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108 Contemporary’s new show pulls at a divisive thread

“Home of the Brave,” 2013, mixed media fiber, wire, silk, fabric, and safety pins, 72” x 99”

Consuelo J. Underwood

“Work while you can,” she said. “Because when you’re bored, the saints cry.”

Consuelo J. Underwood could talk for hours and I’d let her. A warm and talkative speaker, she shook my hand with both of hers when she met me. Her show, “Thread Songs from the Borderlands,” is up now at 108 Contemporary.

“The trouble with talking to you,” Underwood said, “is that I’m not sure if you want the 30-second version, the one-minute version, the five-minute version, or the take-up-the-entire-dinner version.”

“I’ll take whatever you’ve got,” I said.

Underwood’s work is primarily weaving work. “Buffalo Shroud Almost 1,000 Left” is a silk-and-cotton weaving with almost 1,000 buffalos silkscreened onto the surface, honoring the few buffalo left in America—down from around 60 million in the late 1800s.

“Run, Jane, Run!” weaves cotton, barbed wire, and caution tape into a picture of a family—father, mother, child—running, the child nearly lifted into the air by the mother’s hand. The word “CAUTION” haunts the space above them.

“In my family,” Underwood said, “my mom was in front, and my dad was the one holding my hand.” Her father was one of the first braceros, a group of farm laborers brought over from Mexico by the U.S. government from the ‘40s to the ‘60s.

“He came over, met my mom, and didn’t know a bit of English. So, from him I learned how to cross social and cultural boundaries with music.”

Her father loved the Mexican music of his homeland, but he also found solace in Woody Guthrie’s tunes.

Underwood worked in the farms for a time herself, picking prunes and tomatoes at nine years old in the fields outside Sacramento. But upon hearing Woody Guthrie and reading Joan of Arc, she knew that she wanted to do something different with her life.

“Here [Joan of Arc] was, kicking England out of France, and I’m crying about picking tomotoes?” she joked.

“When I heard the songs of Woody, I went, ‘Dang! Dang! Dang!’ I told myself that when I grew up, I would do something like that. His songs drive me. They’re songs of the land and the wind and the rivers. They’re songs from the earth. My dad taught me that.”

This personal history comes through in her work “Woody, My Dad and Me,” a triptych of rebozos (long, flat, shroud-like garments traditionally worn by Mexican women) made of wire, linen, and thread. The rebozos are topped by the words “THIS LAND WAZ MADE 4 U + ME.”

The triptych is both precise and erratic: the horizontal weavings are tight and controlled, while bold lines of color shoot up the length of them like lightning, or, if viewed the right way, a trail map.

“C. Jane Run” is a series of 126 different rectangles of fabric with the word “CAUTION” and the running family screen-printed across each. The fabric pieces are strung together with hundreds of safety pins, a fact that seemed significant to me: “safe” is in the name of safety pins, and yet they can cause harm. And the U.S., for many, is a place of both great safety and great danger.

The show, finally, is all about borders. On 108’s southern wall, Underwood has installed “A New Borderline: American Border Charge: Power Wands and A Basket,” a piece which incorporates made flowers and animals tracks spread over a zigzag drawing that looks similar to the border between the U.S. and Mexico.

The piece was made with the help of women in the Women In Recovery program.

“They were so excited, so energetic,” Underwood said. “They were absolutely incredible.”

After Tulsa, the show moves onto Boston, then Chicago. One area the show hasn’t been to, she noted with a wry smile, was along the Mexican border. “No Texas, no Arizona, no New Mexico, no San Diego. Los Angeles, but none of those border areas.”

When I suggested the hope that she would make it to these areas, she responded with dark humor.

“It has to work,” she said. “Either that or I’ll be deported.”

Consuelo J. Underwood: Thread Songs from the Borderlands
June 1–July 22
Wednesdays–Sundays, 12–5 p.m.
108 Contemporary, 108 E. M.B. Brady St. Free | 108contemporary.org

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