Thursday, January 22, 2004
The notion of evolution has become part of the modern and post-modern canon. The modernist story has artists striving toward some philosophical goal or truth, developing innovative techniques or forms toward that end, advancing. Subsequent generations take what they need from their predecessors, establish their own concerns relevant to their times, and then advance toward their own goal. Even in the act of rejecting the past, artists embrace precedent. The result is a dizzying mélange of contemporary styles and attitudes.
A recent development in art that has its roots in the 1970s and is now in its fruition, with noteworthy achievement and public response to that achievement, is fiber arts; more specifically, the art quilt. Just as Peter Voulkos extricated ceramics from the realm of craft and thrust it into the realm of fine art in the 1960s, fiber artists pushed the limits of their craft until the traditional forms that had been mastered were only a memory. In their place, wall pieces and sculptural pieces that could hold up to cutting-edge painting and sculpture came off looms and sewing tables in great numbers.
Acknowledging these changes, this weekend the Monterey Museum of Art is opening Remaking Tradition: Contemporary Art Quilts, a large exhibition of art quilts by 25 Central California quilters.
According to Mary Murray, curator at the museum, a vague idea for a fiber exhibition took form soon after she saw work done by several local quilters.
“We had been discussing a textile show in our exhibitions meetings for a quite a while,” Murray says. “I was very excited after seeing some local quilt exhibitions, that of Susan Else in particular. So I brought the idea to the committee, and we decided to do something in conjunction with the fiber artists’ conference at Asilomar. We spoke to several members of quilters’ guilds, here and in Santa Cruz, and enlisted the assistance of individuals working in textiles who might ensure a high standard. We looked for original work, the designs had to be original—no store-purchased patterns—and of exceptional quality.”
The “art quilt” term is like other art terms in that it is convenient and useful, though simplistic and not quite accurate. It’s easier than saying “fiber art that hangs on the wall,” as it provides some idea of the source of what is on view.
“Quilts are fabric sandwiches,” explains Murray, “two pieces of cloth with batting in the middle. Within that definition, the art quilt can be many more things. But it is generally understood that the art quilt hangs on the wall, not on a bed.”
A cursory preview of the museum’s show reveals a wide range of wall designs, from sculptured figures set on a proscenium stage, all quilted materials, to engaging abstractions that use color and texture to optimum—and optical—effect. Scale ranges from 18-by-24 inches to monumental seven-foot quilts and larger. The multiplicity of design illustrates the medium’s vitality.
“Color has a whole lot to do with quilting’s appeal,” says Wilda Northrop, a noted Pacific Grove painter who also quilts. “There aren’t a lot of monochrome quilts. Then there are so many textures found in fabrics, and the variety of patterns. It’s a very tactile art form and so enjoyable, from shopping for materials to handling it all during construction. There’s a pleasure in seeing good design, with an intensity of color values. Quilting provides a new way of looking at something. By its very essence of being fabric, it isn’t quite as cold—cool—as some contemporary art.”
Seaside quilter Fawn Mackey is a good representative of the new breed of quilter with her fine art degree in painting and knowledge of contemporary art forms. “I and other contemporary artists discovered fabric as a medium of personal expression,” she says. “We did not start out in textiles and became quilters; our sensibilities were in the art scene and we moved into quilting.”
Mackey uses her Seaside surroundings for inspiration. “A lot of my work has to do with the different cultures I’ve been exposed to. I have a folk art collection that I’m adding to all the time. I incorporate the colors and textures characteristic of different cultures into my work.”
Like many contemporary artists, Mackey’s oeuvre is conceived as a series of pieces exploring some common theme. “I’m working on a Virgin of Guadalupe series right now, and I’ve got an African series going. Color design, textures, appliqué, decorative stitching and scale vary according to the series. I even paint on the fabric.”
Remaking Tradition should open the eyes of neophytes who stand amid the hanging quilts, experiencing the energy of “crafted by hand” and the familiarity of the medium.
As Mackey puts it, “Fabric is a big part of our lives. We have fabric on us from birth to death.”
Remaking Tradition: Contemporary Art Quilts opens Saturday, Jan. 24, at the Monterey Museum of Art’s Civic Center. 372-5477.