Rachel Perry Sews the Passage of Time

Baby beets, lipstick, baking cups, cream cheese, and a COVID-19 antigen home test. If this sounds like a pandemic-era shopping list — with its blend of nourishment and health monitoring, plus a dash of makeup for a Zoom meeting — that’s not far off. The packaging for each of these items served as a creative jumping-off point for Boston-based interdisciplinary artist Rachel Perry. During the homebound era of the COVID-19 lockdowns, Perry started disassembling, flattening, and turning these boxes and others into templates for a series of needlepointed artworks, reflecting an era narrowed to domestic spheres. “Everyone was homemaking: stuck inside, cleaning closets, cooking more, and trying to work and to keep the family busy and happy,” the artist writes on her website. “Time took on a new quality.”

Unfolded, Perry’s eighth solo show at Yancey Richardson Gallery, features five of these new needlepoint works, alongside five related photographs in the gallery’s petite project space. The accompanying archival pigment prints are part of Lost in My Life, an ongoing series of self-portraits the artist started in 2009 that depict her immersed in the often mundane materials of her work, which tell the “history of a household.” In some cases, she turns cast-off tidbits into astonishing accumulations that serve as sets in her photography studio: a mosaic of fruit stickers, webs of twist ties, wallpaper made from price tags. In this selection of photos, she wears a striped, blanket-like dress and shawl that her mother knitted from leftover needlepoint wool, as she perches on a silver stool and sews, holds a gigantic ball of multicolored yarn in front of her face, and stands among 19 of her needlepoint works, some of which are also installed on the opposite gallery wall.

Each needlepoint takes the artist about a month to complete. She replicates the flattened forms in graphic, solid-colored shapes, with no branding or visual hints at the box’s former purpose, on brightly colored rectangles of canvas, using wool and silk threads. The pieces pulse with a palette of analogous colors reminiscent of 197os styling (tangerine and magenta, lemon and chartreuse, petal pink and violet). The imagery that emerges transforms the single-use cardboard boxes, destined for the recycling bin, into something that feels more substantial and almost architectural, akin to floor plans or theater seating charts. 

While working, Perry listens to audio books, a mix of nonfiction, memoir, classic literature, and contemporary fiction. The stories, she says, become intertwined with her “thoughts and ruminations, which consequently embed themselves in the work.” The finished artworks’ titles pair the type of box with the book that served as the artist’s soundtrack, resulting in amusing mashups that read like Surrealist poetry or nonsensical stage names generated by a dubious online quiz. For example, there’s “Cream Cheese: Vanishing Half,” “Bobbi Brown Lipstick: Burn Rate,” and “FlowFlex Covid Test: Big Swiss.” I’m constantly curious about how artists spend their time alone in the studio, and in interviews I usually try to suss out what they listen to while working, as part of my own ongoing, informal survey of studio habits. So, seeing Perry’s creative process and playlist enshrined in the titles gave me a special thrill. 

As Perry collects cardboard boxes, unfolds the angles revealing their hidden landscapes, and starts to sew, it’s as if each tiny, diagonal stitch accumulating on her canvas marks the passing minutes, hours, days. “In my own quiet way, I’m commenting on the effects of capitalist production in our world,” she writes. “How do we ‘spend’ our time?”

Rachel Perry: Unfolded continues at Yancey Richardson Gallery (4525 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 17. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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