Issue 08 is now available

Resistance Language: Lisa Anne Auerbach’s Twenty-Five Years of Wearing Her Thoughts on Her Sleeves

Installation view, "Lisa Anne Auerbach: Sweater Parade," Usdan Gallery, Bennington College, 2022. Photo by Lisa Anne Auserbach courtesy of Usdan Gallery.

Parades are performances. They are pageants that denote victory, power, struggle, and history. “Lisa Anne Auerbach: Sweater Parade,” on view at Bennington College’s Usdan Gallery through April 30, is an inaugural survey that presents more than just a performance. It is a record of Auerbach’s courage and determination over twenty-five years to consistently raise political and social issues by literally wearing her concerns on her back.

Ranging from presidential elections to climate change to the rights of marginalized communities, Auerbach’s sweaters are far more than attire. They are three-dimensional sculptures intended to elicit action, thought, and discourse. Rather than isolating her empathy to one issue, she has rallied to support those unjustly vilified by the media and social platforms. Yes, even including Britney Spears. By doing so, she has created a portrait of herself and the context of her surroundings during the time these garments were created. “Sweater Parade” further provides a mirror of our collective experience of the 21st century from 9/11 to COVID-19. This survey consists of three components: a foreboding yet powerful hanging display of knit-wears, Auerbach’s 4-Word Drawings, and a book room. An argument could be made to include performance as a fourth component. Throughout the run of the exhibition, an actual sweater parade was held, tarot cards were read by students and community members, and gallery staff wore Auerbach’s garments to engage visitors.

Auerbach is most recognized for her use of knitting as a medium. Don’t make the mistake of imagining this artist sitting in a group of weekend warrior women regaling the attributes of handmade items. Auerbach purchased a knitting machine that connects to her computer, enabling her to be in control and produce her own designs more immediately. Her goal is the result, not the process. She has likened wearing her garments to the act of using the body as a billboard. Their messages range from, “John Kerry Will Win / George Bush Will Lose” to “Take Back The House/Throw The Bums Out ” to “Vaccinated! Cancel COVID.” Though Auerbach has been weaving political messages into her sweaters since the mid 1990s, it wasn’t until 2010 that she learned about and incorporated the practice of Hønsestrik, a Danish word that translates to “chicken knit” and refers to a type of knitting that was popular in Denmark during the early ’70s. Developed by Kirsten Hofstatter, this method encouraged knitters to weave political and personal statements in the body of the garment using a simple stitch in an explosion of colors. From a distance these outfits appear to be exquisite northern European craft. A closer look brings into focus images and slogans that not only address salient issues, but also are ironic, and sometimes, hysterically funny.  

Bennington students donned Auerbach’s work and marched across the college campus in a literal Sweater Parade on March 12, 2022. A film of the parade event is part of the exhibition. Photo by Alexa Curran for Usdan Gallery.

Climbing the stairs to the gallery, an enormous video projection documents students parading through the hilltop campus decked out in Auerbach’s sweaters and ensembles during a snow bomb cyclone earlier this spring. This joyful display was at once a fashion show, free speech demonstration, and an opportunity for the Los Angeles-based artist’s wears to get out of the sun and into the snow.

Inside Usdan Gallery’s mammoth space, forty-four sweaters and sweater outfits are suspended from the ceiling on specially designed hangers. Mimicking real bodies, they often sway if bumped into, provoking the urge to say “excuse me.” They are arranged in a traditional marching formation. Four bodies of work are represented, covering a time span from 2007 to 2021. Her “cheerleaders” lead in the front and take up the rear, while the news, Hønsestrik, and presidential elections hold up the middle section. Because the back of each sweater is as germane as the front, you can approach the installation and the procession from either end.

Surrounding the sweater installation are 244 drawings from Auerbach’s 4-Word Drawing series. Predominantly in gray and white, and made from 2016 to 2020, the gouache and pencil drawings are all 12″ x 19″. Auerbach created each drawing with exactly four words in the same composition, which she then posted on Instagram to raise money for activist causes in response to the Trump administration. Funds benefited groups including the Trevor Project (support for LGBT youth), Anti-Defamation League, Planned Parenthood, Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), and the Green City Force. Some examples of texts are Art of No Deal, This Too Shall Pass, Kicking Against the Pricks, and Make America Green Again. The drawings clearly fall in the tradition of works by Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger, but Auerbach’s use of social media as a platform for distributing these messages and fundraising for advocacy groups adds a dimension of wit and activism.

Lisa Anne Auerbach, 4-Word Drawings (2016–2022), installation view, “Lisa Anne Auerbach: Sweater Parade,” Usdan Gallery, Bennington College, 2022. Image courtesy of Usdan Gallery.

In the reading room, publications the artist has self-published, including books of her photography as well as her five-foot magazine she calls a “mega-zine,” are available for perusing. The deck of tarot cards featuring her photography paired with knit patterns allowed students and visitors another avenue for activating Auerbach’s work. While the reading room may feel like a rather perfunctory way to organize Auerbach’s collection of additional and disparate works, the space gives a window into the innovation and heart of her practice, no matter what medium she chooses to use.

Careful not to silo the impact of her work with audiences typically interested in craft feminism (think pussy hats circa 2017), Auerbach seeks out how her work can be a tool for intersectionality and for provoking discussion. Add a parade into the mix, and you’ve got the makings of a braver, more inclusive, and maybe better-dressed future.

The Sweater Parade moved across the landscape and in and out of Bennington College buildings, including Crossett Library, pictured here. Photo by Alexa Curran for Usdan Gallery.

“Lisa Anne Auerbach: Sweater Parade,” curated by Usdan Gallery Director Anne Thompson, is on view at Bennington College from March 7 through April 30, 2022.

Sara Farrell Okamura is a working artist, writer, museum educator, and curator based in North Adams. She has been the recipient of Berkshire Taconic’s Art Resource Trust Grant (A.R.T.) and MASS MoCA’s Assets For Artists grant. Her work can be seen this spring in Two to Tango at Bernay Fine Art in Great Barrington, MA, Painting at Night at Collar Works in Troy, NY, and a two-person exhibit in July at Joyce Goldstein Gallery in Chatham, NY.