at the Whitney Biennial and Nicole Klagsbrun

Elaine Reichek's "Picture Archives: Minotaur/Labyrinth," 2011 (detail)
(Photo © Kyle Chayka)

Born in 1943, Elaine Reichek studied under Modernist icon Ad Reinhardt at Brooklyn College as an undergraduate. She isn’t exactly the kind of artist that comes immediately to mind for inclusion in the Whitney Biennial, a survey of the new and now. But her enigmatic works presented in the 2012 exhibition — embroidered panels reminiscent of sewing samplers that rework imagery from the Western canon, adding quotes from literature and philosophy as captions — form one of the otherwise-dull show's marquee moments.

Viewers have another chance to see Reichek’s work in a solo exhibition called “Ariadne’s Thread” currently at Nicole Klagsbrun gallery in Chelsea, where an unassuming display of a dozen works spaced widely around the walls is on view. The pieces are on a grander scale than those at the Whitney, though their deadpan delivery (an effect of the inarticulate, unsubtle colors of the thread and abundance of white space) undermines their own monumentality, much as Reichek undercuts the iconic nature of the myths she appropriates in  works.

In the eponymous myth, Ariadne saves Theseus, the founder-king of Athens, from the entrapment of the Cretian Minotaur and his Labyrinth by giving him a length of string. After fleeing Crete with the hero, she is later abandoned by Theseus and becomes the wife of Dionysus, the god of wine. The Ariadne myth has been read as portraying woman as victim, which is no doubt a part of why Reichek has chosen it as fodder. The artist participated in the feminist collective art gallery A.I.R. alongside Nancy Spero and others, and had earlier attended Yale (before the school was officially co-ed) with the likes of “big,” rambunctious artists like Chuck Close and Richard Serra who, she recalled in a Smithsonian oral history, were uncomfortable with the presence of a woman in the studio. 

Though there’s a connection between Ariadne’s mythical thread and Reichek’s chosen medium of embroidery, the effect of incorporating the craft isn’t about “being a woman artist,” as she explained in a New Yorker profile. Rather, it’s about something more subtle, an investigation of the very contemporary phenomena of pixelization and translation, the ability of the digital image to be replicated endlessly into vacuity. Reichek's process of appropriation drains the stories of Ariadne and Theseus and the Minotaur of all their vitality and stature, leaving only the skeleton narrative suggestions for us to wander.

In “Would You Believe It, Ariadne” (2009) at Klagsbrun, the artist dryly hand-embroiders a replica of Victorian artist George Frederic Watts’s “Minotaur” (1885), removing the original’s moralistic tone (it was meant as an allegory about child prostitution) and picturing the Minotaur gazing longingly out to sea, as if wanting to escape his own labyrinth. Reichek captions it with a quote from Borges: “'Would you believe it, Ariadne!' said Theseus. 'The Minotaur scarcely defended himself.'” In this mixed-up version, Theseus is the predator, and the Minotaur is Ariadne, abandoned and hoping for rescue. The success of Reichek's work is to unmoor these stories in our minds, loosening their tropes and making everything slippery, moving stable meaning just out of reach. 

Elaine Reichek's "Ariadne's Thread" is on view at Nicole Klagsbrun, 534 West 24th Street, through March 24