Aubrey Longley-Cook has strutted onto the art world stage with the debut of Serving Face, his exhibition at Barbara Archer Gallery at Erikson Clock (a Goat Farm satellite) through January 18, 2014. Normally a tall, lanky, unassuming kinda guy who sports simple clothing and a jaunty baseball cap, he has morphed into Queen of the Stitching Bee with artworks made from embroidery, cross stitch and needlepoint. His worker bees comprise drag queens decked out in unabashed, saturated color—not even remotely your Granny’s embroidery. At age 28, Longley-Cook is an artist already at the tipping point of his young career. If you don’t know much about drag, or have never seen contemporary uses of embroidery, cross stitch, and needlepoint, you can do it all here. Longley-Cook “works it” all in this hot show.
The exhibition kicked off with a flamboyant opening party December 14, 2013, that featured 5 drag queens performing numbers that brought the house down. The exhibition title, Serving Face, is an idiom from the drag community; it means to strike a dramatic pose or work the face expressively. Drag has a long history that began when male actors assumed female roles in classical Chinese theater and Shakespearean plays. It was deemed a “national risk” by the U.S. State Department and forced underground in the mid-20th century, before re-emerging along with the birth of Pride.
The eclectically decorated gallery space features large video projections of Longley-Cook’s animations made during a communal project he held at WonderRoot. For the RuPaul Workshop, 35 individuals, including a lawyer, learned the handwork skills of cross stitch and then each produced a frame from a video clip of RuPaul, which Longley-Cook then filmed in sequence to create an animation featuring the fronts and backs of each piece. Those works are displayed here in small, black frames.
Longley-Cook intentionally refers to the seedier, threadbare side of drag culture by including the un-pretty back sides of the embroideries in the animation. In the show, however, the frames are hung on the wall, so that only the fronts can be seen. While it’s frustrating not to be able to view both sides, it’s apropos when considering that we do not see the hours of prep work that go into the creation of a Queen’s persona prior to her performance. We just see the polished work.
Ironically, it is the technical imperfections of a few of the workshop participants’ pieces that are most intriguing. One of these, Frame 08, made by Brooke Hatfield, is so tightly stitched that RuPaul’s face is virtually obscured; it is an unintentionally but highly effective abstraction of the video GIF that other stitchers followed more accurately. These pieces save the overall grouping from a uniformity of portraiture style that threatens to breed conformity, despite the variance in color schemes each stitcher selected.
In the needlepoint series of queens Cayenne Rouge, Ellisorous Rex, Xee Xee Bow Dong and Bridgitte Bidet, the images hark back to the 70s in style but are made modern through the use of garish, acidic color and the mimicking of pixelation.
It takes Longley-Cook hours to create these labor-intensive hand works and animations. He likens the experience to the arduous and lengthy process queens go through to prepare for a performance.
His patience and technical prowess are best seen in the Lavonia Elberton series, in which his meticulous stitches bring to mind fine Han Dynasty Chinese silk embroidery, done as early as 4,000 years ago. The domestic patch, mend, and reinforce and women’s quilting bees have also influenced Longley-Cook. In North America, fiber art was resurrected in the 1970s and is now seeing a huge resurgence of popularity today in exhibitions such as Pricked: Extreme Embroidery and Radical Lace and Subversive Knitting at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, in magazines such as Surface Design and Fiber Art Now, and in the burgeoning careers of artists exploring the medium.
Longley-Cook’s initial foray into embroidery was in the mid 2000s, as a means of memorializing his mother after her untimely death. It was a fortuitous step for the 2007 Rhode Island School of Design graduate. He had been studying animation and began combining the two art forms. The resulting dialogue that occurs in his work between antiquated handiwork and new media is exciting.
Leisa Rich is an Atlanta-based artist who has written for Fiber Art Now and Felt magazines.