In Dialogue with Melissa Joseph
Intergenerational, 42 x 131 in, needle felted wool and sari silk on inkjet print on Indian duppioni silk, 2020-2021
Née, Melissa Joseph’s first solo show in New York, features 27 wall based works and 5 sculptures, utilizing mostly wool felt and textiles assembled through a highly intuitive process. The show runs at REGULAR•NORMAL through May 2, 2021.
Tell me about the body of work in your show. What would the viewer see?
This body of work is a family album of sorts. I have been working with images from my family archive for some time now. As a bi-racial artist, I find there is always tension between the push from the outside to make identity-based artwork and my own need to make the work as a way to try figuring out my place here. I will always have parallel practices, one that is identity-based, and one that is abstract and based on formal relationships. During the pandemic, I felt so disconnected and removed from everyone and the future became a blank slate — it seemed easier to look backward than forward. These images provided an opportunity to spend some time in my mind with relatives that I couldn’t see in person.
I discovered the felting process as an artist in residence at the Textile Arts Center in Brooklyn at the very beginning of the pandemic lockdown. I have spent the entire year since in a form-pushing exploration of the process and materials. There is an evolution of my knowledge evident in the works on view. At the same time, I took daily sunset walks to the Brooklyn Piers, so some of the works reference the imagery I internalized and even include objects I would pick up on my walks, like rocks and pieces of sidewalk. The images are deeply personal and specific, but I see hyper- specificity as my most effective tool for communicating the universal emotions and familiarity that I hope to elicit.
Can you tell me more about your use of material – how you choose them and your process of bringing them together into an image?
There are two main components to my work: textiles and found objects. I am a textile native. It’s an instinctive and unconscious connection to material that started as a child. Eventually I studied textile design at FIT and worked in the industry for a few years as a designer. As an artist, I have worked particularly with Indian dup(p)ioni silk. It has slubs from the cocoons of the silkworms embedding traces of larger histories and connections to the natural world before any intervention on my part. This fabric is also significant to me, because my father was from India, and this silk is a big part of my material memory. Clothing was made from it and also we would go to fabric stores to pick out fabrics for different projects. In the image of my father from his passport, visible in some of the pieces, he is wearing an entire suit made from this material.
I started to print images from our family archives on silk in 2018. The first works I made with the silk photos were another ongoing body of work called Memory Pairings. These works are about relationships between objects through time and space, and the images are obscured through folds based on traditional sari draping techniques. There was a reference to body and space that is the core of my practice. The draped fabrics were paired with other objects, some found and some handmade, some old, some new. The materials live together in my studio until they find each other through a process of experimentation and patience. There are a few of these currently on view at Southern Exposure in SF in a show curated by Kija Lucas.
Over time the images became substrates for felting, which seemed like a natural evolution. The cultural clashing that happens regularly in diasporic life is visible in the combination of images and materials. For instance, an image of Kerala printed on silk with a woolen pink Chevy van from the early 90s encapsulates my experience in a way that words could never do.
I have had a few significant paradigm shifts over the last decade forcing me to revisit these images from the past with new lenses. It’s not about nostalgia or a desire to go back in time, but rather to see things more clearly or in a new way.
An important element of the show is the color turmeric. Can you elaborate on that?
I chose to paint the walls the color of turmeric. The whole show invites people to have a glimpse into moments in my life that were meaningful, and sometimes it’s ordinary things that are most memorable. Turmeric would stain all the dishes and utensils at our house. We had yellow spatulas, yellow tupperware, dishtowels. I never minded, though, because I love the color and reminded me of my dad cooking. It has natural healing properties as well. This hasn’t come up yet, but my father passed away in 2015. The grieving is ongoing and shared among all of our family members. He was a big personality, and it left a big void. It also made connections to our family in India more tenuous. I tend to use a lot of neutral colors in my work because I work with natural materials, but this is a color I always come back to. In Née, any of the fibers that are this color are made from recycled sari silk.
Let’s take a look at one piece of your choice in this show. Your work seems to have a narrative core. Do you have a story in mind when you make your images and how do you see the relationship between material / object / narrative in this piece?
All my work is narrative, even when it’s not figurative. It isn’t necessarily an historical retelling. It can be a revision or a complete rewrite. Emptyset: a portrait is a portrait of my friend James Ginzburg and his collaborator Paul Purgas. Together they created the production project Emptyset. I met them both in 2005 in Bristol, and have watched their work travel the world, developing into the wonderful and complex experience it is now. This photo was taken in Berlin for album publicity. On the surface it is compositionally sound and of the moment. I use this as a point of entry to consider the miraculous string of moments that had to occur to make this photo op happen: Transcontinental and diasporic moves, trauma and recovery, talent and industry, race and religious persecution, persistence, curiosity, trust and hope – all these histories are embedded into the images I make. This image is on a bark paper made in Mexico. The paper has structural integrity, yet delicate, almost like lace, holding these moments in a quiet, constant way. The softness and distortion of the felt lends itself well to the content of memories and slippage that happens when we access them.
How do you see this body of work in context of your overall work?
Being an artist is about the long game. I am an impatient person by nature but I have committed nonetheless to letting the work unfold over time. We catch glimpses of things, have impulses and pursue them, but we may not understand the implications of them fully until many years later. I am happy that at this point I know, even when I take big lateral steps, I can trust that they will be contextualized within my larger practice eventually. This is freeing in a lot of ways. A way to think of my work is as a curatorial archival one. I collect things: from memories and physical objects, to sounds, screenshots, and texts. I carry them with me until the moment that it makes sense to incorporate or introduce them to something else. The incubation period can be a day or decades.
Portal is a good example of this. Embedded in the soft sculpture is a rock I found on a walk. I used some polyester filling I had from the Textile Arts Center, then, wrapped it in a leftover scrap from one the silk photographs. The shape that was drawn/felted with wool and sari silk on the front was inspired by an screenshot I had taken a year before of an architectural detail from a fort in Bundi, an Indian city in Rajasthan. It’s an intersectional object. It doesn’t exist as a painting or a sculpture fully. I hope many people can relate to this sentiment, and-in kind-to the whole show.
All photo courtesy of the artist
Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: firstname.lastname@example.org