America is in the midst of a retrograde nightmare, asserts J Carpenter in a surprising new body of work, created in 2018 and 2019. In a striking formal and material departure from the painstakingly constructed lace sculptures and stark architectural embroideries of earlier years, Carpenter has manipulated used textiles and books from the 1950’s - 1980’s, creating warped, unsettling objects, reeking of nostalgia gone awry. In making these objects, Carpenter responds to the socio-political state of her country in visceral, irreverent, highly energetic fashion.
Through collection and manipulation of used textiles and books, Carpenter portrays the political forces at work in the United States as a painful attempt to relive the past in order to make sense of the present, much the way a dream-deprived mind will relive the past in the form of retrograde nightmares.
A retrograde nightmare, as defined by the American Medical Association, is a dream that occurs at an illegitimate moment in time. Retrograde nightmares take place after a period of dream suppression (dream suppression is most commonly caused by trauma or prolonged drug use). The mind must dream in order to thoroughly process stimuli, thereby maintaining its health. After a period of dream deprivation, the mind often creates dreams too late to healthily process input from the world. The same dream that would have been experienced as average, even mundane, had it been dreamed at the correct time, is experienced as a nearly unbearable lucid nightmare, because it is divorced from its useful place in time.
In are these returning birds?, the shape of a quintessential suburban house and a popular 1950’s curtain pattern are combined to form a sickly sentimental, clownish object resembling a Klu Klux Klan mask. What seems to be an attempt to portray a colorful, joyful family home results in the symbol of a hate-based organization.
In Circle of Knowledge, Carpenter’s family’s 1986 Encyclopedia Brittanica has been burned and archived in jars, their circular arrangement a reference to the repetition of events and suffering that occurs when a country forgets its history. What a maker may have construed as an attempt to lovingly preserve a family heirloom results in the horrifying act of book burning. The ashes also appear in Carpenter's 2D mixed media pieces. Combined with vintage textile patterns, the ashes create a look of age and decay. The textile patterns allude to the culture and laws of the past that affected women. The application of the ashes portrays these mores and laws as dead, decaying, and putrid.
In The New Green, a denim-like monoprint made from a handmade quilt is obscured by thick, dripping, gold wallpaper ink. For Carpenter, the handmade quilt and the denim-like print represent the denim-clad working class. The gold ink, a heavy, imposing presence in the work, is sanded away in areas, in an unsuccessful attempt to allow the denim print to show once more. An attempt to improve an artifact has irrevocably damaged it, and attempts to revive the artifact after this damage have been in vain. Gold, a symbol of wealth, functions as the out-of-place element that lends the piece its disturbing quality, a reference to the wealth and greed that Carpenter sees playing a dangerous and destructive role in America today.
Carpenter’s lace houses, made from 2010 - 2013, and the stark embroideries she continues to create, are more relevant now than ever before. The lace houses represent futile labor and hope. Hand lacing a house is a long and arduous process, resulting in a house that is made of mostly empty space, which, though beautiful, protects nothing. This relates to the looking back to old morays that, though arguably attractive, have the potential to create great suffering, particularly for women. The embroideries represent windows, doors, the exteriors of homes, and interior domestic spaces. The images are devoid of figures and indicators of setting, creating an unsettling, mysterious quality. They ask: Are we looking out, or looking in? Where are we? What happened here? What's going to happen next? These are not images of home-sweet-home. Now, more than ever before, Carpenter's lacemaking and embroidery bring to mind the American dream, turned nightmare.