ART REVIEW: In "Lazarus Taxa," Caitlin McCormack Crochets the Beautiful Macabre

Walking into Lazarus Taxa, the latest show at Philadelphia’s Paradigm Gallery, evokes the feeling of entering a slightly macabre Victorian cabinet of curiosities, where the exquisitely strange crocheted handiwork of Caitlin McCormack rests under bell jars and peeks out from behind glass. Consisting of delicately-wrought skulls, skeletons, and decaying remains interwoven together, all rendered in black or white thread thread, the immediate effect is downright disturbing as well as spellbinding—a sort of memento mori vibe permeates the light, airy gallery space.
Caitlin McCormack, Cold Soil Caucus, 2017, 31.25”h x 31.25”w x 2.75”d, crocheted cotton string, glue, steel pins, courtesy of Paradigm Gallery + Studio

The majority of the works are arranged on opposite walls in tight-knit, heavily ornamental formations, with several standalone works on pedestals scattered throughout the room. The works on pedestals depict relatively larger skulls both distorted and simply human, but are, on the whole, far less effective thematically than the careful arrangements of the works on the walls. They're much more obvious in their intent, while the sheer decorative beauty of the twinned walls disguises a much more malevolent truth. For their part, the wall displays conjure up a sense of domesticity, which is aided by the materials McCormack uses: the crocheted pieces are each carefully pinned to either black velvet or slightly mouldering once-white lace doilies for maximum visual impact. The white works on black velvet are reminiscent of biological specimens—such as bones—laid out beneath a microscope’s light, while the black works threaten to consume their white lace grounds like a kind of malevolent mold. Adding to what has to be a intentional reference to the Victorian feminine sphere is McCormack’s use of gloves in several of the wall-mounted compositions, which are mired in twisting, tangled thread.
Wall display, courtesy of Paradigm Gallery + Studio
Wall display, courtesy of Paradigm Gallery + Studio
The manipulation of the traditionally nonthreatening and feminine art of crochet into something diseased, fossilized, and displayed almost makes Lazarus Taxa come across as a memorial to the ossified lost potential snuffed out by the famously overbearing social norms of the Victorian era. Works such as Cold Soil Caucus (2017), the show’s strongest work, cast the white organisms on black velvet as both cadaver and embryo; the delightfully subversive Totemvoid I and II (2017) buck the rest of the exhibition’s color scheme by presenting a neat pile of animal-esque skulls in white thread in the middle of a white lacy doily. It’s a perfectly rude addition to a Victorian dinner table, requiring a second look to properly take in the casual horror. The imaginary Victorian women making these tiny animal remains are just as trapped as their creations, kept in their own kind of glass cages. Everything in this show, then, is not just dead, but was never properly alive to begin with, drained of air and freedom by impossible scrutiny and expectations. The tiny creatures in Cold Soil Caucus in particular seem to be reaching out from where they are pinned to fabric, almost pressing against the glass. As McCormack intended this body of work to address suppressed traumas and memories, linking the nature of human mind to the multilayered fossil record, it's not far-fetched to see this kind of allegorical bent to the show. The treatment of distinctly feminized elements such as crocheting and the vestiges of the home as both beautiful and awful speaks to historical and contemporary struggles of women artists, as well as women in general, to be allowed to flourish on their own terms without being snuffed out by the glass of gendered expectations. After all, behind glass, one becomes an object, not a subject in their own right.

Caitlin McCormack, Totemvoid I, 2017,15.5”h x 15.5”w x 2.125”d, crocheted cotton string, glue, steel pins, vintage fabric, courtsy of Paradigm Gallery + Studio
Works such as Pyre (2017) succeed on their own terms as well as within the larger show. Depicting a charred-looking two-headed skull and torso, it’s laid out on a white ground the resembles not a doily or tablecloth, but a curtain, hinting at yet another Victorian reference—the infamous “freak shows,” where those who did not belong in society at large were made into objects of ridicule and mockery. The title Pyre suggests the sacrifice made by the two-headed individual whose only method of surviving was to subject themselves to everyday cruelty before and behind the curtain. Withermore (2016), a medium-sized work, curiously combines both bilateral and radial symmetry, almost resembling a face or an inkblot, while Limbo I and II (2017) use both black and white thread to suggest a figure mired in black tar: the white wings and head of the bird skeletons struggle upwards under their bell jars, while the black thread that constitutes their legs as well as the works’ base drag them forever downwards, making it clear that resistance is useless.

Caitlin McCormack, Pyre, 2017, ”h x 19”w x 2.5”d, crocheted cotton string, glue, steel pins, velvet, vintage apron, courtesy of Paradigm Gallery + Studio
Caitlin McCormack, Limbo II, 2017, 7.75”h x 4” diameter, crocheted cotton string, glue, enamel paint, courtesy of Paradigm Gallery + Studio
Lazarus Taxa is, in the end, a particularly good argument for not looking too deeply at the works on a gallery’s website before going to see them in person—the photos of each piece don’t at all convey how they function in concert with one another, or how wonderfully made McCormack’s works truly are when you see them in person. I do wish, however, that the gallery had dedicated itself a bit more to the Victorian and/or scientific aspect of the show’s organization by manipulating lighting or the color of the walls, as the creepy effect that the works themselves evoke is somewhat lessened by the standard white walls and wooden floor setup. Of course, that very well might not be what McCormack would have intended, but leaning more fully into any visual concept to go along with the pieces on display would only have increased my enjoyment of the show.