How Melissa Joseph’s Revived Memories Redefine Textiles

Maxwell Rabb
Oct 26, 2023 5:25PM

Portrait of Melissa Joseph. Photo by Mary Kang. Courtesy of the artist and Margot Samel.

In her New York studio, Melissa Joseph unravels her memories and weaves them into her felted wool portraits. Her work, deeply rooted in her family archive and her upbringing in an Indian American home in Pennsylvania, bridges the gap between past and present. Throughout, her investigations into identity have propelled her to reimagine the potential of her chosen medium. Her wool felts are consistently mistaken for paintings—a comparison she fully embraces—but as she navigates the margins of textile, sculpture, and illustration, she creates something else entirely.

“I’m trying to redefine, or at least expand the definition of, painting and textiles,” Joseph said at a preview of “Irish Exit,” her new solo show at New York’s Margot Samel. “Every piece informs the next piece in some way because I’m learning as I go. There’s not a million people I can look to that are working in this way. Like, I can’t study the palette of Rembrandt and then go paint with the palette of Rembrandt. Each piece is a study for the next piece.”


For “Irish Exit,” on view through November 22nd, Joseph has intimately studied the bond between memory and material, replicating scenes from family photos and, more recently, pictures she’s taken, like her uncle’s overpopulated fish tank in Kadankavil fish (2023). Some works render family memories, like her niece playing or her mother’s wedding, but often, Joseph’s main focus is on furniture and its functionality.

Even when her works do not feature people, the furniture evokes presence and a meditation of space, especially for people historically cast to the fringes. Gesturing to What Chair (2023), a portrait of her niece lying on the ground with a wooden chair placed on top of her, Joseph commented, “The furniture, for me, means that it’s like this place where bodies meet and interface—like a surface or an edge. It defines where something is, and something isn’t, or where we are even when the furniture is not being occupied. It’s still alluding to where a body could or should be.” This ordering of bodies is of particular interest to Joseph as it relates to queer and multiracial identity.

Joseph’s fascination with domestic objects is particularly evident in the exhibition’s titular sculpture. Irish Exit (2023), stationed in the corner of the gallery, is a repurposed vintage vanity, where Joseph has replaced the mirror with a felted “portal” to her mother’s living room, inspired by a photo featuring her sister and mother. Believing that they were not meant to be in the piece, Joseph removed them, instead depicting the reflection of an identical vanity in an empty room. Invoking absence via unoccupied furniture, Joseph stirs up a sense of longing, and suggests the mutability of memory.

Underscoring the retrospective nature of Joseph’s project, her works often incorporate deteriorating or aged objects. Placed atop the vanity of Irish Exit is a patinated, red toy bench—a found object she received from her cherished “rust guy,” a friend who deals antiques and old wares. Owen (2023), meanwhile, houses two miniature felts inside an unidentifiable piece of tarnished steel that looks like it could have been sourced from a scrapyard.

Melissa Joseph, installation view of “Irish Exit” at Margot Samel, 2023. Photo by Pierre Le Hors. Courtesy of the artist and Margot Samel.

Joseph’s first presentation in New York City since 2021, “Irish Exit,” at its heart, explores the matter of belonging. Many of her reflections navigate the intricacies of her biracial upbringing by her Indian father and her Irish American mother. Joseph commented, “Being in America with an immigrant parent is a very particular experience. You have this longing for this place that you never lived, but that is very much part of your identity.” When she revisits the past in her work, there is often a sense of trying to understand her origins, as in Wedding Ablutions (2023), where she subverts linear time by inserting her own likeness into an image from her mother’s wedding day, before she was born. But Joseph is pictured on a different panel from her white mother and aunt: They are together but separate, suggesting distance that extends beyond chronology.

As Joseph sifts through memories, such moments of tension and revision reflect an ongoing engagement with ideas about purpose, identity, perception, and belonging. By constantly tinkering with familiar source materials (familial and personal archives) and mediums (painting, textiles), she pushes towards new understanding. Every piece is a study for the next.

Maxwell Rabb
Maxwell Rabb is Artsy’s Staff Writer.