BDSM and weaving rarely go together outside New Haven-based artist Sophy Naess’ studio; inside, large weaving by the artist depicts a couple having sex on their knees. The image exists both as a narrative—of a woman on all fours who has been spanked so hard that a red bruise appears on her rear end, with a matching mark on her partner’s hand—and as a playful response against the traditional unsexiness associated with weaving. “I feel that weaving is very stigmatized as a crone, spinsterish thing that older women do,” Naess explained recently, “and so to imbue weaving with some literal representation of libido seemed like a joke, or a coup.”
Curiosity drives Naess’ artistic practice, which includes painting, weaving, and writing, an activity she described as ‘note-taking in real life situations.’ She paints from observation as much as she paints from memory; because weaving has pictorial imagery it has to be done according to a cartoon, a drawing that is registered under the loom while she’s working. Artworks by her friends and contemporaries enrich her living space, along with art books by feminist heroes like Alice Neel, Maria Lassnig, Carol Rama.
Recently, we got to talk to the El, Paso, Texas-raised artist about her interest in painting people, female visibility and the capitalist apocalypse at her studio, a short walk from the Yale campus where she teaches. Petite, courteous, and direct, Naess walked around barefoot as she shared her work. This is an edited version of our conversation.
How did your menu paintings originate?
I noticed that the Chinese takeout place near my studio, Fortune Cookie, printed its menus on 11″ x 17″ sheets of paper and didn’t fold them. They had a huge stack of these unfolded menus on the counter, and first of all this was nice paper for free. I took some sheets because I was broke and I was drawing on them. I of course became interested in the graphic content of the menu itself, and the biggest feature of this was the name of the restaurant. The interaction between the painted image and the printed menu is what I’m playing with in these, and it usually hinges on the name of the restaurant, its location, or dishes offered.
How did you first get into weaving?
I’d been asked to be present at a conversation that was going to be published in Girls Like Us between Pascale Gatzen, who teaches sustainable fashion at Parsons, and some other people who were involved in trying to make sustainable studio space. They were talking about different strategies of collectivity. I went to make paintings on site there and I met Pascale who invited me to her quilting circle with a group of women artists, a lot of them with textile backgrounds. It was a place to come and talk about work. I did that for a couple of years. We would meet about once a month.
After a summer break from this group, everyone brought in something they had been working on, like a skill share. Someone had taken a class in this technique of painting on the warp threads before weaving. I became really intrigued by painting something that would undergo this mechanical process to turn into a textile.
My grandmother wove, too. In Norway. I used to hang out with her in her weaving room. She was not considered an artist—she was a housewife. She never taught me how to set up the loom or anything, but she had all these incredible craft skills. I remember collecting different plants with her that she used to dye wool with. She used to let me weave once everything was set up. It’s just a matter of stepping on pedals. I would do simple things. I made a scarf with her. There’s a culture of care and warmth because it has this utilitarian aspect to it. You can make nice warm things for your family. That’s what my grandmother did with it.
You mentioned Florine Stettheimer and Alice Neel while talking about artists who painted communities of friends. Which other artists have been important to you?
Ingrid Wiener and Dieter Roth! Weiner had this background in tapestry weaving, and she and Valie Export (of ‘Genital Panic’ fame) were very frustrated that weaving was ghettoized as this woman’s craft. They wrote to Dieter Roth and they were like, ‘Hey, you have this very avant-garde reputation, if you collaborate with us it will bring a whole different frame to this work.’ I don’t think Valie Export was involved for very long, but Ingrid and Dieter were sending material back and forth for twenty-five years making these weavings.
Is it frustrating to you that it was in large part, a male artist’s involvement that brought more interest into weaving, an art has been pushed outside the art historical canon as craft?
When I tell students about it, they’re like, ‘Oh, it’s such a bummer she needed this male artist to validate her.’ But I think you have to just acknowledge that’s sort of the way of the world. And beyond that, when you read their letters back and forth to each other you realize that it was a really intimate and supportive thing between them—a lot about friendship, and so it doesn’t bother me so much. I’m already resigned to the fact that male artists command a different visibility. It’s frustrating that men weaving brings visibility. It takes on a certain political significance for a man to take it up.
There are many paintings with text in your studio. Were you testing out some new ideas?
A lot of this was test text for a protest sign to take to D.C. for the Women’s March. Eventually, I ended up making this insane poster that said, ‘White monster man angels of the capitalist apocalypse suck my dick.’
You are pretty active on Instagram. What role has technology played in your artistic practice?
Instagram is like a magazine, you situate yourself within other content you like, you can show all kinds of facets of your interests and behavior. Your entourage, your network, is visible there. I have to admit I enjoy playing with these semio-capitalistic aspects much more so than I like putting up actual images of my paintings. I also learn about a lot of shows I might not have known of otherwise, and I like seeing what people are up to.
As for technology, I don’t know how to answer that question since I find it impossible to get much perspective on my engagement with technology—we are so immersed at this point. I do I embrace inefficiency in my work. I keep seeing teenage girls wearing this t-shirt that says ‘Bad choices make good stories.’ Shitty tools make good utterances I think and sympathetic magic is an old practice that doesn’t require more than very basic materials.
Images courtesy 321 Gallery, The Middler, Rachel Harrison, Jason Mandella & Daniel Terna