Contemplations on the publication, Carry You With Me: Ten Years of Portraits – LJ Roberts
Apr 26, 2022
In the summer of 2021, I first heard whispers of an upcoming solo exhibition of LJ Roberts’ works, curated by Gabriel Florenz, at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, NY. I was thrilled because this would be their first solo exhibition in New York, and I knew immediately it would be an amazing show. I also hoped that there would be an accompanying catalog. My wish was granted in the most satisfying way, with the stunning publication Carry You With Me: Ten Years of Portraits, 2021, published by Pioneer Works Press.
I first met LJ Roberts and discovered their work in the fall of 2016 when I was an intern at Visual AIDS, the well-known AIDS Art nonprofit organization. It was there that I saw them during the midst of this series. We were both volunteers and it was this queer meeting point, at different times in our lives, that we found community. Many of the people LJ lovingly depicted I know myself, reminding once again how layered the queer community is. That theme is driven home in the Forward of the publication with Sur Rodney (Sur) writing, “I know many of the represented. We are all part of a loving community. This community exists within many worlds we are a part of".
The exhibition and coinciding publication, focuses on one project of LJ’s, their ongoing series of “26 six-by-four-inch embroidered portraits of the artist’s friends, collaborators, and lovers within New York City’s queer and trans communities.” The book serves as documentation of not just a series of work and eventual exhibition, but as a record of friendships, love, and at times a memorial.
The presentation was perfect, the intimate embroidered portraits are in double sided glass frames, and they are hung on the wall like a door, so that a viewer can examine the front as well as the back. This arrangement invites the viewer to examine the works closer, allowing them to admire the stitchwork. As an embroidery artist myself, I was thrilled that each piece was able to be enjoyed completely, from all angles. The closest one can get without having it out of the frame and holding it.
Yet just like with any exhibition, I never feel like I can have enough time to examine a work, no matter how well it is displayed, to really get close and contemplate. The gallery lightings are bright reflecting off the glass frames and after a while of standing looking at one piece, I quickly move on to the next. Copies of the publication were laid out for visitors to look through while at the show, but personally I tend to want to get into a book once I am home.
I don’t think I have ever thought this, or said this, especially since the exhibition was fantastic, but being able to see the show that accompanies a catalog, Carry You With Me: Ten Years of Portraits, the publication is in a way BETTER than seeing the show in person.
Hear me out.
Purely from an aesthetic point of view, I was pleased. There is no dust cover, highlighting the fabric. This also makes you want to touch it, pick it up; like how someone reaches out to feel a fabric. As mentioned, the works are presented in a way to invite viewers to admire all angles of each portrait, but it is in the publication that I was finally able to take all the time I wanted. What is considered a hindrance at times in presenting small works in person, ends up being the biggest positive in publication. The publication shows the works in their actual life size, and on the back page of each work, is the coinciding image of the backside of the embroidery. Perfectly lit with all its messy details clearly seen.
One of my favorite aspects of the publication is that accompanying each portrait is a list of all the places and years that LJ took each work until it was completed. A lot of art today is done fast, shown fast, consumed fast, and forgotten even faster. LJ reminds the reader that each work was a process, a journey that took time before it was complete. They also give an insight that is not able to fully be appreciated when seeing the show in person, the memories that accompany each portrait. They describe their feelings of the moment that is being depicted, and the bittersweetness of reflecting on a moment that is now gone.
In the portrait of the late artist Frederick Weston, a close friend of theirs who passed away in 2020, this heartache is felt. It is the type of relationship one finds often in the queer community, and cherished. A friendship that develops between separate generations, that forces you to grow and teaches you the hardest lesson, to appreciate the time you have together. The publication shows how an artist puts themselves into every stitch, all emotions channeled through this traditional form. By allowing us to bear witness to 26 of their relationships, memorialized in their hand, they are giving us permission to take the strength that comes with this support – community, an overwhelming sense of love and belonging. With Carry You With Me: Ten Years of Portraits, LJ invites us to also be comforted, to feel at home.
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LJ Roberts Carry You With Me: Ten Years of Portraits, curated by Gabriel Florenz, was at Pioneer Works, Brooklyn, NY (Sep 10 – Nov 28, 2021). The same titled exhibitoin will be on view at Cantor Arts Center, Stamford, CA through Apr 27 - Nov 27, 2022. The publication Carry You With Me: Ten Years of Portraits can be purchased here.