Caitlin MacBride Explores the Politics of Dye

For her latest series, New York painter Caitlin MacBride took inspiration from 19th-century dye recipe books held at the Cooper Hewitt museum in Manhattan. The five new paintings that comprise Dyeing Notes, on view at Deanna Evans Projects, recreate these weathered swatches, rendering colorful patterns, handwritten notes, and frayed threads across a flat plane. Through subtle symbolism, MacBride explores the shifting value of working-class possessions as they enter the realm of high art.

Physically speaking, these paintings contain multitudes. On dense wood panels, MacBride intricately depicts notebooks open to their centerfolds. At the center, rectangular samples of decorative designs become windows into the hierarchies that structure production. Works such as “Labor in Making” and “Not Cut from the Quitting Cloth” display patterns of chains and bars, evoking slavery and prisons, while floral prints bring to mind bourgeois consumers who represent the end point of this process.

MacBride centered this series on a Massachusetts textile mill during the Civil War to hint at the bloody stakes of an irresolvable labor conflict, in which capitalists retain their industry ties by any means necessary. The fabrics sampled in these pages, commonly known as “delaines,” combined threads of wool and cotton, which respectively retained dye and maximized profits. The artist therefore interweaves what is traditionally women’s work with the broader exploitation of labor in the United States.

In this way, Dyeing Notes functions as an inventory of intertwining histories. MacBride’s painted images, lifted from photographic images of printed matter, thus become the final form in a long course of art-world consecration — wherein the institution isolates them from their use behind glass. This understated irony is a welcome critique of progressivism, which often uplifts the working class for optics only (e.g., museums and their treatment of unions). Yet a significant amount of context is necessary to grasp this, leading me to wonder who the series is really for.

Against the gallery’s back wall, a smaller painting, “Mudsill Transom,” depicts tools that workers customized to suit their process. Due to the flattened perspective, it is unclear whether we are really looking at a hanging display or down into a box. This sterile scene also exemplifies the separation of art from labor — who were the women using these tools, or maintaining these books, to master their craft? In an era of fast fashion, and sweatshops across what’s called the “Global South,” MacBride demonstrates how far an industry will go to keep workers out of the picture.

Caitlin MacBride, “Delaine Directions” (2022)
Caitlin MacBride, “Not Cut from the Quitting Cloth” (2022)
Installation view of Caitlin MacBride: Dyeing Notes at Deanna Evans Projects

Caitlin MacBride: Dyeing Notes continues at Deanna Evans Projects (373 Broadway E15, Tribeca, Manhattan) through December 17. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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