Melanie Flood Projects is pleased to present Ceremonial Vestments, a solo exhibition of new garments and video by Portland based artist Martha Daghlian.
“Darling, I love your spleen, I love your liver, I adore your pancreas and the line of your femur excites me.” –ORLAN
Martha Daghlian makes discreet, hand-stitched garments that are designed to fit her own body. Materially lush and unapologetically ornate, they inhabit a space that is sacred and profane. They borrow as much from the language of ritual and rite as they do from girlhood play. Daghlian refers to her garments as “ceremonial vestments” which serve as a physical manifestation of what is essentially a girl crush–complete with felt flowers, cheery clusters of yarn, excessive fringe, stars, and hearts. Each contains heavily embroidered panels that depict a woman undergoing a violent event. The panels are reminiscent of Catholic ex-voto paintings, that enable the devoted to give thanks to a saint for helping them, or their loved ones, survive tragedy or misfortune.
Parallels can be drawn to Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, 1974–79. Meticulously researched and crafted by artisans, The Dinner Party celebrates traditional female art forms such as weaving, embroidery, sewing and china painting while honoring women throughout history. Daghlian’s work shares this focus on women and the domestic arts on a more intimate scale. Born of a private gesture, her craft does not concern itself with showcasing the skill involved in women’s work. It reflects a healthy distrust of mastery and its overemphasis on the rational. These crudely constructed garments reveal all the error and idiosyncrasy of the hand. Rather than striving for aesthetic or utilitarian purity, they are more akin to the haphazard bindings and impracticalities of a Susan Cianciolo garment, and equally as personal. In Daghlian’s “GRISELDA” (2017), the sides of a cotton shift are held together with a loose approximation of a running stitch. More devotional doodle than structural element, these stitches underline the fact that the garments serve a higher metaphysical purpose.
In her video “Can I Speak of Carnal Art?” (2019), Daghlian takes on the role of high priestess with special access to the sacred. She invokes ORLAN, the French performance artist who used plastic surgery as a medium to transform herself into elements from famous works of art depicting idealized beauty. Wearing a faux-brocade dress with matching veil hat (ORLAN (2017), she sits in front of a mirror applying makeup to her face. She is the vision of a preening teen and her expression tells us she is quite pleased with her transformation. Distortions emphasize the ritual value of the work. As she applies the incision lines of ORLAN’s surgery in lipstick and eyeliner, analog drips, excerpts from ORLAN’s manifesto on carnal art, and all manner of visual noise obscure the details of the procedure. Daghlian’s homage plays out against the backdrop of the dreamy sounds of surgery and a wall covering bearing ORLAN’s name in printed incantation.
In “FRIDA” (2017), a chenille bedspread-cum-huipil with the fringe of a rebozo, Daghlian depicts the moment when Mexican artist Frida Kahlo was impaled by a rod in a bus accident, leading to a life coping with debilitating pain. “VAL” (2017) presents ecofeminist Val Plumwood’s crocodile attack, an incident which she survived by climbing up an embankment and crawling to a ranger’s station. The attack shored up Plumwood’s feelings about humankind’s relationship to the natural world. She argued for the abandonment of gendered dualisms such as human/animal, mind/body, male/female, reason/emotion, civilized/primitive, and promoted an ethic based on empathy for the other.
The veneration that Daghlian shows Plumwood and Kahlo is extended to more questionable figures like Griselda Blanco (“GRISELDA” (2017) the brutal “Queen of Narco-Trafficking,” and the MMA fighters Ronda Rousey and Holly Holm (“RONDA AND HOLLY” (2017), whose job is to inflict brutal pain and violence in the blood sport arena. This is all very unladylike behavior! Even ORLAN’s extreme approach gives us pause. Plumwood’s rejection of dualisms and calls for empathy can help us make space for Griselda and her childhood of poverty and violence, to see what might have led Ronda and Holly to the ring, and ORLAN to the operating table. Daghlian is not, however, suggesting we sit in judgement of these women. She is simply celebrating an expanded and less tidy view of what it means to be female.
Text by: Amy Bay is a painter and educator based in Portland, OR.