Somebody mentioned that representational quilts were only 20% of the pieces accepted for the major biennial quilt show, Quilt National, this year and they were wondering why that was. I don’t know if that figure is correct (I’ve not seen the show – yet!) but I started cogitating, as is my wont, about the representational vs abstract choice in art quilts.
I think part of the reason that abstract design is popular in quilts is the very strong historical tradition for pattern within the medium. Quilting developed for several reasons: obviously a need for warm bedclothes – but that could have been achieved a lot more quickly by sewing the biggest left over, or harvested, chunks of fabric you had. Chopping up the salvaged and left over fabric into geometric shapes to be arranged into patterns, however, satisfies both the need to be creative and the need to be able to order one’s life – or at least a small part of it. And, this was an activity to be done in the evenings when you were tired as a restful occupation rather than a mental exercise . So choosing an arrangement you liked and carefully putting in the pieces – a little bit like a jigsaw puzzle – would be much more likely. It’s relaxing rather than challenging, and furthermore the results are known – you know what it will look like when you’re done. People, as a rule, do not like uncertainty.
The nature of the medium
It’s relatively easy to cut fabric into squares and triangles and then sew them together. It’s much harder to sew together shapes that aren’t regular and geometric…so it would make much more sense to utilize cloth pieces to make geometric patterns, however irregular. Are we, therefore, stretching the medium when we use it to create “pictures” or are we going against its essential nature? Is it as daft as using blobs of paint to create a sculpture? Or, intriguing and refreshing?
Fashion within the Art World
Quilts as art to be hung on the wall really began in the 1980s when abstract art was very evident in the mainstream art world. It’s very likely that one art form is significantly affected by what is happening in other art forms at the same time. If painting is abstract, and quilts are being made to hang the same way that paintings are, then it’s likely that the makers of those early art quilts would follow the trend of what they saw.
Currently the trend in the art world is for three things I’d say (and I’d love for you to comment!):
1. installation art
2. art where one medium poses as another
A major quilt show recently (the red and white one in New York) was mounted more like an installation that a traditional quilt show.
Currently successful art quilts (think of Amy Orr and John Lefelhocz) are “quilts” made from unlikely things like sugar bags or bag ties).
I don’t know of any “video” quilts yet…but curator David Revere McFadden was lamenting at the SAQA meeting in Philadelphia last Spring about the lack of contemporary quilts using things like video, fiber optics and other electronic components.
So I think fashion is a key operative device in choice of subject.
The task of the juror
There’s another aspect too; bar a few very knowledgeable art critics/curators, most jurors are responding to the work they’re assessing from a fairly limited scope of experience. I would suggest that’s it’s actually easier to detect a poor representational quilt that it is to detect a poor abstract or non-representational one. It’s a lot easier to pick out the wrong notes from a tune you know very well, than from one you’re not as familiar with. We are always influenced (much more than we’ll accept) by the familiar. I read that something like 80% of doctors feel that they will not be influenced to prescribe a certain drug by having been wined and dine by that drug’s manufacturers. Oh how wrong they are!! Psychological research shows clearly that we’ll opt for the familiar over the unfamiliar nearly every time. That’s why advertising works! Of course there are always a few iconoclastic folk around! – thank goodness for them…but generally it’s very very tough to exert the mental effort to resist.
But no judgments!
This isn’t to say, of course, that I think the quilt art form should or should not be abstract or representational. I think the important thing is to achieve good and exciting designs creating long lasting and satisfying images. I don’t think there is any general bias on the part of jurors towards one type of work over another and I enjoy making both kinds of quilts. Vive la difference!
If you have been, thanks for reading!! I look forward to comments!! Please!!