Saturday, November 24, 2012

Abstract vs representation quilts in major quilt shows

pump, baby, pump image 72


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
3. video.
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.

april rains crop

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!!



Gerrie said...

"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." This comment is very insightful! I think you are on to something.

Mary Keasler said...

Why not enjoy both? It keeps my juices flowing by going from one style to the other, and back again. Each compliments or inspires the other perhaps? My 2 year old grandnephew loves to look at my big "pictures", when he comes into my studio. He doesn't discriminate between either, nor the fact that the pictures are made from fabric. What was that Picasso said about becoming child like?
Thank you as always for your thought provoking words.

Sandy said...

Hi Elizabeth,
Are you aware of the Video instillation referencing quilt for which Miriam Pet-Jacobs won the Doris Winter commemoration prize for innovation of the material, technique and concept?
You can find the Timeless in Time video on her website.

I saw this at Birmingham last year? or possibly the year before. The video of stitching was shown onto 3 layers of fabric hung one behind the other. I think the concept is fascinating, but the Tante Elizabeth song playing along with it made it very difficult to actually stand and watch it for long. I didn't understand the whole explanation, but I think the song referenced women sewing throughout time.
Sandy in the UK

Terry Grant said...

I think many quilters love abstract quilts because they think they are "easier" and because they are an opportunity to show off their pretty fabrics, but for me abstracts done well, are quite difficult. I see a lot of very boring abstract quilts. And, as I think about it, a lot of very boring representational quilts. Which means, I guess, that good design and arresting visuals are not dominated by one or the other, and in fact the challenges of both are probably very similar.

Nina Marie said...

Like Gerrie - i also think that the observation that its easier to see a poor representational piece than abstract (especially in the jury frenzy of seeing 100's of quilts) very helpful and insightful. Also, I want to say that - the observation of one medium masking as another is true too. Case in point - a friend has been trying to get into Fiber international forever. This year she was successful when she entered an encaustic piece of depicting stitching. Its this running joke that now that the way you get into fiber international is not to enter fiber - LOL!! Although I'm over the moon for her and her success - I find this odd. I mean does that mean that if you take a really nice picture of a fiber piece - you'll get in? This whole fascination with photos and video annoys me since one of the things I love best with art - is the mark of the hand. It has a lot of value in itself.

Unknown said...

I am a little puzzled, Elizabeth. When you said that someone said that 20% of the pieces selected for quilt national this year were representational, did you mean the selection for the show which will be in 2013? or what was in 2011?

I didn't think that the actual pieces for 2013 were released yet...although the names of the artists I'm not sure how this can be, unless it was a juror who was saying this. Even so, what percentage of the pieces submitted were representational? And are we talking abstract representational, or straight representational vs. straight abstract? For instance, Pamela Allen's pieces are based on real objects and people thus are representational, although they are not realistic and many of your own pieces fall into this same category abstract realism (you can certainly see your buildings in your pieces even if they are abstracted) are we talking realism?

This comes up every year. I think the more telling figure would be how many quilts of each type were entered, because the selection partly depends upon the juror. I quickly went through 2011's catalog and I think the abstracts were about twice as many as the representational, although many of the representational were strongly realistic. A couple I wasn't sure which category they fell into because they were based on real things but were so strongly abstracted.

I think that part of this is also the fact that it is Quilt National. We try to put out the newest and cutting edge pieces into Quilt National and perhaps that means that fewer pieces of representational pieces are submitted.

Elizabeth Barton said...

Some great points - and thank you all for commenting! I do think that there is a place for both kinds and while I feel much of my own work is in the middle between the two kinds - and I deliberately intend it to be so - my aim is never to make an obvious representation of anything ...while that is so, I had have several folk comment to me (people who make purely abstract quilts) that they think I'm wasting my time with representational work!! Depending on where you stand, there's a tendency to categorize the work in the middle towards the other end of the spectrum.

thanks for the link to the video piece!! I figured it would have to happen soon! Even harder to tell the real impact of such a piece than it is with a static piece.

and to Lisa - yes it would be quite fascinating to see what the pool was for any show - I don't know that it would affect the percentage of pieces of a particular type overall though. I would think most jurors would aim for what they thought were the best pieces....though the organization for which they're working might require at least some representation of each kind of work.
The figure of 20% that someone suggested to me was based on a study of several different shows...I guess we'll have to wait to May to see what's coming up in the next Quilt National - I've only see one piece!! And it is representational and political.

love the comments! please keep making them..Elizabeth

Elizabeth Barton said...

For my own taste, I love work that has some mystery - can we see something? can we figure out it? is there something there...what's going on? I guess that's the psychologist in me! I want to make some sense of things...

Christina Fairley Erickson said...

Wonderful insights, Elizabeth. I have sat in on several juries, where one of the jury instructions was to not be prejudicial towards either abstract or representational work. I was surprised to hear some jurors admit their bias against representational pieces. Perhaps it's just been the particular people serving on these juries, but I haven't heard the same type of prejudice from representational artists against abstract pieces.