I was an artistic boy who grew up in a non-artistic community. In order to fulfill this creative need, I would go to my local arts and crafts store and buy whatever kits I could afford: macrame, paint-by-number, knitting, crocheting, and cross-stitch. I was particularly taken by cross-stitching because of its reliance on the grid, an artistic concept that appeals to my sense of order.
When I grew older, I wanted to have art as a core part of my life. I returned to those crafts I learned as a child. Instead of using kits to create bucolic scenes and cozy settings, I pushed the craft to its extreme. Thus, I created the practice of Xtreme Xstitch, which re-interprets modern art pieces and overlays them with texts. It's a tedious and painful practice, but one that I find comforting.
In June 2014, I began a textile project I called "The Martin Cross," based on an untitled 1960 painting by Agnes Martin. The idea was to replicate the painting in cross-stitch and overlay it with a text from Ovid’s tale of Philomela and Tereus in Metamorphosis. The Martin painting is 12” x 12” — which is unusual for her body of work, most of which consists of six-foot square canvasses. I was intent on reproducing the dimensions of the 1960 piece as closely as I could. This would involve making over 55,000 stitches in a linen cloth—the Martin painting is on linen—with a grid that was too small for me to see without magnification. I thought that it would take me 6 months to complete
I first saw an Agnes Martin painting at Dia:Beacon in their warehouse gallery in Beacon, New York in the spring of 2005—six months after Martin had died. I was immediately taken by her painting “The Rose” (1964): a boned-colored oil on canvass with a graphite grid laid overtop. The painting looked like a monochromatic oil on canvas, typical of Abstract Expressionists like Ellsworth Kelly, but more subdued and calmer. The grid consisted of hundreds of vertical and horizontal lines that looked perfectly rendered, almost mechanical. Standing a foot in front of the painting, I stared at the grid, which seemed to shift and move on the canvas, as if the painting was organic and the cells in the grid were responding to my presence. It was this symbiosis of the calm façade and the active grid—the balance between the peaceful and the energetic—that spoke to me in a way no other work of art had before.
In 2012, Arne Glimcher published Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances. I bought the book and poured over the plates of her paintings, the reproductions of Martin’s journals, and Glimcher’s recollections of his many visits to Martin’s studio in New Mexico. On the cover of Glimcher’s book is the Martin painting that I decided to reproduce in cross-stitch—“Untitled 1960.” The canvas is painted a dark blue with eleven vertical graphite lines spaced evenly apart, creating twelve columns. There are 84 horizontal lines. In order to stay within proximity of the dimensions of the painting, my cross-stitch reproduction would contain 72 horizontal lines. There is a black border around the entire field. The vertical and horizontal lines in my reproduction produced 864 rectangular bars. Except for the first and twelfth columns, at the beginning and end of each bar in the Martin painting, she has inscribed an upside down “v” in two swift strokes—a symbol that I know as an editor’s insert caret.
Looking closely at the Glimcher reproduction, it seems as if the blue field of “Untitled 1960” is not monochrome. Instead, it appears as if the blue paint in the upper left-hand corner is darker and then fades to a slightly lighter blue in the lower right-hand color—an ombré effect that was either intended by Martin or is a product of the shadow from the lighting when the piece was photographed. Regardless, I intended to include this ombré effect in the cross-stitch,
Rather than stitch a monolithic blue field, which I thought would not capture the texture of the Martin painting, I mapped out a scheme to create the ombré effect of the Glimcher plate. I would use five gradations of blue from the DMC catalogue of threads—the company whose cross-stitch threads I would use—in 12 combinations from Very Dark Baby Blue (DMC #803) to a Medium Wedgewood (DMC #3760). Each thread consists of six plys. For The Martin Cross, I would be using three plys to created 25,920 ‘x’s that would recreate the bars on the Martin painting. In order to create the ombré effect, I had to separate each ply and recombine the plys to contain the right color combination. I began in the upper left-hand corner using three plys of the first color—Very Dark Baby Blue—but then removed one ply of the Very Dark Baby Blue and replaced it with one ply of the next color—Medium Baby Blue (DMC #311)—and then replaced two plys of the Very Dark Baby Blue for two of the Medium Baby Blue. After stitching a patch of the project, I would again switch out one ply and replace it with the next color, and so on until I finished up the blue field with three plys of the last color—Medium Wedgewood.
Rather than reproduce the carets that were in the Martin painting, I decided to inscribe a text, one letter of the text would replace one caret—there are 1,848 carets in the Martin painting. For the text, I used the story of Tereus and Philomela in Ovid’s Metamorphosis. The Ovidian tale is one of kidnap and sexual assault, and a woman’s determination to tell her story through tapestry making. Rather than inscribe the tale using the Latin alphabet, I translated the text into a resemblance of the semaphore alphabet because semaphore consists of only two vertical and/or horizontal strokes; i.e., the positions that sailors hold their flags to signal to another ship. This way of stitching Ovid’s tale was more conducive to the linen grid.
This layering of translation—from Latin into semaphore—appealed to me because it captures the layers of story-telling that are part of the Philomela tale—she did not write out her story in the tapestry but rather rendered the sexual assault through visual representation. It also captures my interest in overdetermination and the metaphysical, the layering upon layering of meaning and making.
I finished "The Martin Cross" on May 4, 2018, almost four years to the time I began the project.
After 9-11, I crocheted a wool afghan that measured 5'x6'. It was my way of understanding what had happened on that day. David and I lived at 15 Warren Street in lower Manhattan, just down the block from City Hall. I have never been able to write about 9-11. For me, what David and I went through is indescribable. Words cannot capture that day. Instead, I crocheted for a year until the afghan was done, and I thought I might be able to move on.
In 2011, our puppy Kage arrived. He was an energetic and destructive puppy. He found my 9-11 afghan and tore through a chuck of it. At the time, I thought it was a sign that I needed to put it away and forget that day, although I've never forgotten that day.
Recently, 7 years after Kage tore through it, I pulled the 9-11 afghan out of the closet where I had balled it up and thrown it. The afghan was in bad shape. The wool had pilled, and the afghan had stretched out and become misshapened.
I chose to repair it. First, I closed up the wound with a series of red stitches to remind me that the afghan had suffered through a trauma and that the scars left from that tear should not be forgotten.
Second, I decided to felt the afghan, a process of washing and drying the wool until it turned to felt.
After I finished the stitching, I was nervous about throwing the afghan in the washer. I thought it might come out a pile of wool yarn, completely destroyed. But, I wanted to take the risk, to see if transformation was possible, if we could take the past and refashion it into something gentler, something that was softer to the touch.
The felting worked, although the afghan shrank; it lost 2' in the width and 1' in length. It also lost its shape, warped into a shadow of its former self. But I think it's beautiful.
What does this say about memory and trauma and survival? Can we simply reframe the past? Can we stitch it up and run it through the washer, trying to make it less painful, but knowing that the result can only mimic the original? Can we live with this simulacrum of what was? Can I?
The Dark Eclipse: Reflections on Suicide and Absence is a book of personal essays in which the author A.W. Barnes seeks to come to terms with the suicide of his older brother, Mike. Using source documentation—police report, autopsy, suicide note, and death certificate—the essays explore Barnes’ relationship with Mike and their status as gay brothers raised in a large conservative family in the Midwest. In addition, the narrative traces the brothers’ difficult relationship with their father, a man who once studied to be a Trappist monk before marrying and fathering eight children. Because of their shared sexual orientation, A.W. hoped he and Mike would be close, but their relationship was as fraught as the author’s relationship with his other brothers and father. While the rest of the family seems to have forgotten about Mike, who died in 1993, Barnes has not been able to let him go. This book is his attempt to do so.
"The story Barnes weaves in this memoir–a story of suicidal desires and success, of what drives siblings apart and could, at turns, bring them back together–is a lyric noir of family instability, personal revelation, and queer inheritance both genealogical and literary ... Our job, as Barnes beautifully demonstrates here, is to take the ashes of our lives—not only our lived lives, but our lives as readers, too—and sculpt them into a new art." - William Stockton, Literary Lambda Review
"The book’s structure as a series of essays and Barnes’ unencumbered language make this shortish book a breezy read. The subject matter, however—the exploration of death, family history, and the discovery of self—are not so easy; but they are necessary." David Gillespie, Gay & Lesbian Review