Above: Install of Things Left Unsaid
Things Left Unsaid
At first, the installation of Things Left Unsaid at the Lexington Art League seems perplexing. Embroideries and paintings by Ciara LeRoy, also known by the moniker Pretty Strange, are hung in a stairwell, requiring the viewer to traverse the groaning steps to fully take in the exhibition. The work—small, precisely embroidered or painted text—does demand one’s full attention and results in a careful dance up and down the stairs. For many artists or mediums, this particular space would antagonize and detract from the artwork. In Things Left Unsaid, however, the domestic qualities of the Lexington Art League’s Loudoun House work in tandem with LeRoy’s raw, confessional text to generate an inimitable viewing experience.
Each of LeRoy’s embroidery hoops and canvases are carefully inscribed with unsent text messages that the artist collected from multiple contributors. These range from banal (”I clogged the toilet,” “This reminded me of you”) to life-altering (“It wasn’t a miscarriage. I had an abortion because your best friend told me you wouldn’t be a good dad.”). The text is rendered with font-like consistency that draws attention to the flat way in which we receive messages that can be deeply emotional. In STLU No. 6 (2021), STLU No. 9 (2021), and STLU No. 3 (2021), however, the words begin to melt and warp, lending additional weight to the embroidered note. The rectangular canvases compliment the hoop-bound embroideries on a purely visual level, but the latter offers additional significance to the work. LeRoy draws upon a rich tradition of text-based embroidery, such as needlework samplers that have been created for centuries as an example of one’s craft. Furthermore, embroidery is an incredibly labor-intensive process; as the artist slowly brought the words to life, she likely ruminated on the messages in the same way they haunt the authors.
The particularities of the Loudon House engender a unique reading of Things Left Unsaid. In contrast with more traditional gallery spaces, the viewer has a predetermined path as they slowly wind up the staircase and experience the groupings of work one-by-one. Ascending in this way made me feel as if the exhibition was building to something, but turning towards the last set of stairs, I was met with only a blank wall. There was no revelation or concise explanation awaiting me. Similarly, these messages do not offer insight into human nature or some other epiphany. Instead, the viewer is left with small moments that are divorced from context, anonymously whispered to anyone willing to listen.
LeRoy’s carefully recreated texts carry emotional weight and could easily be described as sentimental. I would argue, however, that Things Left Unsaid fits more neatly within the “countersentimental,” a term introduced by theorist Lauren Berlant. In The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture, they write: “An author’s or a text’s refusal to reproduce the sublimation of subaltern struggles into conventions of emotional satisfaction and redemptive fantasy might be called ‘countersentimental,’ a resistant strain within the sentimental domain… Countersentimental narratives are lacerated by ambivalence: they struggle with their own attachment to the promise of a sense of unconflictedness, intimacy, and collective belonging with which the U.S. sentimental tradition gifts its citizens and occupants.”1 Devoid of context, it can be difficult to step into the perspective of the almost-sender of these texts and, moreover, easily categorize the almost-sender and almost-recipient into the neat categories of good and bad or right and wrong that the realm of sentimentality often demands. It is not easy for the viewer to identify with the struggle that the authors faced while writing these messages; instead, they must eschew narrative and find new ways of engaging with text.
Things Left Unsaid seems simple at first glance but, as the viewer winds up the staircase that houses it, its complexities are slowly unveiled. The unsent texts come together as moments ripped from time and context, materialized through the artist’s meticulous process. Perhaps it is the viewer’s burden to imbue these with meaning: to identify with, to denounce, or simply to move on. LeRoy’s artist statement is refreshing in its restraint: while many artists make monumental claims about their work and its meaning, she allows the pieces to speak for themselves—and the exhibition is more successful as a result. These works may have been more comprehensible in a more traditional installation—and accessible, as the show cannot be viewed by visitors with limited mobility—but the eccentricities of the Lexington Art League left me with an experience I will not soon forget.
- Lauren Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 55.
Kevin Warth (he/him) is a Louisville-based artist and art historian whose research emphasizes queer identity, alternate temporalities, and hauntology.
Install of Things Left Unsaid
STLU No. 6 (2021), embroidery floss on fabric
STLU No. 3 (2021), embroidery floss on fabric
STLU No. 20 (2021), embroidery floss on fabric
Detail of STLU No. 20 (2021)