Lace Parts: On the Work of William Marcellus by Justin Allen

COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

A conventional metal folding chair is stripped to its skeleton, the surface of the seat cut out into a frame; the backrest and back legs removed, leaving a single arch. The frame left of the seat stands upright, while the attached arch rests at a diagonal angle with the feet suspended. Over the frame, artist William Marcellus has fit a white lace patched with grey denim pockets. One strip of lace drapes over the bar connecting the object’s two legs.  

outgettingribs, 0.0 mi away. The title eludes to both Jean Michel-Basquiat’s 1982 pencil-on-paper, on which the late artist has written OUT GETTING RIBS JM, and a notification for a mobile hook-up app.

While the denim-patched lace combines western symbols of rugged masculinity and delicate femininity, the former chair’s legs, in their diagonal positioning and supported by the centric frame, call to mind an equally bold and vulnerable sex position, emphasized by the anthropomorphic terms that identify a chair’s parts: back, legs, feet. These components combined, the object resembles a balance, suggesting both utility and frivolity.

Isolate and examine the words in the title—out, ribs, getting—and it’s easy to extract various meanings. Surely these meanings derive from your own narrative. In referencing past and present, fine artist and app-user, subjectivity and objectivity, the work rejects dichotomization. It is both and neither. Ever-changing and complex despite its presumably fixed nature, latching to a singular meaning only insofar as your interpretation zeroes in on certain details to force it into one. Thus, as pre-existing terms evolve, context-specific definitions—“like,” “friend,” “top,” “bottom”—the work’s potential lies in how you read it. 

For a better grasp, remix some of the language[1] :

Denim legs lace parts equally mind and feet. Of the emphasized, the former resembles masculine legs, the western, and the suspended-by-sex type of folding. Diagonal frivolity fits positioning. An anthropomorphic chair’s patched symbols work the back and object utility to a frame function. Vulnerable terms position their call. 

Conversely, S A M .5 mi away considers social media interaction through human representation: the silhouette of a body cut from a canvas fitted with black lace. Curly, black hair comprises the beard that protrudes from S A M’s chin. The acrylic detail in his face, masked beneath the same lace that covers the canvas, seeps through the dark floral pattern so that to stand before S A M is to stand in line with his gaze. 

Direct your focus downward, and notice where his waist sinks snug into the lace as if the canvas were a pocket. The fabric adheres to his lower half and he, with his right arm, appears to peel it from the matte black of his skin. 

The details of S A M’s body offer few hints as to the intention of the pose he strikes. Where is his left arm? Is it amputated, calling to mind the accomplished ruin of the Venus de Milo? Or bent at the elbow and raised across his body, in the reserved confidence of the subject of Barkley L. Hendricks’s Lawdy Mama who, like S A M, contrasts this gesture with the direct gaze? Or perhaps he doesn’t strike a pose at all, but saunters forward, toward you, to shrink the .5 mi distance likely betrayed by your own proximity to the work if viewing it in person, but infinitely possible when viewing the work in print or online.

COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

Consider S A M in relation to outgettingribs, and you notice a motif. Lace.

Contemporary contexts often attribute lace to the past, particularly European brands of femininity tied to prestige, or associate the textile with niche interest in its production. While lace has no certain country of origin and numerous European nations claim the title, the first lace pattern book emerged out of Venice in the 1550s.1

A source traces the textile’s initial production to nuns living in convents in Eastern Europe who created it solely for religious adornment. But these nuns passed their skill to pupils, and these pupils passed their skill to peasantry, and lace emerged from ecclesiastical exclusivity. Throughout the Renaissance, country-specific patterns, named for their region of origin, exemplified national prowess: Bayeux, Chantilly, Honiton.2

18th Century England prohibited foreign lace, and various governments across Europe inflicted similar restrictions. Revenue officers routinely confiscated laces from tailor shops, but the luxurious styles spotted on traveling nobility inspired inventive tactics for smuggling. Some stuffed pies with the fabric. Between France and Belgium, smugglers sent to cross borders dogs fitted with skins of larger animals under which they concealed the textile. Smuggling lace in coffins, too, was common, the bodies sometimes removed save the head, feet, and hands, and the clothing stuffed like a scarecrow.3

That instances of secrecy and cunning inform lace’s history underscores Marcellus’s clever use of the fabric in a piece, on one level, concerned with the translucence of online anonymity. S A M, both seen and unseen, hovers at the crux of imagined and real, masculine and feminine, presentation and perception.[2] 

Marcellus titles the series to which the two works belong color of my URL, and in doing so encapsulates the intent in both pieces’ individual titles. The phrase “OUT GETTING RIBS” compresses into a nimbler one-word-all-lowercase to suggest digital efficiency and stream-of-conscience scrolling. S A M’s capitalization and spacing mystify its subject, a familiar name altered by user stylization or software glitch. So, to experience the works is to, as in the case of seeking romance via avatar, experience the interface at once primarily and secondarily. The pursuit exists regardless of social media’s scope and possibilities, but scope and possibility shape how and what desires are sought and fulfilled.

The two pieces diverge at the angles from which they approach the topic of interpersonal impact on the URL/IRL seesaw[3] . outgettingribs addresses function—the chair, like the internet, altered and fitted to accommodate the allure of behavioral scripts being maneuvered with use of the very medium in which users enact them, while S A M, a type of phantom cut from a marker of region, gender, and time period, elucidates the performance of and/or attraction to these behavioral scripts through a medium designed to subdue yearning and expedite the obtainment of gratification. S A M’s victory or failure at exhibiting traits you imagine of him— traits based on the aesthetic components available to you within the limits of the medium: his beard, his physique, his lace—informs his impact on you.

Together, both works interpret methods of self-fashioning. Selfies, thirst traps, categories, and code(s) all, in practice, fit us to the frame and function of computers and smartphones. A process riddled with short bios, feels, and the password to the WiFi. With these mediums, connection seeps through.

Footnotes:

1“The Origins of Lace,” The Lace Guild, laceguild.org/craft/history.html.

2Goldenberg, Samuel L., Lace: Its Origin and History, 4-10.

3Jackson, Emily, A history of hand-made lace: Dealing with the origin of lace, the growth of the great lace centres, the mode of manufactures, the methods of distiuguishing and the care of various kinds of lace, 78-79.

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Justin Allen is an NYC-based writer from Northern Virginia. His work has been featured in Mosaic Literary Magazine, on The Studio Museum in Harlem's Studio Blog,  and in 2014 he contributed to Lambda Literary's monthly column The Banal and the Profane.