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Emotionally charged, tongue-in-cheek samplers by Bren Ahearn at Bellevue Arts Museum
Bren Ahearn, Sampler 9 (detail). Photo: Kiny McCarrick.

BELLEVUE, WA.- Bren Ahearn: Strategies for Survival presents an emotionally charged selection of samplers by San Francisco-based artist Bren Ahearn. For the past decade, Ahearn’s work in fiber has stitched together a variety of cultural references to question the traditional understanding of manhood and its assumed qualities of courage, vigor, and determination. Drawing upon vintage samplers and contemporary imagery that includes Hello Kitty, American football, and cage fighters, Ahearn’s needlework appropriates these recognizable symbols into a narrative that playfully but poignantly addresses the culturally shunned topic of a man’s sensitivity.

Samplers have been used since the 15th century to educate young women about the alphabet, numbers, and the art of sewing, as well as to bestow moral or religious teachings. Associated as it is with notions of femininity, the triviality of everyday domesticity, and women’s leisure activity, needlework has long found itself excluded from the “capital A” Art world. With the 11 samplers on display, Ahearn reclaims this craft and plays upon the underlying gender implications. Each work is transformed into a page from a personal and intimate diary filled with the awkward moments, defeats, and discoveries which result from confronting expectations about masculinity. Often oversized, the scale of each work serves to magnify the artist’s feelings of embarrassment and inadequacy.

Ahearn’s samplers are imbued with feelings of tenderness and innocence, and yet sparkle with a tongue-in-cheek wit. Their sentimentality, in the positive sense of the word, expresses reliance on one’s own feelings as a guide to truth, a source of strength in the face of the expectation to conform, and, ultimately, as a strategy for survival.

Bren Ahearn: Strategies for Survival is organized by Bellevue Arts Museum and curated by Stefano Catalani.

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