QUILT-MAKERS: EXOTIC OUTSIDERS OR MAINSTREAM ARTISTS?
By Catherine Jones
Shortly before his death in the Marquesas Islands the painter Gauguin considered returning to France. His agent Monfreid advised against such a move; the success of Gauguin's paintings depended, Monfreid suggested, on his reputation as a wild man, an exile from civilization. In the ninety-odd years since then the art world hasn't lost its yearning for the exotic, for art that seems to originate in a place, condition of life, or state of mind or consciousness not directly accessible to the art consumer.
Sometimes the artist has been valued as an emissary from a remote or vanishing culture, other times as a returning traveler from uncharted and possibly dangerous mental territory. Many mainstream art movements -- fauvism, cubism, surrealism, the several schools of expressionism -- and various kinds of outsider art, including traditional quilts, have derived some of their appeal, I think, from the lure of the exotic. The fauves' hot colors, Picasso's African motifs, and the imagery of the subconscious presented by the surrealists all initially appeared exotic, I'd guess, in much the same way that traditional quilts did when they showed up on white walls back in the early 1970s. The old quilts evoked a vanished way of life, and their tiny stitches suggested a level of patience alien and fascinating to modern minds.
The rediscovery of old quilts came at an opportune time. The heroic days of abstract expressionism had passed, and the rapid gestural painting of people like Pollock and de Kooning had given place to neater, slower kinds of work: hard-edged images by pop artists, for example, or optical illusion paintings or photo- realist copies of photographs. The art world had grown receptive to painstaking handwork that might have looked, a generation earlier, too precise and inhibited. In addition, the old quilts resembled slightly -- seen at a distance -- the large-scale geometric work of contemporary painters like Brigit Riley, Frank Stella, and Victor Vasarely. Thus the quilts managed to appear both stylish and commendably exotic.
The quilting revival of the past 25 years has produced a body of work with a very different relationship to the realm of high art. For some quilters this situation poses no problem. Some quilt-makers plan their work either for purely domestic use or else for display in a quilts-only context with clearly stated standards of judgment that favor precise piecing, small stitches, and thoughtful re-use of time-honored blocks and borders. Other quilt-makers, those who intend their work mainly as art and deviate from traditional modes of design and construction, may have a harder time finding the right audience. There's an argument to be made for separate quilts-as-art institutions: special magazines, galleries, shows, etc. devoted to non- traditional quilts as an emerging art form. It can be argued that quilts need to be seen in the context of other quilts, that quilts differ fundamentally from paintings, collage, bas-relief sculpture, and other more or less two-dimensional objects common in the mainstream art world. On the other hand, some quilt-makers do want a place in mainstream galleries; some feel that only the old art/craft distinction and prejudice against textiles as women's work prevent quilts from assuming their rightful position alongside painting and other forms of high art.
My personal hunch -- based on my own ongoing struggle to reconcile painting with my textile obsessions -- is that the peculiar position of modern quilts vis-a-vis other art has something to do with the confusing insider/outsider identity of the artist/quilters themselves. Nineteenth-century quilters don't suffer from this dual identity. For one thing, they were safely dead by the time the art world got around to noticing them. They didn't make a conscious decision to work with stitched fabric rather than chiseled stone or welded steel or paint on stretched canvas. They don't speak -- when their words are recorded at all -- in the language of contemporary art. They don't appear in color snapshots or list their accomplishments on resumes. These old quilters retain all the mystery and dignity needed for construction of a noble savage myth. They remain exotic, and their work fits neatly into the category of "outsider art." Modern artist/quilters have a more complex identity. Many have gone to art school and could, if they chose, produce painting or sculpture of a kind well understood by critics. Many modern quilt-makers are potential art world insiders who, for various reasons, have consciously embraced a quasi-outsider status.
It seems to me just possible that the uneasy position of quilts in the realm of high art may arise not so much from anti-textile prejudice as from the mixed loyalties and complex identity of the quilt-makers. In choosing to work with quilts an artist may be expressing preferences and loyalties at odds with mainstream taste. For example -- and at the risk of grossly stereotyping a very diverse body of work -- I would say that quilts, as compared with paintings, tend toward more pleasing (cheerful or harmonious) color, more decorative pattern, more sensuous and luxurious materials, more patient and tidy workmanship, more domestic and pastoral imagery, and more explicit (and often playful) titles.
These characteristics of quilts are not, of course, absent from painting. Yvonne Porcella's cheerful use of color has its counterpart in Matisse. The decorative patterning on Pamela Studstill's quilts -- produced a great many tiny rectangular patches -- brings to mind Edouard Vuillard's paintings of wallpapered interiors. Even the sensuous fabrics that sometimes appeal to quilters have a counterpart in expressionist handling of paint and in Gustav Klimt's highly embellished (and sometimes even gilded) portraits. As for domestic and pastoral imagery -- Therese May's cookie jar quilts and Nancy Halpern's abstract peaceful country scenes -- this kind of content certainly appears in pop art and many schools of landscape painting. Even the Michael James variety of tight, pre-planned technical perfection appears in photo-realism and op art painting. Only when quilts are lumped together and looked at en masse do these various characteristics -- also present here and there in painting -- become noticeable.
These qualities (cheerful color, pre-planned technical perfection, etc.) go in and out of style in the art world, making it impossible to generalize about their acceptability. I'd guess, though, that at least at present many common attributes of quilts are judged by a double standard. In folk art and naive art these qualities are welcomed; in the work of artists with access to libraries, galleries, and museums they may lead to rejection. The art world has a complex, ambivalent relationship with its outsiders. People cut off by psychological, geographic, or cultural barriers from knowledge of the contemporary art scene may find a niche and an audience more readily than sophisticated voluntary quasi-outsiders who choose -- for personal, aesthetic, or even political reasons -- to present domestic imagery, finish their work neatly, and utilize pattern, pleasing colors, and rich materials.
Maybe the double standard that seems to work against modern quilts, while favoring old ones and various kinds of outsider art, is most apparent in attitudes toward neatness. Beginning with Henri Rousseau, the retired customs collector who took up painting with no training and tried in a very intense, childlike, and unsuccessful way to imitate a French academic style of work -- beginning with Rousseau and Picasso's discovery of him, sophisticated artists and taste-makers in art have delighted in the neat brush strokes and tidy appearance of work by certain naive outsiders. Rousseau's paintings look fresh and innocent; his famous jungle scene with each leaf sharply outlined shows a kind of earnest involvement with his subject that people today find touching.
Yet art teachers normally try to dissuade beginning students from that kind of tidy, obsessive-compulsive work. Students are urged to loosen up, work on a larger scale, put some gesture into their lines. Artistic innocence, like virginity, seems to be an all or nothing matter. Once a student has arrived at art school the option of working as a genuine naif is normally assumed to have disappeared; the student is urged instead to study and draw prolifically until achieving a different, and not necessarily neat, kind of artistic control. Memories of battles between academicians like Ingres (master of tight lines and precise, invisible brush work) and looser, more color-oriented and gestural painters like Delacroix linger on and continue to shape art world attitudes toward neatness. (Ingres may garner some respect, but his followers and their overly fastidious efforts do not.) While many quilts are no longer neat -- Therese May, for example, leaves dangling threads and brushes unpremeditated blobs of acrylic paint over layers of machine applique -- the majority still do involve some carefully matched seams and small stitches. The majority do present some challenge to contemporary art world values.
It may happen that as quilt-making evolves, certain features of quilts that challenge the art world -- features sought after in outsider art but less acceptable in the work of sophisticates -- will become less prominent. In the current issue of "Surface Design Journal," for example, there's an article on Linda MacDonald and the way her formerly colorful patchwork quilts have given place to more monochrome whole-cloth ones that look (to me at least) more like paintings. While I personally prefer MacDonald's new work, I wouldn't want to see quilters generally renounce aesthetic choices that may be rooted in life experience. The majority of quilt-makers at this point are women, and many have had aesthetically formative experiences (sewing, decorating homes, selecting patterned clothing, handling children's colorful toys, paging through children's picture books, etc.) common to women but underrepresented in the world of high art. I don't see this body of typically feminine visual experience as unsuitable raw material for art, let alone as something to be ignored or repressed in the interest of artistic respectability. Authenticity may well require an artist to draw on visual memories and to work with materials, colors, and images deprecated by the art world unless used by bona fide outsiders. On the other hand, increased contact with painting and sculpture may change the imagery and tastes of quilters. The insider/outsider status of many quilt-makers presents both the artists and the galleries and museums with chances for fresh thought.
Gauguin never did get back to France; he died in Atuana and became an object of myth, an exile and interpreter of a way of life otherwise inaccessible to his Parisian audience. While the raw experience that sometimes winds up in quilts may not possess the glamour that the South Sea islands held for turn-of-the-century Parisians, sewing skills and the ordinary ornamental clutter of women's lives are indeed exotic in the realm of art. It may be one important interpretive task of quilt-makers to put traditionally feminine skills and decorative visual imagery onto bare white gallery walls.
Catherine Jones is a painter, quilter, mathematician, and software programmer. She lives in Berkeley, California.
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