Friday, November 21, 2014

Q = A = Q 9 -- a trend toward abstraction?

Yesterday I wrote about representational imagery in the Q=A=Q show at the Schweinfurth Art Center in Auburn NY.  Shortly after the show opened I exchanged emails with Patty Kennedy-Zafred, who had a quilt in the show but had not been able to attend the reception.

She wrote me:  "It appears that a large portion of the pieces chosen were abstract, color/design study, a trend I'm seeing more and more.  Do you think that is just coincidence, a trend in the art quilt movement, jurors' preferences?"  She said she thinks the same was true of other recent major art quilt shows.

Patricia Kennedy-Zafred, Sand and Sea: The Children of the Canneries

I don't know whether the preponderance of abstract works is really a trend, but it was true in Q=A=Q this year.  And as both a Q=A=Q juror and an interested observer of the art quilt scene, I think that's probably a good thing.

In my experience, the great majority of representational imagery to be found in quilts is decoration rather than art.  Flowers, birds, rose-covered cottages, snowscapes, mountain sunsets.  For the non-traditionalist, puppies, fish, kids playing (extra points if your own kids or grandkids or puppy).  For the very adventurous, render your puppy in purple instead of his natural brown and white!  Many of the quilts featuring such decorative images are very pleasant, but I have a hard time thinking they belong in a high-end show of quilts as art.

What makes it art, in my mind, is a concept, an intention, a message, something more than "it's pretty."  (And I'm not just describing quilts; there are plenty of paintings that stop at "it's pretty," and while you might enjoy them on your bedroom wall they probably don't deserve space in a museum.)

Also in my experience, most representational imagery in the quilt world tends toward the highly realistic end of the spectrum.  The more it looks like a photo, the more it's likely to be the viewers' choice.  Unfortunately, fabric isn't a medium particularly conducive to photorealism.  Sure, you can painstakingly render your photo in pixelated form, find fabrics of the appropriate value and hue, and   applique them for a startling resemblance to the original picture, but aside from the technical gee-whiz of the transformation, this process generally leaves me cold.  I'm usually not sure why the artist did it, or whether the resulting quilt is a step up or a step down, artistically,  from the original image.

Many quilt artists paint directly onto the cloth, then finish it by quilting and maybe elaborate thread painting.  I tend to like this kind of work, provided it isn't just sentimental flowers and mountain sunsets, although there's still the lingering question, if she wanted to paint this picture why did she render it as a quilt instead of on a stretched canvas.  Other artists accomplish painterly effects with fabric collage, a technique I love.  For some reason, I don't often wonder if she wanted to do a collage why did she render it as a quilt instead of as paper pasted on a support.

Patricia Kennedy-Zafred, Sand and Sea: The Children of the Canneries

Of course, if you want photorealism, you can simply print your photo onto the fabric.  Sometimes this works brilliantly, as in Patty's Q=A=Q piece shown above.  She has taken historic photos from the Library of Congress, reproduced them on fabric, overlaid them with text describing the subjects, and enhanced the photos with dye and ink.  The result is clearly her own work, incorporating comment and context, and not just a rendering of the original photo.

But too frequently quiltmakers stop after they print the photo onto the fabric.  I've seen too many photos just plopped into the middle of a quilt, perhaps with some handlettered identification.  I won't jury that kind of work into a museum show because it doesn't seem to have a purpose.

A Toronto curator was recently quoted in connection with the World of Threads exhibit as saying, "It is essential for artists working in fibre to push the boundaries.  Think long and hard about what the conventions and cliches are of your media and process.  Why does it have to be that way?  Do other people find what you are making meaningful?  Does it communicate to them?"

Too many representational quilts are "conventions and cliches," in my opinion, largely because of subject matter but also because of technique.  I guess a lot of abstract quilts are also cliches, but in general I think the quilt format is more friendly to abstraction than to representation.  That's probably because of the predominance of geometric and abstract blocks in traditional quilts, a heritage that is hard to escape.

What do you think?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Q = A = Q 8 -- representation

So far in my discussion of Q=A=Q at the Schweinfurth I have not showed you much in the way of representational imagery.  In fact, there was not much in the way of representational imagery in the show -- less than one-quarter of the works chosen.

Pamela Allen, Kissing in Public, 54 x 36"

I liked the style -- stylized without being cutesy -- and the palette, composition and craft were all up to speed.  A nice use of commercial fabrics, and elaborate quilting in the sky.

Margaret Abramshe, Synchronized in the Sea of Love, 49 x 40"

Mostly done by phototransfer, this quilt relies on three repeated motifs -- girls in bathing caps, swimming girls, and fish -- for a narrative with a bit of mystery.  Every now and then symmetrical is the way to go for tying disparate elements together, and this composition works well.

Daniela Arnoldi and Marco Sarzi-Sartori, Venice Lagoon,   (detail below)

This cityscape is made from fabrics and trims of many different materials, densely layered on to create painterly texture and depth. In the photo it may look a bit heavy-handed, but in person it's stunning.  

Shawn Quinlan, The New American Heritage, 63 x 51"  (detail below)

Shawn must have the world's greatest collection of novelty prints, which he deploys in his never-ending series of quilts making snarky comments on politics and culture.  Here he cut up a vintage wall hanging and tea towels as well as other fabrics for images of Washington, Lincoln, Uncle Sam and other American icons.

Paula Kovarik, Memory's Playground, 27 x 55"  (detail below)

And finally, here's a masterpiece of drawing, an extended stream-of-consciousness doodle in free-motion machine stitching on a vintage tablecloth.  I don't know what the elephant has to do with the starfish or the hippo or the fork or the genie's lamp, but I love the way the line covers the whole surface, punctuated by areas of dense pastel filling stitches.  As a finishing touch, the long threads between little star points are allowed to float over the top of the drawing.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Q = A = Q 7 -- maps

Valerie Goodwin, my fellow juror for Q=A=Q at the Schweinfurth Art Center, is an architect, and her work often looks like maps or site plans.  My work could often be accused of resembling aerial landscapes or city grid plans.  So obviously you have two people who love maps and plans.

But we couldn't have populated a show with a whole lot of maps unless they had been submitted for our consideration.  Perhaps it's something in the water -- or perhaps a bunch of artists decided to be oh-so-clever and enter map quilts thinking they'd appeal to the jurors.  Whatever -- it worked.  We included several such quilts in the show.

I've already written about Beth Miller's map, which won the award for best handwork, but here are the rest.

Alicia Merrett, Mayfair 1761, 62 x 52" (detail below)

Everything but the fused lettering is machine-pieced or machine-appliqued in this view of central London, an accurate replica of an 18th-century map. The cheery color scheme and jaunty quilting gave it a modern air.

Isabel Downs, Urban Life #2, Mosaic map of Madaba, Jordan (6th century CE), 25 x 38" (detail below)

Another faithful replica of an ancient map, except this one is mosaic, perfectly translated into fabric with raw-edge applique.  I liked the casual stitched line, meandering across the tesserae with the occasional loop and curlicue.

Sally Dutko, Blue Collar City, 52 x 36"  (detail below)

Here's an imaginary map, or rather an abstraction of a map. The artist says "the river and bridges remind me of Pittsburgh, but it could be one of many placed where industry has flourished."  The worn denim, frayed cotton and loose thread ends convey a hard-worked Rust Belt vibe: a great use of materials to reinforce meaning.

Margaret Abramshe, The Boy and the Butterfly Effect, 49 x 27" (detail below)

This quilt uses an actual map of Arctic Russia, a silk scarf issued to wartime Navy aviators in case they were shot down and had to make their way across unfamiliar geography.  The quilt is a collage of vintage images; I liked their juxtaposition  into a narrative, and how the quilting echoes the latitude and longitude lines of the map.

Several other works in the show had map-like auras, but that's probably always true of intricately pieced quilts.  We loved them all.  The show remains up at the Schweinfurth, in Auburn NY, through January 4.  Make a visit if you can!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Working on ornaments again!

This used to be a cross-stitch linen tablecloth, pre-printed with a design for embroidery.  Then somebody started embroidering, and it was a half-finished cross-stitch tablecloth. Then that person got tired of embroidering, or walked in front of a bus, and the tablecloth made its way to one of the various grab bags that I have been the recipient of. Then it sat in my studio for a while.

But now it's happy; I have cut out the middle, unembroidered part and it has found its new life as the material for my 2014 Christmas ornaments.  Yes, I'm sewing on them (not giving away too much of the secret) and the linen is getting all limp and delicious in my hands.

Perhaps you have been reading this blog long enough to know that every year I do Christmas ornaments for a lot of friends and family -- this year the list is just over 50.

In a good year I might be pretty much finished in September; in a bad year I might be madly sewing the last ones the week before Christmas.  I guess this is a medium-bad year, with plenty of work yet to go and already halfway through November.  But I have little on the calendar in the next couple of weeks, and a bunch of new trash TV on my DVR, so I don't feel frantic.  Yet.

As I have in previous years, I'm going to have an ornament giveaway for blog readers, so leave a comment between now and Friday and I'll choose at least one winner, maybe more if I pick up speed toward the end of the project.