Shout It Out

Lisa Anne Auerbach’s sweaters make a statement

Other craft-based arts have corralled handwork and politics into a fiery alliance. Afghan war carpets and African-American Underground Railroad quilts come to mind. But no effort in recent memory has been as sharp and blunt as Lisa Anne Auerbach’s assertive knitwear. Her unambiguous words and sharp graphics get a message across like a 24-point headline.
 
Their resonance, however, comes from something other than words. The time, effort, and personal conviction that go into the creation of each sweater cut deeper than any slogan.  “The message is not on the fabric, it IS the fabric,” says the photographer and knitter about her pullover protests.  And she is right. To decide that you want to say something badly enough to invest the many hours to knit a sweater represents an unusual level of commitment in a highly disposable, sound-byte society. Not to mention wearing it over and over again.
 
Turning what is usually identified as “women’s work” to overtly socio-political ends is also beautifully transgressive, and very much in the vein of artists such as Judy Chicago, Tracy Emins, and others.
 
But Auerbach’s primary influence was not high-culture feminism. It all started with Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielson. This sexy, edgy uber-nerd wore custom-made sweaters that blended a Mr. Rogers vibe with offhand messages like “Don’t steal my girlfriend.” Auerbach loved the eccentric, bespoke and permanent nature of the communication. It was not a T-shirt. Not temporary. Not disposable. Very deliberately attention-seeking. 
 
She made her first knitted statement during the 2004 presidential campaign. As a bike commuter, she had nowhere to put a bumper sticker but her own back. When friends pointed out that their office dress codes did not allow Kerry T-shirts…voila, the first slogan sweater was born.  
 
Her ad hoc group, Knitters for Kerry, may not have won the day, but Auerbach is still exploring the medium five years later.  “The post-Bush era isn’t nearly as hard as I thought it was going to be.  Since the Obama victory, I have made a Prop 8 pullover, as well as a Michael Jackson sweater and something on “sharrows” -- cars and bikes sharing lanes on the streets of Los Angeles. Now that I am a car commuter in order to get to my job as photography professor at Pomona College, I also made a sweater that says: I used to be part of the solution. Now I am part of the problem.” 
 
As Auerbach prepares for an exhibition of her work in Nottingham, UK, (following close on the heels of one at the University of Michigan) she ponders Robin Hood and King John, and why so few other knitters have put their own hearts on their sleeves:  “I keep waiting to see other peoples’ messages coming at me.”  Pick up a pair of needles and shout out a sign that you are listening.
 
 
To purchase a book of Auerbach’s charted knitting designs, visit printedmatter.org and look for Sweaters that Talk Back. To learn more about Lisa Anne Auerbach, see lisaanneauerbach.com, or read her blog at stealthissweater.blogspot.com.
 
 

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