Jacqueline Nicholls is an artist deeply informed by Jewish teaching and text, but her message — expressed in mediums as diverse as embroidery, corsetry, clothing, paper-cuts and print — is both subtly and explosively subversive.
Nicholls is unswerving in her orthodoxy. Yet, the British-born and educated artist, now in her early 40s, explores tradition with an unsparing feminist edge. Nicholls’ outrage at women’s marginalization is tempered by the discipline of her artistry; emotion is subordinate to attention to detail. The tension between devotion and confrontation runs throughout her work and distinguishes her first New York show, “Jacqueline Nicholls: New Work,” at the JCC in Manhattan; the exhibit is curated by Tobi Kahn.
While as a teenager Nicholls once protested her relegation to embroidery classes, now she self-consciously returns to this traditional women’s work. In “The Kittel Collection” and “Ghosts and Shadows” sections, she stitches text and articulates cloth. She explains that the repetitive, tiny gestures of embroidering attuned her own brainwaves to the mind-body rhythms of Jewish women going back generations.
A kittel is a simple white garment, a basic form to which Nicholls assigns meaning. Torah narratives (such as Jacob’s and Tamar’s) that rely on clothing to deceive inspire the Liar’s Kittel. There is no shape to the undergarment while the overlaid lines form “a deliberate construction” as if interweaving the viewer into the conceit.
Clothes in the Jewish tradition also communicate states of mind: The right sleeve of the Mourner’s Kittel is tailored and intact but the left one that leads to the heart is in shreds, while metal chokers squelch the voicing of feelings. The Modesty Kittel returns us to Nicholls’ core concern and sly wit – the woman’s garment is tied in the form of a straightjacket. The prominent padlock is embroidered with a quote from the Psalms assuring us “The beauty of the King’s daughter lies within” while the front panel is discretely embroidered with pornography, a commentary on Jewish men’s over-sexualization of the women they restrain.
These voiceless, often nameless women haunt the Talmud providing what Nicholls calls “a countervoice.” She explains, “Even though they didn’t write their own stories, the women always operate with a more poetic sensibility, introducing doubt, questioning authority.” In the “Ghosts and Shadows” section, Nicholls uses multilayered cloth panels and fine embroidery to probe the provocative stories. The top level of fabric is stitched with the Talmudic quote, while successive layers comment on the narrative by illustrating an original detail: The wife of the great Rabbi Eliazer leaves him after much nursing when she realizes that his oozing sores have been self inflicted. Nicholls concentrates on the expressivity of the departing woman’s feet – arched and graceful yet strong and determined.
Nicholls’ Talmudic women are earthy and bold: A prostitute’s fart prompts her client, Rabbi Eleazer ben Dorai to seek repentance in nature and in Nicholls’ layered drawing the mountains take on the contours of a naked buttocks. When Rabbi Sheshet refuses to forgive a colleague for an insult, his mother bares her breasts to remind him of his true origins.
For each day of the Omer, the third section, “Gather the Broken” offers a drawing of a fragmented or lost object, such as a bottle cap, feather or hair ornament that Nicholls finds in the street and around which Amichai Lau-Lavi writes a story. Here too, revelation comes from glimpses and broken shards, inviting us, as Nicholls says, “on a journey from exclusion to a place where we can listen and receive.”
“Jacqueline Nicholls: New Work” runs through Nov. 1, Laurie M. Tisch Gallery, JCC in Manhattan, 334 Amsterdam Ave., (646) 505 4444, Jccmanhattan.org.
Susan Reimer Torn is the author of the soon to be published memoir, “And You Will Love” and blogs at susanrtorn.wordpress.com