LJ Roberts begins by sewing the faces of friends and lovers, recalling in hand-sewn portraits the outlines of a recorded photograph or a deeply personal memory. Over the past decade, the artist has created these pocket-sized embroideries during downtime and on subway rides around New York City. A tapestry of queer and trans history, activism and politics has emerged, defined by the details: handmade protest panels, bumper stickers, pride flags and pet collars.
“Carry You With Me: Ten Years of Portraits” marks a turning point in Roberts’ career, as institutions and collectors begin to invest in LGBTQ artists who use textiles to tell their stories. They are a radical departure from the puffy quilts and monumental collages that have won the artist an audience among museum curators. Would the public accept this change in style and size?
The exhibition, on display at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn through November 28, is the first in a series of upcoming exhibitions highlighting Roberts’ work. It features a neon immigration sculpture, unveiled on October 2 in Socrates Sculpture Park, Queens. The artist’s installations will also feature in two spring exhibitions, one celebrating American craftsmanship at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, and another examining feminist art practices at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Connecticut.
It was a risky decision for Roberts to unveil these little embroideries at the start of a busy artistic season.
“Portraits are the last thing I thought I’d do,” Roberts said during a preview. “When I started doing them, I felt like I was acting against everything I wanted in art.”
Roberts is non-binary, which means the artist doesn’t assign gender labels and uses third-person pronouns. They had used abstraction in previous work to study the overlap between queer activism and craft traditions. Avoiding figuration was a political choice intended to criticize limiting definitions of identity. But the embroidery is an attempt to reconcile a desire for freedom with a desire to be seen.
“I certainly engage in figurative representation and I oppose it as well,” said the artist. Just as the friends react to their images in the essays that accompany the installation, Roberts also describes these portraits as addicted to the frenzied collision of stitches, which are displayed on the reverse side, known as the reverse side.
“I pay no attention to what appears on the back of the image, and its result is quite incidental. Yet abstraction is just as important as figures, maybe even more so because it captures the essence of my friends, ”said the artist.
The embroidery is like talismans for Roberts, evoking both painful and precious memories. Particularly resonant is the portrait of self-taught collage artist Frederick Weston in pink, handcuffed and holding a protest sign. Roberts remembers hours spent at the 2018 Pride March, chained to Weston, who circulated leaflets on the criminalization of HIV. A friendship was created between the duo, who often spoke of operating on the fringes of the art world. Weston helped Roberts realize the importance of visibility in the art world. He received his first solo exhibition in New York in 2019, when he was 72 years old. A year later, he died of bladder cancer.
“Fred was very outspoken about not getting the recognition he deserved, and he worked until the day he died,” said Roberts. “He taught me to look at the messy and chaotic parts of the performance and how we build ourselves as people.”
Becoming a fiber artist was the consequence of habit and necessity. Roberts, now 40, began knitting as a child, taking lessons from a parent. After leaving the Detroit area, the artist attended the University of Vermont, where a rebellious streak morphed into a political organization. With a collective of young activists, Roberts looked into the AIDS crisis, scaling campus steeples to lay large, knitted banners with “Mom Knows Now” written on it, before eventually moving to New York City. Textiles have become an easy way to create art without having to pay for a studio.
“I have been nomadic by choice and by necessity, but I can take my work anywhere,” said Roberts.
The artist’s dedication to craftsmanship has recently gained ground in the art world. Earlier this month, the Hales Gallery in Chelsea announced that it is adding Roberts to its list, as one of the few artists to be featured in the gallery. Collectors David and Pamela Hornik were also interested by funding a publication around the Pioneer Works exhibition.
“The embroidery is extraordinarily personal and empathetic,” said David Hornik, a technology investor. “When you see a work by LJ, you know it’s their art. It’s the mark of a great artist and I think he will stand the test of time.
Mary Savig, curator at Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery, went from Roberts’ citation into her own doctorate. essay designed to enroll the artist in a major survey of American studio craftsmanship, “This Present Moment: Crafting a Better World,” which opens this spring.
“The power in Roberts’ work is how he resists power,” said Savig, comparing the artist’s portraits to the works of Alice Neel or Harmony Hammond. “Roberts blows up hierarchies,” she added, “lingering with needle and thread on the feminist, queer and trans paths that came before them.”
Prior to the opening night of the Pioneer Works exhibition, Hadley Raysor Smith visited the gallery for a private tour. Six years ago, Roberts photographed Smith holding the artist’s dogs and wearing a shirt that read, “Stop telling women to smile.” Seeing that summer day in stitches left Smith in tears. The embroidery was more than just a testament to their friendship or a happy memory, but an artefact of their existence as a non-binary people.
“It would have been important to see pictures of queer people like this when I was younger,” said Smith, now with clear eyes. “Homosexuals being visible and shameless. “
Take With Me: Ten Years of Portraits
Until November 28, Pioneer Works, 159 Pioneer Street, Brooklyn, NY; pioneerworks.org.