Love, dating, relationships and sex are all complicated experiences that every human being gets to undergo in life to some degree or another. The “complicated” part of these experiences got even thornier with the advent of online dating, taking everything to new levels of complexity within societal and cultural behaviors. Tinder, Bumble and any other app that makes dating, casual sex and other encounters easy, abundant, and almost instantaneous changed the dynamic of human relationships forever. Tinder, for example, has some 50 million users and produces more than 12 million matches a day. I’ve been married to the same guy for 13 years so I’m not a user of any of these apps, but I remember reading that 2015 Vanity Fair article shedding light on hookup culture and the end of dating as we know it. In talking to friends who do use these apps, I don’t know what to make of them. Do they really help form meaningful couples and connections? Are people being treated more like disposable facilitators to fill a need at any given time? Will expanding the pool of available mating candidates ever close the loop on choosing someone or will it make people feel like there’s someone better only a swipe away?
Intrigued by the work of Sophia Narrett, who I first discovered at the Museum of Sex’s exhibition NSFW: The Female Gaze, and by millennials who are approaching the subject of love and relationships in real life, I visited Sophia in her studio and was blown away by her and her work. I’m always looking for people who are making great art but above that, I'm looking for artists who have something to say. The content is what drives me although the execution is vital for aesthetic engagement. The fact that Sophia tackles process and content with so much authenticity really moved me. The craft of needlework and embroidery, the storytelling focused on sex and love, the intimacy between the work and the viewer (since one must come very close to appreciate the detailed labor and the narrative involved in each one of her pieces) are all winners.
Embroideries in the art world weren’t taken seriously until the 1960s, when women artists such as Miriam Schapiro and Judy Chicago decided to change the idea of the arbitrary “hierarchy” - that painting and sculpture were at the top and that more “decorative” and “domestic” handcraft were at the bottom. And that is precisely the medium Sophia has chosen and which she has mastered to a degree of detail so impressive, that even microscopic toenails are painted red in her diminutive subjects.
Like fairies, these women in her embroideries are enmeshed in fantastic narratives, all stylized and sensual - some wear Valentino garments whose hues and tones are impressively accomplished by the combination of threads chosen by this artist, some are naked experiencing all sorts of pleasures: from relaxation to sexual gratification.
Sophia tells me that even though it may take her six months to finish a piece, she is, like me, very focused on her subject matter. And her work is primarily about love: different manifestations of it at different times. “I’m exploring my fantasies and desires in a genuine and very autobiographical way, and in that process connecting to larger social issues where people can then project their narratives onto themselves” she says. For example, in one of her works, there are two couples playing a sex game on two different planes, according to her, right after the man comes from work. “It’s the same couple, just one scene after the other, and the work is called 6:00 pm.” How sexy and romantic, I think, although with my hectic life of work and kids, if we can make it to “10:00 pm”, we are golden.
There is a work in progress with several different narratives surrounding the same woman: when I look up closely, I see an embroidery of John Travolta in his most recognizable character of Tony Manero. Saturday Night Fever is Sophia’s favorite movie of all time, which is curious since this movie was released in 1977 and Sophia watched it while in college (she graduated from Brown in 2010). I ask her why this movie and she tells me that she was taken by the visuals, the fact that there is love (several love stories, in fact), that it explores what it means to have a crush, that the music is pulsating and engulfing (after all this is the movie responsible for putting Disco into the mainstream), and the overall cultural significance of it all.
The truth, as corny as it may sound, is that Saturday Night Fever is a masterpiece that has a very significant place in the cultural history of American movies which not only defined the aesthetics of an era combined with a soundtrack that is still played everywhere, but it also tackled racial tensions, the idea of upward mobility and income inequality among some other social issues, all of it taking place in a very different Brooklyn than the one we currently know. In Sophia’s work, there is a present for Travolta’s partner, a proposal, and an orgy of women is meant to symbolize the female character’s own pleasure. In Sophia’s words: “there are moments of art and love and transcendence in a world where there is so much hatred and violence: racism, homophobia, anti-immigration.” For Sophia love is transcendence and escapism in a positive way.
Sometimes escapism is what people want through online and app dating, to find a partner that has nothing to do with their immediate surroundings, who expands who they are and how they think. In a recent article published by MIT, researchers gathered sufficient evidence to believe that app and online dating are changing the composition of society in the United States. Simply by facilitating meetings between people who would never otherwise meet, there has been an increase in racial diversity in marriages. Interracial marriage is widely considered a measure of social distance in our culture and the fact that they are coming from online dating is benefiting society at large.
Of course, I ask Sophia if she’s dating. And yes, of course she is. She’s mostly dating people she meets online. And fittingly, she’s very happy to meet guys this way. She walks her talk and embroiders it too.