Dreams of a Common Language: Elizabeth Duffy, Lu Heintz, and Anna McNeary In OVERLAP

Liz Maynard

Installation View: Left to Right Lu Heintz, Everything is Fiber: A New Lexicon, 2024 Graphite on paper Elizabeth Duffy Wearing / Ceremonial Costume for Gathering Rehill (1904-1972), 2023-2024, Unraveled worn braided rugs made into clothing, braided rug poncho with corn-on-the-cob holders, copper dandelion leaves, copper formed shoes, rug remnant; Anna McNeary, Common Set, 2024 Fabric, velcro, wooden rack Dimensions variable

The rhymes, homophones, and translations between the work of Elizabeth Duffy, Lu Heintz, and Anna McNeary are object manifestations of “Dreams of a Common Language.” The exhibition at Overlap Gallery in Newport, RI, offers up sweet and salty juxtapositions of textile, prints, sculptures, and installations of Providence-based artists. It takes its title from Adrienne Rich’s 1976 volume of poetry, which ruminates on the possibilities of life liberated from patriarchal constraints and the feminist community emerging from speech in common. Duffy, Heintz, and McNeary explore textile not just as a shared (and often gendered) medium but as a conceptual framework.

Interspersed through the dual-level gallery, the works respond to each other seamlessly, as if in an unfurling conversation around representation, labor, family, and (of course) language. Duffy, Heintz, and McNeary each employ different tactics to examine the language of textile. Suspended across from one another in the upper gallery are McNeary’s Timeline assemblages (2023), stitched-together silk screens that seem to yell at each other in capital letters: NOW/NEVER and SOONER/LATER. McNeary examines patterns, both visual and rhetorical; these familiar phrases are often lobbed at women in the highly personal yet public inquiries around the tensions between career and family. Her reiteration of the words somehow both amplifies their potency and blurs them in cacophony, the way words lose their meaning the more you say them.

Cleverly situated between the two is Duffy’s Shift/Obstruction: For Lee Miller (2023-2024), comprised of letterforms wrapped in the artist’s clothing, suspended from hangers over an open suitcase. The work takes Man Ray’s Obstruction (1920-1964) as a starting point, responding to the critical oversight of art history that usually describes Miller as Ray’s muse rather than a significant artist, photographer, and journalist in her own right. Instead of Ray’s mobile of empty hangers, Duffy populates the space with letters, charming in their multi-color palette and subtle movements, like the exploratory script of a child. Here, we are offered a surrealist alphabet to find any number of new, possible meanings: a tribute to Miller in this gift of “embodied language.”

In her typewriter drawings, Heintz similarly deconstructs text to “investigate the relationship of weaving to writing.” As Heintz points out, some of the earliest evidence of writing is found in textile, and much like McNeary’s unbound Timelines and Duffy’s suspended letters, Heintz’s compositions seem to propose a language with no finite edges, unraveling as fast as its woven. I am especially taken by her alphabet of knit stitches, Everything is Fiber: A New Lexicon (2024), coding the familiar knots with layers of meaning, rendering all knit fabric as newly (il)legible. I imagine what garments we could make from her glossary of stitches and what they might say.

A room with a variety of objects on the wall

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Lu Heintz, various works

Both McNeary and Heintz offer iterative possibilities in their Common Set (2024) and works from the Habitus Installation: Cabinet (2021-2024), respectively. In Common Set, we’re invited to compose our own modular clothing out of pattern elements, like yokes and sleeves, “to be worn collectively or individually.” As with her quilt-like Timelines, she invokes the feminized labor of clothes-making in a pastel palette evocative of pink-collar vocations, childhood, and, more darkly, religious cults. Again, McNeary undercuts the potential heaviness of themes of gendered constraint with playful deflection, opening up space to reflect on how we are shaped by both word and form while encouraging us to reconfigure the familiar.

A group of black and white signs

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Anna McNeary, Timeline, 2023 Silkscreen on fabric

Habitus is a microcosm of the dense and nuanced range of Heintz’s work. Recalling curiosity cabinets, the work “aims to articulate the embodied experience of being contained within a structure, be it a garment, furniture, or architecture.” She examines the mutually enlivening relationships between bodies and things. While her two-dimensional works seem to unravel language, Habitus turns the points of contact between things and bodies inside out. Chairs, cabinets, and prostheses merge and diverge in the Habitus universe; a lumpy store of socks made of lint spills out onto the gallery floor, and the installation invites us in. I feel my spine shifting as I imagine what it might be like to sit in such a chair painted in the mauve and grey tones of my organ tissues.

A shelf with shoes and objects on it

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Lu Heintz, Habitus Installation: Cabinet, 2021-2024 Wood, plaster, metal, fabric, paper pulp, ceramic, plastic, resin, lint, and found objects

Binary constructions of the ir/rational, feminine/masculine, nature/civilization (like those directly interrogated and parodied by McNeary’s Timelines) position language-as-signifier and body-as-immanent in different realms, but each artist’s conceptual use of textile points to how interwoven they really are.

Duffy’s Wearing series embody the inextricable relationships between bodies, textile, history, and work. She takes rag rugs as her substance – objects already repurposed from their original lives as clothing – and revivifies them as new clothing, or blankets, or, as in Sentinels (2023), five mounted ironing board covers that watch over the lower gallery. Her artworks reveal their histories of wear and repair, evidenced in the perforations from years of being underfoot or moments of darned toes and heels. They are a testament to the oft-feminized labor of maintenance and care.

Similar to her tribute to Miller, Duffy takes a shot at the Canon in the works on display in the lower gallery, referencing and reinterpreting the serial installations of the Minimalist sculptors and color field paintings of Abstract Expressionists through the domestic textures of repurposed cloth. I am especially moved by her Wearing/Ceremonial Costume for Catherine Rehill (1904-1972) (2023-2024, which monumentalizes Duffy’s grandmother as part of her familial and artistic lineage, coded in the symbols of corn cob holders and a chain of dandelion leaves. Here, her rag rugs are intimately grounded not only in an art historical canon but also in her grandmother’s ingenuity, labor, warmth, and love.

A colorful blanket on a wall

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Elizabeth Duffy, Wearing / Blanket, 2019-2014; Unraveled and pieced together worn braided rug, rug remnant, worn blanket satin ends

Perhaps in line with the nature of the exhibition, the works on view exceed any single language for description: this review is just a fraction of the many complexities to be found in “Dreams of a Common Language.” After all, a common language doesn’t imply the same language but a frame in which different inflections, implications, and nuances are better understood. While Duffy, Heintz, and McNeary’s works independently articulate something very real about language, family lineage, and the history of feminized labor, together, they offer something even truer.

A room with a suitcase and objects from the ceiling

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Installation View: Left / Right, Anna McNeary, Timeline (left ); Timeline 2 (right) 2023, Silkscreen on fabric, Center- Elizabeth Duffy Shift/Obstruction: For Lee Miller, 2023-2024 Hangers, suitcase, clothing wrapped into letters, sashiko thread, “ELM” monogram

All photos courtesy of the artists.

Dreams of a Common Language: Elizabeth Duffy, Lu Heintz, and Anna McNeary OVERLAP, Newport, RI April 24 – June 8, 2024 Reading and performance: Saturday, June 1, from 6-8 pm

About the writer: Liz Maynard is an art historian, educator, and bodyworker based in Providence, RI. She teaches history and theory classes at RISD and RIC based on her research on the social construction of subjectivity, trauma studies, and embodiment. Her art history practice led her to trainings in somatics, and she also works as a movement educator, meditation facilitator and craniosacral therapist.