Monday, September 5, 2011

The self-reflexive feedback loop

Last week the New York Times reviewed an installation at the Museum of Modern Art in which a Brazilian artist, Carlito Carvalhosa, constructed a walk-through spiral by hanging 60-foot tall panels of fabric from the ceiling to the floor.  The reviewer wasn't wild about the installation -- thought it was 30 years behind the times -- but I was intrigued on two counts.

photo -- New York Times

First, it's always nice when a Real Artist uses fabric and still gets taken seriously by the art establishment.

Second, I was taken by this paragraph, which gave me much to think about:

"It is worth noting too that the self-reflexive feedback loop is essential to modern art. Painting from Manet to Pollock makes us think about painting. Sculpture from Rodin to Smithson makes us think about the space of sculpture. In Op Art we become hyperaware of the act of seeing. Conceptualism makes us think about thinking. A lot of art today involving video and other new technologies makes us more conscious of our own consciousness."

So if modern art requires self-reflexive feedback, how does fiber art qualify?  Apparently fiber art needs to make us think about the nature of fiber.  To me, that means it drapes, it frays, it sags, it slithers on the bias, it fades, it feels smooth (or not) -- all the qualities that we love and celebrate but sometimes have a hard time controlling to achieve our artistic vision.  And if we choose to work in the quilt format, it should make us think about the quilt tradition, even if we go far beyond it.

But that makes me think about some fiber artists who seem to want to escape the nature of fiber.  They stretch their work flat, make it stiff with acrylic mediums, paint on it as if it were a board or canvas, try to make it do things it doesn't want to do.  They call their work "painting" or "tapestry" or some word that technically just isn't accurate.  Sometimes I look at work in shows and wonder why the artist wanted to render it as a quilt instead of as a painting, a print or a photograph, because there doesn't seem to be any reverence for or even much knowledge of the quilt tradition, and the image would probably be sharper and clearer if it were put on paper or canvas. 

When I first decided that my work qualified as Art, I explained my decision to make quilts rather than other forms as the realization that I was getting on in years and didn't have time to learn a new medium or technique, so had to stick with what I already knew.  Now I am more deliberate in thinking about what I make, why I choose to make it in fabric, and how that decision affects what I make (the feedback loop, right there). 

It's puzzling -- but what's the fun of making art if it doesn't give you something to think about while you work?


  1. I'm guilty of painting with acrylics on my quilts. My aim is to capture the excitement of drawing and sketches in textiles -painting onto stitched, coloured and textured textile backgrounds is far more unpredictable and responsive than canvas or paper.

  2. Mags -- that's a valid reason!