Artist Zoë Buckman Has Channeled Her Personal Traumas Into Raw and Intricate Embroidery Portraits, Now on View in New York
The works form the artist's first New York solo show since 2019.
Zoë Buckman’s particular brand of feminist art has always tended toward powerful, in-your-face expressions of power and resilience—this is an artist, after all, who is perhaps best known for covering boxing gloves with lacy scraps of wedding dresses or vintage tablecloths and tea towels for sculptures that defy the stereotypes of the domestic and feminine.
But over the past year, the 38-year-old artist has been turning to quieter, more tender moments of love and support from the women and genderqueer people in her life as a source of strength. The result is some of Buckman’s most ambitious work to date, focusing on figurative portraiture—first introduced in her first U.K. solo show, at London’s Pippy Houldsworth Gallery in 2022—and continuing her longstanding embrace of embroidery and found textiles.
“I’ve never made work this big. I really wanted to push myself,” Buckman told Artnet News at the opening reception for “Tended,” her first exhibition at Lyles and King on New York’s Lower East Side, and first solo outing in the city since 2019.
Each piece is a labor-intensive, handmade endeavor. There is carefully stitched embroidery, loose threads left hanging down to symbolize the emotional heaviness behind the works, melded with appliqué and ink and paint that bleeds into the fabric.
Working during lockdown, Buckman began pairing portraits based on candid photographs of her friends and family taken over the years with phrases related to the traumas in her life, including the death of her mother, undergoing an abortion, and incidents of domestic violence.
One piece shows her as a teenager drawing on her now-sister-in-law’s back, their future bright and limitless. Another features Buckman’s mother washing her hair in preparation for cancer treatment, accompanied by two text messages her mom sent after entering hospice care—one expressing frustration with her circumstances, the other, the privilege she had in being surrounded by the other strong women in the facility’s care.
Buckman’s art has always been personal—turning her placenta into a plastinated sculpture, showing her wedding dress boxing gloves while in the process of separating from then-husband David Schwimmer—but “Tended” is perhaps her rawest, most unguarded body of work to date.
Two anguished images of Buckman are based on screenshots from a video recording she made of herself ranting in the aftermath of receiving an abortion a week after her mother’s death in 2019. The father was not there for the procedure.
That experience is also referenced in Buckman’s piece In Here, where two portraits of close female friends are accompanied by embroidered text quoting the artist as she woke up after the surgery, telling the nurses, “I need something for the pain.” When asked where she hurt, Buckman remembers putting her hand over her heart. “In here,” she said.
By taking these moments and illustrating them with more joyful images of vibrant women—another work features Rujeko Hockley, associate curator at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art—Buckman hopes to highlight the healing power of female relationships.
“I’ve been looking at trauma and grief, and what it means to be left picking up the pieces, but I am also learning to look at softness and love as an antidote,” she said.
In an especially intense moment, a dual portrait of Buckman’s child, Cleo, marveling over the bloodstains of their period, also shows the artist with a black eye.
“It’s about that cycle of bleeding and bruising and the inevitability of that,” Buckman said. She hopes that being open about the difficulties she’s faced in her own personal life can help those in similar situations. “It’s always going to make me feel vulnerable, but it gets easier if it has even a small effect on other women.”
See more photos of the work below.
“Zoë Buckman: Tended” is on view at Lyles and King, 19 Henry Street, New York, September 5–October 14, 2023.
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