Monstrous Patchwork: Paul Yore’s Textile Politics by Helen Hughes

On entering Paul Yore’s exhibition WORD MADE FLESH at ACCA, we encounter not the towering volume of gallery one that so often threatens to overwhelm the art on display, but instead an enclosed room of significantly more domestic proportions, its walls painted a bright yellow. The purpose-built room houses a display of Yore’s needlepoint works across a twelve-year period (2010–22) – a group of small-scale embroidered textiles in the artist’s characteristically colourful palette, which evokes Gilbert Baker’s 1978 Rainbow Flag design. This small vestibule is a fitting entry point to a survey of Yore’s work. In their material and scalar reference to the tradition of Victorian embroidered samplers, these works speak to the figure of the child who is learning to sew and in so doing is inculcated into a suite of institutions (patriarchy, cisgenderism, heteronormativity, the ‘feminine ideal,’ unpaid reproductive labour, etc.) that will shape and govern the rest of their lives. These are the institutions – along with those of colonialism, capitalism, racism, misogyny, homo- and transphobia – that Yore’s work seeks to unpick.

Deriving from the Latin exemplum, via old French essamplaire, meaning ‘an example’ (and which, notes Yore, also has ‘the meaning of a moral example, or model for good behaviour’), samplers were, historically, a means of image and pattern reproduction that were used by and for women.[1] Maids and housewives would keep in their sewing kits a rolled-up sampler embroidered with different patterns, motifs, and letters for reference when monogramming or decorating household linen – whether as paid servants, unpaid servants, or unpaid wives and/or mothers. [2] In the seventeenth century in England, samplers transformed slightly in function from a personal reference work to a pedagogical tool in a young girl’s education. [3] By the Victorian era, with the establishment of a number of schools for girls across Great Britain, embroidery samplers became a key part of a girl’s formal education. They were typically made by children (girls as young as five), as opposed to adult women. Girls made samplers in preparation for their future as women.

Yore’s small-scale embroideries are stand-alone artworks, but they can be read as examples for the compositionally more complex, large-scale appliqué quilts seen in the pink-, red-, and purple-walled rooms at ACCA, which the viewer only encounters once they have passed through the yellow-walled vestibule. Indeed, many small-scale embroidered works are incorporated as panels – patchwork building blocks – in larger quilt projects, such as in Emotional Baggage 2020, Happy Are Ye Poor 2017, IT’S ALL IN YOUR HEAD 2015, and WELCOME TO HELL 2014. And, indeed, from this point on, I will begin to refer to the small needlepoint works exhibited in the first gallery and the larger quilt works from the galleries that follow somewhat interchangeably, treating the sum total of works as a kind of whole, imagining that the individual elements could be read together as a kind of ever-expanding continuum or monstrous patchwork itself. For Yore’s work clearly operates on a logic of excess. Individually, the works are so busy that they cannot be taken in as a whole, but only ever as an impossibly large assemblage of details, meaning that the beholder’s experience of looking will always be partial and incomplete, and will always be rewarded by a second or third viewing.

Victorian samplers typically comprised text and images, including border patterns, individual images, the alphabet, religious scripture, or moralising verse. An 1867 sampler held in Museums Victoria collection, for example, is typical of the tradition, it being inscribed: ‘Honour thy father and mother and forget not their kindness’, alongside the entire alphabet in both upper and lower case, and autographed ‘Alice Winter aged 10 years/172 La Trobe Street Melbourne’. Like Victorian samplers, Yore’s embroideries are also populated by recurring patterns and motifs: rainbow borders, zigzags, clubs, love hearts, ejaculating penises, smiley face emojis, peace signs. Tellingly, the alphabet in full also appears in many of Yore’s larger quilt works, including You’re not that special, 2015.

Against the moralising verse or religious script recited by rote in Victorian samplers, the text embroidered on Yore’s samplers is more desperate. The panels read: ‘IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT MUM’, ‘SEE YOU IN HELL’, ‘SHAME ON ME’, ‘SHOVE IT UP YOUR ARSE’, ‘EVERYTHING IS FUCKED’, ‘YOU’RE THE ONE WITH THE PROBLEM’, ‘FUCK THE POPE’, ‘I FEEL SO EMPTY’, ‘NOTHING REALLY MATTERS’. Aesthetically, these pithy phrases embroidered in colourful palettes may be said to recall the Rainbow Aphorisms 1993–95 of David McDiarmid, the Australian artist and gay rights activist whose posters, produced at the height of the AIDS epidemic, quipped ‘I’M TOO SEXY FOR MY T-CELLS’ or ‘THE FAMILY TREE STOPS HERE DARLING’. Unlike McDiarmid’s witticisms, however, the phrases that Yore selects to embroider are citational – they are not self-expressive but instead feel like quotes selected from the dregs of social media culture. Instead of citing the ‘community pillars’ of religion and the nuclear family as in Victorian samplers, Yore’s phrases speak to the atomisation of contemporary society through platform capitalism. The everywhere-all-at-once quality of the work speaks to our subjection to the attention economy, which pulls us in a number of directions at any given moment, vying for the increasingly rare commodity that is our undivided focus.

Against this hyperactive mode of distraction, which reaches its zenith in Yore’s various gesamtkunstwerks, (the labyrinthine exhibition at ACCA leads ultimately to a cacophonous, architecturally-scaled installation work comprising thousands of found objects, video works, lights, water fountains and kinetic musical sculptures), Yore’s textiles are insistently slow. They are hand-sewn, laborious, time-consuming. They evoke a strong punk zeal for doing-it-yourself, which in turn recalls the founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, William Morris’s promotion of handcraft as an anti-capitalist means of producing an object from beginning to end, and thus countering the alienation of labouring on specialised parts on a factory production line. Despite their slow and handmade methods, however, Yore’s textiles explicitly reference the industrial mass-manufacture of textiles, which has complicated the previously feminised and domesticated labour of textile work with a strong racial dimension, as sweatshop labour demographics are now disproportionally made up of women of colour in economically deprived nations.

Yore does more than simply reference the exploitative global textiles industry in his work – he makes its products his very material by sourcing mass-produced fabrics, objects, and images from op shops and other areas of refuse. This approach is in keeping with the artist’s commitment to leaving only a small carbon footprint, but is also a key means of critical enquiry. The materials that make up his quilts and sculptural assemblages reflect whatever society has most recently ‘made waste’ of – whether that is Justin Bieber t-shirts or One Direction bedspreads. This method can be likened to the archaeological practice of ‘garbology’ – the study of a culture and its consumerist behaviours through the examination of its trash, what it ‘makes waste’ of and when. [4] In so doing, Yore’s patchworks usefully visualise – to borrow a phrase used in Amanda Boetzkes’s Plastic Capitalism: Contemporary Art and the Drive to Waste – the vast wastescapes produced by late-stage capitalism. [5]

Historically, quilts have had a strong link with feminised, socially reproductive labour – not least for their intimate relationship with the bed as a site of procreative sex, childbirth, and the pastoral care work attached to death. They have a functional if not textural association with home, family, and warmth. (And on this note, remember that Yore first began sewing in bed.) Quilts also have a long-standing connotation with feminist consciousness-raising, with the community sewing bee cited as a precursor of the talking circle. As such loaded signifiers, hand-made textiles were taken up by second-wave feminist artists such as Judy Chicago, Rosemarie Trockel, Louise Bourgeois and Joan Brossa as a means of, to quote Julia Bryan-Wilson: ‘cancelling the division between art and craft; raising up the domestic arts; and dignifying historically feminised labour.’ [6] Some patchworks, particularly those made of rags or worn-out clothing (notably the striking denim patchworks made by African American quilters from Gee’s Bend in Alabama), also have a strong working-class overtone, which – again as a result of the global industrial mass-manufacture of textiles, which make textiles cheaper to buy than to make – is now thoroughly outdated. Today, hand-made quilts bear a stronger association with the white middle-class craft hobbyist, a signifier of a subject who has the time and resources to undertake such a slow and laborious endeavour. In their bringing together the commitment to slow craft processes and fast fashion, Yore’s quilts can be said to importantly ‘catalyse conversations across class lines.’ [7]

For all the associations of feminised reproductive labour and women’s creative heritage that is inherently encoded into the quilt format, Yore’s method and the content of his work is explicitly queer. Indeed, to borrow a formulation from Bryan-Wilson in her book Fray: Art + Textile Politics, Yore could be said to ‘approach the category of craft elliptically, or at an angle – that is queerly.’ [8] In this respect, Yore’s unruly textiles can be seen to be in conversation with a sub-genre of queer textile art, that would include, for example, works such as McDiarmid’s Man quilt (Cruising) from 1978, which appropriates the traditional sawtooth star pattern but uses non-traditional quilting materials such as leather, vinyl, and metal chain, along with repeated patches featuring black-and-white portraits of men.

McDiarmid’s ‘man quilts’ from this period anticipate the exceedingly well-known NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt that would emerge in the following decade as an ever-enlarging memorialisation project commemorating victims of the AIDS epidemic, principally in the US but growing to later incorporate names of people from countries all around the world. [9] As is well known, the AIDS Memorial Quilt is made up of grave-sized panels that each represent individual people who have died of AIDS-related complications. The panels are then stitched into square blocks of eight, and from this point are able to be assembled into huge temporary patchworks, which can be arranged on on the ground outdoors where they are open to the elements (rain from above, dirt from below). See, most famously, the 1987 display of the Quilt on the lawns of the National Mall in Washington, D.C., where it appeared like a gigantic patchwork quilt enshrouding the city itself. Several of Yore’s quilts strongly resonate with the DIY urgency and fast-pace aesthetic of the Memorial Quilt in its rush, in the early days, to memorialise the rapidly growing death toll. A number of the names on the AIDS Memorial Quilt, for instance, are spray-painted not sewn (including the panel dedicated to Michel Foucault), indicating both urgency and speed, but also a gesture towards the tradition of political graffiti. This aesthetic is part of Yore’s NO FUTURE DIRECTION 2019, for instance, which combines time-consuming appliqué and patchwork quilting techniques with the hurried, spray-painted text: ‘GOD HATES YOU’.

Being such a high-profile memorial for AIDS victims, the Quilt has been subject to vicious attacks by members of the conservative far-right (predictably, and not least, by the Westboro Baptist Church minister Fred Whelps Senior, who coined the ‘GOD HATES FAGS’ slogan that Yore reclaims in his 2018 quilt Taste the feeling), but also by the activist far-left. As Bryan-Wilson explains in her chapter on the Quilt in Fray, a number of members of the radical Philadelphia chapter of ACT UP (the activist group whose fuchsia triangle is referenced in Yore’s RULE OF LORE 2021) openly critiqued the quilt as problematically depoliticising, sanitising, individualising, and neoliberalising the AIDS crisis – for rendering all that death so very palatable. From their perspective, the quilt assimilated queer loss too easily into readymade, respectable, and not least, nationalistic formats of grief. (Think of the iconicity of the insistent horizontality of the Quilt against the vertical obelisk at the National Mall). Yore’s work, by contrast, is explicitly aimed against respectability politics in its corralling of explicit imagery of queer bodies and sex acts. It is also fervently anti-nationalist. And quilts are nothing if not strongly associated with nationalism: think of the strong relationship between American folk art and quilts, romanticised in step with the burgeoning heritage industry in the popular 1995 film, How to Make an American Quilt). In Yore’s 2018 quilt The Annunciation, appliquéd lettering spells out ‘HEY BOYS! UR CUNT-TREE NEEDS U!’, mocking Lord Kitchener’s nationalistic call to arms during the First World War. Across Yore’s quilts, maps of the continent of so-called Australia are also frequently inscribed with ‘genocide nation’ (see IT’S ALL IN YOUR HEAD 2015); or else, the country’s name is spelt ‘ARSESTRALIA’ (Spoils of War 2015). Likewise, in Nothing comes from nothing 2016, the Union Jack is appliquéd with the date of invasion on this continent, 1788, and the text, ‘smash imperialism’.

For all the associations of quilting with slow, repetitive, ritualistic, methodical, and meditative gestures, of being quiet and contained, Yore’s textiles appear to be exploding with anger, critique, and outrage. Strong anti-colonial, anti-racist, and anti-national sentiments arc across almost all Yore’s quilts, going hand-in-hand with their queer and anti-capitalist politics. In this respect, another useful precursor can be found in the work of African American artist Faith Ringgold, whose quilts and figurative paintings are profound documents of the Civil Rights era and aftermath, and which depict racial violence in an unflinching manner. Indeed, habit keeps me referring to Yore’s large-scale textile works as appliqué quilts, but they could just as equally be read as protest banners. As the artist himself writes,

Textiles have long served as an important site for formalising and visualising political struggle, from the highly decorative hand-sewn banners of the Suffragettes and the early union movement, to the revival of craft methodologies in the 1970s and ’80s. Hand-made protest banners were instrumental in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, took the form of arpilleras, made by Chilean women to document and denounce the brutality of the Pinochet regime, featured heavily in the coal miners’ strikes under Thatcher, and were mobilised by AIDS activists in Reagan’s America, as well as the anti-nuclear banners of the Greenham Common peace protests, and the ongoing campaigns for women’s reproductive rights. [10]

Yore cites such protest banners as these as a formative influence on his work. His engagement with protest textiles began in his teenage years as a student activist involved in the anti-war movement following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and later in the global anti-capitalist ‘Occupy’ protests. [11]

Bryan-Wilson has usefully compared craft time (the aforementioned slow time of handmaking that requires the maker to be permanently ‘present’) with queer time, writing that, like the temporality of craft,

queer temporalities are also nonlinear, looping back between past and present and veering into imagined futures. Theorisations of queer temporality propose that time is not a straightforward progression of this follows this follows this, but rather that past and present collapse when histories erupt in the now. With its anachronistic collisions and unspooling into the future, craft time can intersect with queer time. [12]

Yore’s anachronistic sampling of fabrics from op shops, of taking textiles that are used up and passed on, then imbuing them with a new use, value and life as artistic objects, encode this queer time into the materiality of the work. (See also the fantastic motif of the clock that never quite makes it to 12 in, for example, The Annunciation 2018 or Emotional Baggage 2020. Or indeed the motif of the alphabet running anti-clockwise around the perimeter of an embroidered panel, such as in You’re not that special 2015). Where embroidered samplers project forward in a linear fashion, from childhood in anticipation of adulthood, quilts often look down the line, as it were, as objects that will be passed down from generation to generation (viz the notion of an ‘heirloom’ quilt). Against a logic of linear heritage, Yore’s textile works assemble a wild and unruly kinship system that spreads in unlikely directions across time, national borders, and bloodlines, embracing the structure of a queer chosen family.

Yore’s works regularly agitate against the naturalised unit of the heterosexual nuclear family, which so neatly aligns with patriarchal capitalism and its structures of inheritance. See, for instance, the 2020 quilt BECAUSE YOU’RE WORTH IT, which shows a newborn infant cradled by its parent. An umbilical cord made of rope and chain is still attached to the infant’s navel; its other end leads into the anus of the parent figure, just centimetres below their ejaculating penis. The phrase ‘NO FUTURE’ is spray-painted across the top of the 2020 quilt No Future Direction, presumably in a reference to Lee Edelman’s polemical 2004 book of the same name, which interrogated the way the figure of the child is instrumentalised in politics as a cypher of futurity itself, a future that ‘hedonistic’ and ‘anti-social’ non-reproductive queer sex acts could be seen to threaten. A 2017 quilt by Yore, OUTSIDE, invokes a related argument. In the centre of the work is inscribed the word ‘CUM’ in dripping white appliqué lettering. Nearby, Daffy Duck spouts a speech bubble saying ‘TASTES LIKE DEATH.’ Their combination recalls Leo Bersani’s renowned rhetorical question about gay sex: ‘is the rectum a grave?’, written in response to Simon Watney’s Policing Desire: Pornography, AIDS, and the Media (1987). In relation to Yore’s aforementioned critique of nationalism, an embroidered panel in Taste the Feeling 2018 reads ‘GAYS DOOM NATIONS’. Yore has put the terms of these well-established debates in queer theory into his own words regarding the 2021 quilt Picnic at Hanging Rock. In conversation with Steve Cox, he notes that it ‘centr[es] a hyperbolic allusion to sodomy, the sex-act that undoes the logic of heteronormative reproductive domesticity’. [13]

Yore’s various allusions to non-reproductive sex, however, should not solely be understood through the lens of a deficit mentality – of no children, no future. Against the logic of linearity and patriarchal structures of inheritance, the tendrils in Yore’s works actively reach out across time and space to form lateral kinships. In a 2017 essay written for ACCA’s exhibition of feminist Australian art Unfinished Business: Perspectives on art and feminism, Linda Dement of VNS Matrix characterised a ‘terrain of cyberfeminism, punk, rebellious aberration and corporeal digital transgression’ as a ‘rumpled unclean bedsheet’. [14] One that, like all textiles, can be folded in upon itself and opened out onto different contexts. Dement’s essay takes the form of a dot-point list of artists, theorists and otherwise historically significant figures, and the kinds of stains – ‘live material intelligence’ – they have left on this bedsheet. The bedsheet, of course, may be understood as a textile matrix of influence that spans time and space. Seeping into its absorbent weave, Dement cites (amongst others): Sadie Plant’s cigarette ash; the eye liner of Diamanda Galas, Lydia Lunch, and Nina Hagen; curry stains from Frances Barrett eating in bed; Spence Messih’s spit; and ‘Kathy Acker’s pubic hair soaked in the tears that mourn her’. (Yore’s vision is less anthropocentric; he speaks fondly of the cat and dog hair matted into the used blankets he buys from op shops – the cheapest textiles available on the second-hand market).

Importantly, Dement includes in this inherently incomplete rollcall ‘all the holes that were there all along (and upon which every product of representation is premised), the gaps in the warp and weft of the sheet itself’, the articulation of which she attributes to theorist Amy Ireland. This model of a used and stained bedsheet as both a personal canon and a political world view, one in which the negative space is just as active as the positive space, is an apposite framework for understanding the work of Yore, who, through his textiles practice over the last decade, has stitched into presence a queer art history of this continent we now call ‘Australia’. This is a history that is only now beginning to be historicised by landmark survey exhibitions like Queer at the National Gallery of Victoria (on display at the time of writing, and also featuring Yore’s The Evacuation of Mallacoota 2021).

Like Dement’s cyberfeminist bedsheet, Yore’s embroideries, appliqué quilts, and soft sculptures cite the work of artists he identifies as kin. These include: the Chilean-Australian Juan Davila, whose works share with Yore’s a strong anti-nationalist sentiment, a tendency towards the iconoclastic, the borrowing of religious imagery relating to the Catholic church and the baroque, along with a commitment to depictions of homoerotic sex; [15] the aforementioned McDiarmid, namely his quick wit, rainbow palette, dark humour, and social conscience; the feminist and community arts forerunner Vivienne Binns, via her and Yore’s shared appreciation for women’s crafts and its framing as fine art, and also for their particular care for and interest in the category of the ugly; and likewise, the great fashion designer, performance artist, and ‘grand poseur’ Leigh Bowery, the ‘boy from Sunshine’ – as both artists share a commitment to bold, over-the-top, subversive looks, the use of sewing to distort the body and confuse gender, as well as the use of cheap, garish materials in inventive ways to circumvent financial restrictions on producing new works. [16]  To this list we might also add a number of queer First Nations artists: D Harding’s embroidered Colour by number works from 2012, clearly inflected by their mother Kate Harding’s quilting practice, which was formally acknowledged in Harding’s 2021 survey Through a Lens of Visitation; [17] and Peter Waples-Crowe’s iconic 2018 possum-skin cloak Ngarigo queenCloak of queer visibility, the interior of which is a vibrant rainbow array of traditional patterns in rainbow colours.

For Bryan-Wilson, textile politics in art can be defined by the capacity to pull in two or more directions at once – to create tension. Her definition of textile politics helps us understand the operations at play in Yore’s work: its paradoxical combinations of hateful text and imagery (like swastikas) with tender stitching that requires patience, time, and care. In Yore’s work, there are no easy answers or reductive formulations. The tensions at play are inexhaustible, which is why his work will always be unfinished, and always welcome new iterations.


Helen Hughes is a Senior Lecturer in Art History, Theory and Curatorial Practice at Monash University, where she is also the Deputy Head of Fine Art.


* This essay, including its title, is informed by Julia Bryan-Wilson’s recent book Fray: Art and Textile Politics.

[1] Paul Yore, email to the author, 22 June 2022.

[2] Rebecca Quinton, Patterns of Childhood: Samplers from Glasgow Museums, Glasgow Museums, Glasgow, 2005, p.43.

[3] Ibid., p.6.

[4] Amanda Boetzkes, Plastic Capitalism: Contemporary Art and the Drive to Waste, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2019, 56–72.

[5] Ibid., 45.

[6] Julia Bryan-Wilson, Fray: Art + Textile Politics, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2017, p.75.

[7] Ibid., p.256.

[8] Ibid., p.40.

[9] For digital documentation of the quilt, see:

[10] Yore, email to the author, 22 June 2022.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Bryan-Wilson, Fray, p.262.

[13] Paul Yore interviewed by Steve Cox, Vault Magazine, no.38, May–July 2022, p.72

[14] Linda Dement, Cyberfeminist Bedsheet,’ Unfinished Business: Perspectives on art and feminism, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, 2017, p.68.

[15] The phrase “LUGUBRIOUS GAME” can be read in glittering gold letters on Yore’s 2015 Spoils of War quilt. It is direct reference of Davila’s essay: ‘Aboriginality: A Lugubrious Game?’, Art & Text 23 (March–May, 1987): 53–8.

[16] Robyn Healy, ‘Taboo or Not Taboo: The Fashions of Leigh Bowery,’ Art Journal 42 (2014),

[17] For a detailed reading of the textile politics of D Harding and their mother, Kate Harding, see: Tara McDowell, ‘Relationality and Concealment: D Harding and Kate Harding,’ Curating as Feminist Organizing, ed. Elke Krasny and Lara Perry, London, Routledge, forthcoming in 2022.