A framed speculum leans against the wall in Katrina Majkut's second-floor studio in an industrial space in Gowanus, Brooklyn. The table is splattered with paint. Light streams in through a skylight pierced with bars. The 33-year-old artist has just completed her largest work, a cross-stitched still life of the tools used in a surgical abortion. The 37-inch-long scene features stitched medical cups and dilators, steel forceps, and gauze swabs. "Everyone comes into looking at this work with a preconceived notion [about] what these tools are and what they mean," she says.
Majkut's series In Control, which she's worked on since 2009, is a stitched encyclopedia of reproductive paraphernalia: tampons, condoms, IUDs, and more. Some appeal to a bawdy sense of humor, such as a piece called Withdrawal: a wriggling string looping around itself. ("Inside of us all," she says, "there's still a 13-year-old who's giggling at sex ed.") Other works are even more abstract, like Abstinence, which is a piece of cross-stitch fabric mounted in an empty frame. The title asks about who has authority over women's contested bodies and choices—is it pharmaceutical companies, lawmakers, or women themselves?
Many of Majkut's In Control pieces feature the physical artifact alongside the stitched depiction. This is partially just practical, Majkut says—it's hard to render the texture of a sponge using embroidery thread. But it's also educational. Even if a woman uses a given kind of birth control, she might not be super familiar with what it looks like or exactly how it works. That's a dynamic Majkut has seen firsthand. "One woman asked [me] what the IUD [in the piece] was, and when I explained it to her, she was shocked, because she said that she had one," Majkut says.
When the items do appear, they're not exactly titillating. Latex looks jaundiced, sad, and deflated smushed behind glass. And most of the products Majkut has addressed—Vagisil, for instance—aren't for women's pleasure: They're for tackling the itchy, goopy, byproducts of having organs that sometimes get infected.
Cross-stitch, like quilting and other historical domestic crafts, can get shafted, dismissed, or demeaned as a pastime, not an art. Stitching is sometimes viewed as dainty or quiet, especially contrasted with videos of, say, Jackson Pollack's athletic painting style, lunging atop of the canvas, flinging pigment. "It feels very pampered," says Majkut, who has been cross-stitching since she was a kid. She learned from her mother, who learned from Majkut's grandmother.
In a Ukrainian family, cross-stitch was a rite of passage, but the installations are taxing. Majkut deals with tendonitis in her elbows and shoulders as a result of gripping the needle and thread and hunching over the taut fabric, mapping out the spacing of letters or tools.
Her work started getting political when she was living in Berkeley around 2009, at the intersection of the Fruitvale shooting, the genesis of the Occupy Movement, and the passage of Proposition 8, which briefly blocked gay marriage in California. "I didn't realize it at first," she says, "but now I see, holy shit, that was a really informative time for me."
A number of artists have explored the subversive potential of the domestic arts, and Majkut is one of them. But she also thinks the twee quality of cross-stitch actually serves her purpose, too. "It's familiar, and it's not usually considered aggressive, even though some people would describe the subject matter to be," she says. Some viewers may only have encountered cross-stitch on a pillow or wall-hanging in their grandmother's home. The medium offers people a comfortable way into the content.
The current political culture continues to impact Majkut's work. An upcoming project will depict a rape kit, which she purchased online for $25. A recent New York Times story revisited the backlog of more than 11,000 untested rape kits languishing in Detroit—some of which have been shelved for 30 years. Testing them all would cost an estimated $17 million. And, many statistics suggest, the majority of rapes go unreported in the first place.
A self-described women's health advocate, Majkut hopes to someday enlist doctors to come to one of her gallery openings and answer women's questions. For now, she's enjoying hearing baby boomer viewers reminiscence about second-wave feminist groups that tuned in to their bodies. "Someone told me they had a college class for four credits where they looked at their vagina daily and kept a diary about it," she says. She hopes to challenge people who think they know everything there is to know about the landscape of women's health. "No matter how educated you are, there's always a surprise when you realize that you can buy a DNA paternity test at CVS, you know?"