Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Stream of Unconsciousness

Ambivalence (48"h, 72"w)

I’ve been thinking about  the structure in a quilt design.  Few quilt designers seem to consider this before working out their designs and I wonder why. Interestingly, the same phenomenon occurred in painting a number of years ago.   I came across a book called The Painter’s Mind written by Romare Bearden (of all people!) and Carl Holty, published in 1969 – when sentences were complex and thoughtful and paragraphs slowly developed the main thesis. I was fascinated to read  in the Preface that they had noticed the same thing in painting.  They felt that both artists and art lovers want (and need) more knowledge about structure:

“Many students who were nurtured on the notion of self expression as the sole criterion for integrated painting are now seeking a more precise knowledge of their craft; and many art lovers, seeking an extra dimension to their appreciation of fine art, would still like to understand two of the most fundamental aspect of any painting – structure and space.”

As in any art form (the plastic arts, writing, music etc), stream of consciousness only goes so far!!  Bearden and Holty feel that the important question for art lovers and both amateur and professional artists is how an artwork is actually put together.  They feel that a painting is actually always about something as Kirk Varnedoe posited in his book  Pictures of Nothing,  a discussion of late 20th century abstract art.    Of course that something can be literal, conceptual or an abstract formal appreciation of harmony and balance of pictorial elements.

Their writing is so elegant and pithy:

“Many of the abstract Expressionists attempted to break all ties with the past and , like the hero of E.M. Forster’s novel, Howards End,, they wished to come upon art as the revivalist seeks to discover Christ”.

There is, I fear, a similar trend in art quilting today.  When people first begin making art quilts, i.e. quilts to be displayed on a wall primarily as a decorative object, they tend to work rather literally.  I think this is a normal process, you’re inspired by a landscape (or whatever it is) and you want to take the best of what you see and translate it into cloth. The next step is to figure out how to add to that design what you feel and experience when you look at the landscape as well as the landscape itself.  This is a lot harder, almost equivalent to the search for the perfect PhD research topic!  It can lead to a lot of doubt and anxiety.

Unfortunately, a lot of people then see what they think might be an easier path: they say to themselves “I’ll just work from my unconscious”…what you might call the stream(or path) of unconsciousness.  Somehow, magically, all feelings and experiences will be expressed if you keep your conscious mind out of the way!   But, as Bearden and Holty point out, if there’s no structure, the piece, being formless, will not hold up, our eyes will drift over the shapeless mass – have you seen quilts like this?  I know I have!!

Alas, this book is very rare, I notice – but your public library (always support libraries!) probably has a copy on a back shelf that nobody has take out in 40 years!  There are gems back there in the dust!!  And if anyone has a copy they don’t want…I’d be happy to trade it for my new book – I’m getting an advance copy today – I do hope I’ve not missed any errors!  It is exciting though!  Books, books, books. "Yes, Wonderful Things!" indeed!
And now for another wonderful thing: a nice cup of tea.
If you have been, thanks for reading!  Elizabeth


abelian said...

Fishing around with Google, I found an oral history interview with Bearden, where he mentions this book:

I'm going to see if I can ask my local library to borrow it for me. Sounds worth reading.


Chris said...

My library has both books. I reserved them and look forward to reading them. Thanks for the info.

Madalene Axford Murphy said...

I'm going to inter-library loan both of these. They sound like they might be very helpful given the direction my mind--and my work--seem to be taking. Thanks!

Elizabeth Barton said...

And if anyone comes across anything very interesting on this topic - please let me know!

Nina Marie said...

On thing I've noticed lately, is. . .when quilters make the jump to art quilts they think its all about using all the fancy products that are on the market. It seems that art is equated to artsy looking products that look good in ads and online. Their time is taken up learning how to use the medium, searching out the latest fabrics etc - rather than learning the elements of design -- then they're disappointed that their work isn't looking quite right. That's why I think your book is so needed. Something needs to combat all those shiny magazines ads!!

Elizabeth Barton said...

I think you're right, Nina Marie, and of course this is what the merchants want because of their bottom line!! but it doesn't advance art!