These days you can’t swing a cat without hitting a rug-hooker, for which—as a practitioner myself—I am at once grateful for how the form is being pushed to its limits by a wide array of artists with influences and interests as varied as the artists themselves; and annoyed at just how formally ambitious, funny, thought-provoking, and challenging the works being produced really are. Case in point, Larry Weyand, whose recent exhibition, All The Bathrooms I Bathed In, which ran from January 14-February 11 2022 at The Craft Council Gallery in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, brings rug-hooking, that most humble craft-hobbyist practice, into the realm of large-scale installation and architecture, and furthermore, given the astonishing amount of labour involved, not to mention the work’s conceptual sophistication, may bring about the long overdue retirement of yours truly from the rug-hooking ranks. At least I’ll still have my first and one true love—the run-on sentence.
For the uninitiated: rug-hooking as a widespread practice began in North America around the 1830s, predominantly along the Eastern Seaboard of New England in the United States, the Maritime provinces of Canada, and Newfoundland and Labrador, and grew in popularity amongst mainly poor women after the advent of mass-produced floor-coverings and carpet became widely available to middle and upper-class homes. Unlike embroidery or quilting, rug-hooking was not taught to the middle and upper-class girls of the period. It was considered déclassé. As a possible precursor to Walter Benjamin’s ragpicker, the poor women of the time would scavenge cast-off scraps of fabric for the creation of their rugs, which required the tedious process of pulling with a hook, millimetre by wretched millimetre, said fabric through the grid of a backing—usually burlap. Thus, rug-hooking is steeped in the history of women’s labour, the poor and working-class history of the region vis-à-vis the Industrial Revolution, and notions around good or bad taste as defined by the cultural elite.
To one degree or another, references to all of this history are evident in Weyand’s installation. Previously known for works that brought rug-hooking into the realm of sculpture—meticulous three-dimensional renderings of loaves of Wonder Bread, jars of Miracle Whip, cans of beer, Babybel cheeses, and other sundry forms of cheap and heavily processed foodstuffs consumed by the poor and working-class—All The Bathrooms I Bathed In presents just two in a series of bathrooms Weyand has depicted from memory. Accompanying photographs show the exteriors of the houses where the bathrooms were, and tape on the gallery floors demarcate the layout of the rest of the homes. At the risk of dating myself with an antiquated cultural reference, I thought of Les Nessman’s imaginary office in WKRP in Cincinnati.
The bathrooms are small, slightly run-down, messy, mundane, and uncanny: the familiar made decidedly unfamiliar through Weyand’s chosen material. As a site in which one may be at their most nakedly vulnerable, and, paradoxically, wherein one dons whatever socially acceptable (or not!) costume one sees fit to present in the public sphere, Weyand’s installation creates a certain voyeuristic anxiety in the viewer. Even as we identify with the scene, we’re uneasy with what we’ve seen, to go a bit wordplay on you. We’re pulled in by the cute flaccid toothbrushes, the rug-hooked rubber ducky, the limp bag of toilet paper rolls, just as we’re repulsed by the presentation of a bathroom formed completely of fabric—unsanitary, to say the least.
But this tension seems to go deeper than, shall we say, what’s presented on the surface. The title of this exhibition points the way. It’s not “All The Bathrooms I Brushed My Teeth In,” nor “All The Bathrooms I Remember,” but rather Weyand has placed an emphasis on the act of bathing, suggesting—to this Catholic-school educated art critic, at least—a certain gesture toward baptism, a cleansing, a doing away with the toxic shame downloaded from a society in which gender and class are social constructs designed and implemented by a cultural and economic status quo that seeks the continued domination of an under-class of people with no money and no power. These are not the opulent commodes of some bigshot millionaire, but those of an apartment, a humble rental property, or modest bungalow. If it’s no longer controversial that race and gender are nothing more than social constructions, in regards to class, it’s become so uncontroversial and obvious as to hardly need to be said anymore. Nevertheless, it still needs to be.
Long a gallery in which consumer products made by its members were consistently and constantly shown, it’s refreshing to see the Craft Council embrace the more challenging and provocative work Weyand’s installation represents.