Friday, November 26, 2010

It’s all in the stirring!

cityofmists 72 pixels
I’ve seen some discussions recently as to whether abstract  quilts are better than representational and vice versa, or whether “sweet” subject matter is less effective than “sour” but I think such categories are important only to quilt organizations or curators setting out rules for a particular show they wish to exhibit.  The Real Truth (ta dah!) is not what image or style you choose  for your quilt but how well you do it.  It’s all in the mixing and the stirring, the attention to measures (and i don’t mean 1/4” seams, I mean proportions of this colour to that etc)  and the gentle baking – just enough, not too much and not underdone.  I’ve seen both!
The challenge with an abstract quilt, I think, is to make it interesting.  If it can all be seen and understood at one go, then it’s not worth a second glance.  There has to be some tension, something more to look at.  This was why the African American quilts we first saw were so strong: they weren’t as predictable, everything didn’t match up and that caught our attention.   We are hardwired to notice the one element that is a little different from the others.  It’s a genius that takes something that on the face of it sounds extremely predictable but then just tweaks it a little to give you that little surprise or jump!  But clarting a piece up with beads (or the kitchen sink for that matter – I’m sure it’s been tried, they’ve stuck everything else onto a quilt!)  is not new, fresh and surprising!
However there’s a fine line (which has been crossed many times!) between predictability with a bit of a surprise and something that has so many unpredictable elements it’s a complete jumble.  That’s the “Let’s just slap it on and then add a few letters or words to try to resolve it” school of thought!!   It’s important to get the right balance between boring and confusing.
Abstract quilts also have a problem with having a fairly predictable formula.  People can be very tempted by being successful with their first quilt in the formula, but then when they have repeated that same formula over and over, with maybe minor variations, it really becomes deadly. There is no surprise and freshness at all, the life is squeezed out of the damned thing! 
And sadly, formulae that are obvious are easily “stolen” and copies made.  Copies are boring.  BUT, if the maker takes the idea and reworks it in a new and interesting way, adding their own ideas, flair and twist to the piece, then it pushes the idea forward.  We have seen many artists do that – right from the beginning.  Each taking something from the one that went before, adding to it, using it in a new way and moving forward.
Representational quilts appear to have other problems but perhaps there are more similarities than differences in the challenge.   Again it’s in how well it’s done that’s important.  We don’t want Stale!  And it’s a real challenge if you choose a subject like kittens or houses in snow with lamplight or cherry blossom to come up with something fresh and new.  It can be done, but it’s not easy and I think you would have to work through a lot of ideas before coming up with something interesting.  Cats, for example – look at * Edrica Huws’  “Cat on an Ironing board” – now that is one fearsome moggie!! “Inner tension, a hint of disorder being controlled” was the effect she so brilliantly aimed for and achieved.  And I defy anyone who would call this “easy”!    Not a quilt artist, but a painter, Elizabeth Blackadder also has made art about cats that are in no way sweet and soppy.  If you choose a subject that’s been represented a million times before, you need to come up with something special about it.  It’s like the good story teller – he may repeat the story many times, but each time there’s a new little detail, a nuance, something to make you hold your breath.
If you choose a subject that hasn’t been done, people may say – oh! barbecue pits! what could be interesting about them?  Or, toilets, or urinals – how can they be made worth looking at (although, didn’t somebody show us that? :))  Rauschenberg took a tire (how can that be art?) and a stuffed goat he found discarded  - who would think you could make art from that?  Or how could old factories or grey towns and dumpsters ever be made into something I would really want to observe and admire.  But, as we know, if it’s done well – they are.
So please, let’s stop condemning whole categories, but look closer and examine the work.  Is it done well? Does it give me a thrill?  Do I want to keep coming back to it to look at it again?  Is it satisfying to all my senses and delicately and perfectly Right?
If you have been, thanks for reading!  Elizabeth
and, oh yes, Comments much appreciated!  Especially those with a little “inner tension”!!  thank you.
* sadly I failed to embed the link to the u tube video clip; google on Edrica Huws then click on  the videao: edrica huws patchworks 2


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this excellent post. Thanks also for introducing me to Edrica Huws, I just watched a slide show about her. She certainly portrays everything you suggest.

Terry Grant said...

Thanks so much for a little good sense and clarity about this subject. The representational vs. abstract discussion has become absurd! You nailed it with the obvious, but apparently not so obvious to a lot of folks--it's all about how good the work is, not what it is.

Karen M said...

Well said, Elizabeth!

Kristin L said...

You are so right. Too often, I think we as quilt artists get caught up in how clever we are with fabric manipulation that we don't realize we've missed the basic art principles boat. I hear too many excuses about how we're misunderstood, or we are not hanging our work properly, when really, the way to get taken seriously as artists is to produce excellent work (with the properties you've so eloquently laid out).

Anonymous said...

It is all about how good the work is .... no matter what medium, traditional or modern, abstract or representational.

Quilters are basically nice, happy people, and so why would anybody expect, or want, them to produce mostly confrontational work? It doesn't matter how many pretty landscapes are created, every so often somebody will create another pretty landscape masterpiece. Sometimes it will be a quilter!