Wednesday, December 28, 2011


piss quilt

Quilters often say they wish that “they” (critics, museums, galleries, collectors, the public) would recognize quilts as a mainstream art medium.  Other media, for example photography,  have developed to the extent that most museums now include  photographs in their collections and display them regularly.   So, why not quilts? At least part of the answer is that quilts have not developed from their early beginnings in anything like the way that other media have.

The possibility of printing very large color photographs has lead to major shows of photographs in museums and galleries but these photographs are nothing like traditional photographs. They are often artfully staged then super-hyped by computer manipulation  and finally displayed with back lighting that makes them very stunning and dramatic.  I’d love to see a large transparent quilt displayed like this! but I haven’t.

Traditional paintings were  made from paint upon a rectangular stretched canvas.  Traditional quilts were composed from three layers: pieced fabric patches assembled into well known  geometric patterns, batting (which might be cotton, or an old blanket or even newspapers or corn husks), and then a backing fabric. Contemporary paintings, however, might be made quite unconventionally - collages of plants or pills for example, painting on mattresses (and 0n quilts!), wall reliefs composed from tiles and foam, rubber and old tires, gold leaf and scraps of paper.  and these seem to be the kinds of works you see in current museum shows. You don’t see conventional paintings – however skillfully made.  And it’s rare that any quilter has stretched the medium as far as this.  Kyung Ae Cho did - with her wonderful slices of wood piece that was in a Quilt National some years ago, but I notice that she has now moved out of the quilt world and has been totally accepted by the fine art world.

Contemporary art is rich, diverse, and unpredictable.  While  painting, drawing, sculpture, photography and crafts are still popular,  new media  are more likely to be seen in contemporary art shows: film, video, audio, installation, performance, text, computers.  And media are frequently mixed.  It’s hot to use an “old” medium  in a new way: paintings that are pixilated, drawing with chocolate. But how many quilts have you seen made from chocolate? (though it’s a grand idea!).

Contemporary art is in flux.  New technologies make so many things possible,  and also knowledge of art from different countries is mixed in with local art; there’s a significant amount of cross fertilization.

But I’m afraid, and correct me if I’m wrong(!), we don’t see these kinds of things in quilts.  Quilters tend to stick very much to making quilts the way they were always made.  There’s nothing wrong in this, but that’s one reason why the contemporary fine art world is not very interested.  They’re not so interested in paintings made the traditional way either.

Current culture is used as a basis for art and diverse and rapid changes in what is available on the internet and seen on the street makes for lightening shifts.  A few years ago quilts made from drug bags were displayed in New York galleries, but I didn’t see them pictured in any quilt magazine.    There are but  a few quilt artists stretching to use the detritus of modern life as their material for quilts: Pat Kroth has worked with discarded scraps of paper and fabric, for example.

Another difference I notice between “art quilts” and contemporary art is in content/no content. There  have been times in the 20th century when there was more of an emphasis on form than content in the art world and artists who were preoccupied with formal matters such as the properties of a specific medium or the role of color or composition.  But the contemporary belief  is that  such a formal approach doesn’t allow one to interpret art that expresses the artist’s inner vision, or art that refers to the world at large.   In mainstream art, it is evident that artists are focused on meaningful content.  They are motivated by a range of ideas much broader than their own personal emotions or their need to display a mastery of media and techniques.  Some of the issues they have addressed: politics, social issues, science and technology, media, popular culture, literature, man made environments, the flow of ideas generally.   There are a few quilters who are, thank goodness (!) beginning to address some of these topics: Shawn Quinlan, Kristen La Flamme and Wendy Huhn come to mind (though I notice that several of these folk don’t use the Q word!), but, again, not many.

Are the themes in contemporary quilts those we see  in contemporary art?  For the most part I find that quilts tend to be less personal and less political and many of them are ‘art for art’s sake’.  I don’t think this is either good or bad, but it does explain why the few art critics that are left (as opposed to a huge proliferation in political commentators!) aren’t much interested in what’s going on in the quilt world.  As an aside, wouldn’t it be wonderful if all those gasbag hot air political chat shows were actually about art??!!  Can you imagine Chris Matthews arguing at full voice about the merits of Nancy Crow versus Ruth McDowell?  Or the validity of simply printing digital photographs onto cloth because it can be done, or the meaningfulness of layering random surface designs one on top of another?

Are you ready for quilts that incorporate elephant dung? (Chris Ofili)  Do you want to enclose quilts in tanks of urine?  (Andres Serrano).  These are some of the ideas that have gained attention in the art world.  I think that the answers to questions as to why art critics arn’t interested in quilts are evident in both formal and content areas:  quilters don’t really want to stretch the medium to uncomfortable (if not breaking) lengths, nor do many of them want to address some of the contemporary issues evident in main stream art.  As I said before, neither good nor bad, but, rather, why!

And, if you have been, thanks for reading…now for a nice cuppa tea…then to go and start filling the tank…..


Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Masters Art Quilts vol 2: a review

attachment I was lucky enough to be sent a copy of Masters Art Quilts Vol 2. Major works by Leading Artists, curated by Martha Sielman and published by Lark Books in 2011.


The concept of the book is a wonderful one: leading artists in the art quilt medium from around the world are represented with a short introduction and almost a dozen images of different pieces. Nearly all the artists are absolutely amazing and you find yourself drooling over their work. The square format is very appropriate to the medium and the book has a generous 414 pages. The great artists we all know are included and also some that are not so well known and it’s excellent to have several pieces by the same artist. So many shows, and therefore show catalogues, are so very bitty because of the arcane rule of one person one piece. Most of the pictures are a good size – thank goodness none of that arty trend of a small photograph in the middle of a white page! The text often gives interesting information about technique – which I know we’re always curious about!

Some of the artists are amazing and very often I’d only seen one or two pieces of their work before, so it was a real treat to see so many examples. Leslie Gabrielese’s work is fascinating and one or two bigger details reveal the technique. While at first sight his quilts look very representational, as you examine the technique you can see that he has totally justified the use of fabric as his medium. His subtle use of commercial fabrics is elusive until you come in close, and then the stitching adds a wonderful edge to every line. Shades of Edrica Huws! Plus marvelously balanced compositions.

I would have liked to have known the rationale for choosing these 40 artists…some are obvious – like Dorothy Caldwell and Rachel Brumer serious artists who’ve been making work for a long time with several museum shows to their credit, but others not so well known – or known more for popular success as teachers and entertainers…rather than for their art work. It is also good that some not so well known artists who are doing very interesting work are also included. I often wonder if there are hidden geniuses out there who just don’t enter shows and we never see their work. (which is one reason I’m against very high entry fees).

There are only a few criticisms I would make, specifically these relate to the quality of some of the photographs, the size of some of the details, the introductions, and some points regarding the design of the pages.

Photographs. So often it comes down to the quality of the photographs; we hear that all the time from jurors and now that there are such excellent digital cameras out there, there is really no excuse for blurry images of which there are quite a few in this book I presume the artists submitted their own images (Horst-Beetsma for example) but I wonder if the editor should have culled those that were not very clear or at least asked the artist to resubmit.

Details. Sometimes the details are apologetically tiny and timid. I would have loved some good sized details but a very small detail that is only about 5% bigger than the picture of that section in the quilt as a whole has little point and is distracting. The ones that show a close up of the stitching, however, are very good. And we could have used more details especially of complex work like Anna Torma’s. Overall more and bigger details would be most desirable. Sometimes details reveal really striking stitchery even though the full composition can be somewhat awkward and unresolved. Composition counts!

Text: It’s great to include a pithy comment by an artist e.g. Dorothy Caldwell: “I have deep respect for cloth. It’s very powerful when it retains traces of its previous life, gathers history, and becomes something new.” But some of the comments tend toward the obscure and meaningless. Most, however, are fascinating: some artists prefer to stick to descriptions of technique, others talk about their philosophies.

While the text by the curator is kept fairly short and to the point giving a few details about each artist, I would have liked a little more bio – you don’t really need to describe the quilts when you have the pictures right there. More information about the artist in a more tabular form: place of residence, education (brief), shows (major only), website, main construction and style would have been useful. Also, their major strengths as perceived by the curator and her reason for including them. Plus, I think, everyone would be fascinated to know their answer to the question “how do you start?” It’s always good to have real details instead of just vague generalities. I think also an alphabetical sequence would help one to find them; I don’t know what the rationale of the actual sequence was and I found myself hunting around to see if various folk had been included.

Page Design: Love the square format reminiscent of the quilt, but don’t like the edge of each page having the artist’s name so large - very often it crowds the image and just looks messy. Also don’t under stand why each page has a half inch of grey along the bottom? Did the book designer think we wouldn’t know which way was up?

More strengths!
didn’t see the first Masters book but was told that the second one includes a lot more international artists and they are magnificent – especially the Australian ones. Their aesthetic is so strong: pure and clean, minimal without being boring and with wonderful surface texture. In fact there’s a very clear national feel to a lot of the work: the Australians: bold and clear, the Japanese: delicate and detailed, the Europeans: sophisticated and rich. Complex and somber and memory laden from the Middle East. Obsessive precision from Switzerland. Alas, not everybody’s country of origin is mentioned. An interesting and revealing extra would have been a map of the world with the artists location indicated. We could then see just how far this movement has extended.

Unlike many show catalogues, I felt that nearly every quilt was worthy of inclusion – so there were lots and lots to ponder over and think about and a stupendous variety of images and styles, techniques and colorations. The overall concept of the book is great – it’s an encyclopedia of major quilt artists; this is a book to savor over several evenings and then dip into over and over again.

This is a wonderful and extensive collection of some of the best of our time; an important addition to an art book collection. Thank you, Martha, for a great idea! And thank you to Lark books for publishing the book and for sending me a copy!      Elizabeth

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Importance of being Thematic

all that glitters is not gold

All That Glitters is Not Gold

There are  trends in the art world as in any other and I’ve observed that the current art world is very focused on meaning.  Abstract patterns of minimalism and optical art are much less popular;  we are all  wondering about the meaning.  Perhaps abstraction is for affluent times?  And when everyday life is uncertain and worrying we look for meaning?  When we feel threatened, when emotional levels are high, we need to figure out what is going on and to express our feelings about it.   While “popular art” becomes even more sweet, saccharine, whimsical and unaware of the looming clouds, references to the desire for personal meaning and expression are consistently being made in mainstream art.

gatheringstorm72dpi Gathering Storm

In a book by John Blockley, one of my favorite watercolour painters, I read:

“Painting is not about perfectly executed technique, desirable though this might be.  Better an original statement, expressing a unique viewpoint, something to make people think.”

The judges in “Work of Art” – the Bravo TV reality show that challenges young artists to make works of art addressing a specific challenge have a similar touchstone and standard.  Each week one contestant is eliminated;  the last man (or woman!) standing gets a show at the Brooklyn Art Museum (alas no fiber artists on the show, though I’d love to see what they came up with – though the 24 hours which is usually given would not be long enough for any fiber art I know of!).  The judges invariably give the weekly prize to the artist that produces something that is both fresh and deeply rooted in their own experience.  They don’t like derivative art, they don’t like art that is solely about technique and they do want something that is totally personal and meaningful.

They want the artists to think deeply and out of their thinking create something that communicates something very personal and meaningful from their own lives.  One of my more successful series of quilts was based on a photograph I took one terrible day in my life.  Looking back over the snapshots from that time, I could see that that one photo summed up some of the feelings I’d experienced that day.   But this is hard to generate de nouveau!  How can you say – I’m going to have an awful day next week and I’ll be sure to have my camera with me?!!

I notice that relationships are a key theme in the artwork that is considered special.  It’s interesting that it’s an issue rarely addressed in art quilts.  Other current themes, according to Robertson and McDaniel in the book:  Themes of Contemporary Art are: identity, the body, time, place, language, science and spirituality.  Some of these I have seen in art quilts – language particularly, the work of Robin Schwalb comes to mind but there are many others.  Here is Robin discussing the power of art to express emotion:


In my next blog I’m going to review a book I was just sent – the publishers must have read my wishlist because it was on there!  But in the blog after that I want to revisit some of the themes that Robertson and McDaniel have delineated and look at whether or not the quilts I’ve made would fit into any of them.

To be creative is to think!  To think is to be creative!  Send me your creative thoughts……

And , if you have been, thanks for reading!  Elizabeth