Making An Intimate Point

Photo Courtesy of Marena Mitchell

 Marena Mitchell aims to make a point, and does so with fabric embroidered in hundreds of steel sewing pins.

Mitchell, a second-year printmaking major, explores the intimate lives of women while making an acute statement about female identity in her Master of Fine Arts (MFA) thesis exhibition, “Compulsions.”

A sculpture containing videos projected onto pin-pierced fabric, Mitchell plans for her thesis to “creep people out.”

Mitchell’s thesis is comprised of four pieces. The first half of the artwork, “From Within, From Without,” involves two body-length fabric sheets permeated with sharp protruding pins.

One fabric sheet exposes the heads of the pins, and the other exposes the sharp side of the pins. Visitors are invited to touch and feel both, but Mitchell insists that the display is safe, comparing stroking the pins to “petting a hedgehog.”

“I’m interested in seeing how people react to being able to touch the pins, because they could be perceived as harmful,” she said. “It’s a complete sensory reaction — audio, sensual, visual absorption.”

The second half of the piece is a two-part video portion, called “Breathe In, Breathe Out.” This section includes a loop of Mitchell’s own torso — donned in the spiked fabric — inhaling and exhaling. This video will be projected onto the laid fabric, which Mitchell explains as an exercise in “repetition and mark-making.”

Though she’s a printmaking major, Mitchell chose to focus on sculpture for her Master thesis.

“I was frustrated with 2D work, and I loved fabric — so I said ‘screw it’ and started working in 3D,” she said.

Rattling in her brain since August 2012, Mitchell’s capstone project started as a test piece and has progressed to its current state. Initial interpretations of the objects themselves ranged from “aggressive” to “sensuous,” and — as Mitchell puts it — “it repels you, but it also pulls you in.”

Throughout its long evolution, Mitchell’s work went through a series of critiques, as thesis works typically do. The spiked-fabric of “Compulsions” was originally part of a vest designed to be worn by a model, but her colleagues told her that it was “too literal” a representation of women and body image.

Mitchell was also told by her professors that her work was overly complex. In response, Mitchell “pared down” and elected to use a more minimalist and figurative style.

She also looked to artists for inspiration and influence, including Marina Abramovic — a Russian performance artist who holds similar feminist convictions — and Amber Hawk Swanson, who Mitchell interviewed via Skype.

“They use their bodies in interesting ways and also frequently use video,” she said. “[Swanson] is very vocal about feminism, which is a catalyst for my work as a whole.”

As the artwork progressed, Mitchell said the most challenging part about working on “Compulsions” was the immense amount of mental and emotional energy expended on the piece. However, Mitchell sees the creation of her thesis as a rewarding process overall.

Mitchell said the best part of working on her piece was learning more about herself as an artist.

“Through it I was able to reflect on my life,” she said. “It forced me to be critical about things around me and that’s what art is supposed to do.”

Mitchell’s MFA thesis show will be on display at  the Dorsky on Friday, May 17.