Friday, February 24, 2012

More about details

I wrote earlier this week about detail shots -- why I like to see details as a juror, and whether it's even appropriate for quilt and fiber shows to look at details (i.e. technique and craftsmanship) instead of judging on overall artistic merit (i.e. the overall view).  Having thought about this issue and come down on the side of detail, I had a chance to test my theory with a visit to one of the good juried quilt art shows, "Form, Not Function: Quilt Art at the Carnegie."

This show, at the Carnegie Center for Art and History in New Albany IN, is in its ninth year and over the years has attracted most of the major quilt artists in the country.  Although I helped organize this show and served as a juror for several years, I have not been involved in the last two shows except as a viewer and an award donor.  In fact, I was out of the country and missed the opening of the show in January, and did not have a chance to visit until last week.

As I looked at the show, I asked myself whether seeing the detail was beneficial to me as a viewer, and tried to think whether it would have helped me as a juror.  Here's the quilt that seemed to be the best case study for these thoughts:

Virginia Spiegel, Boundary Waters 53

Standing across the room (or looking at the full-view image) you don't really know what you're looking at.  It could very easily be a painting. 

(I have to apologize for my photo -- in person the work seemed a lot greener and richer than you see here, and no amount of fiddling with my photo program could get the image closer to what I remember as the real thing.)

If it were a painting, would you jury this piece into your painting show based on this image alone?  If it were a quilt, would you jury it in to FNF based on this image alone?  If you encountered it in person in a museum, would you stay on the far side of the room to look at it?

I suspect in any case you would appreciate a detail view.  Here's what you get by coming up close:

some text referencing the boundary waters

a lot of delicious texture.

As a viewer I found the closer look made the piece far more interesting, likable and expressive.  From across the room, where it might have been a painting, it seemed ordinary; up close I found its character and its hidden treasures.

I've always liked art with hidden treasures -- bits of information that are not visible in the long view, that don't reveal themselves until you have looked for a while.  I think they are little rewards to the viewer for giving the work a second or a third look.  I love to find these little bits in the art I see in museums, and try to put these touches into my own work.

So the question is, do jurors deserve to see a hidden treasure or two as they evaluate work for shows?  Or is that inappropriate, cheesy, low-end, too oriented to craft and not enough to art?  Is there a different answer for quilts than for paintings or other mediums?  I suspect most fiber artists would vote for details; I wonder whether painters have another opinion.

Tell me what you think.


  1. No doubt here, details are the gifts that keep on giving. Think of Chuck Close and his portraits - would they be half as exciting if they were not composed of small blobs of varying shades of gray paint? We work in a medium that adds tremendous texture and depth. Structure, craftsmanship and manipulation of the elements in our quilts give the viewer more and more to consider with each step closer to the work. To be fairly judged that detail must be shown. Your example here shows that perfectly.

  2. I agree with Shades and feel that her reference to Chuck Close's paintings and your example of Viriginia's work are both evidence in support of lots of close-ups and details.

  3. Agreed.

    I think most of us, as viewers, love the faraway view and the intimate view.

    And as jurors, it is necessary.

    Thanks for these thoughtful posts Kathleen.

  4. I've been thinking about this since I asked you about it and I've decided I fall on the "no details" preference.

    Now I'll have to think about how to articulate why.

  5. Lisa -- let us know when you figure it out! and thanks for raising the question

  6. In fiber art, I believe the details ARE the art. The overall view is important, but I think most fiber artists would agree that the details are the most exciting component, and jurors should definitely have detail views available to include in their process. The details may either add to or subtract from the overall artwork ... and that's why they need to be taken into account. Thanks for an interesting and thought-provoking question!

  7. I think our medium favors details. Stitching and patterning on fabric is inherently small and best seen up close. I'm thinking about all the times in a gallery or museum when I've wanted to get up close and personal with a piece -- Van Gogh's thick brush strokes, the fine cross hatching in a pen and ink drawing, surprising bits in an assemblage piece -- these are wonderful rewards once you've been drawn in by the overall design. To be sure, some art gives it's rewards right away and a closer look only verifies the skill of the artist. I'm thinking Stella's stripes, Rothko's color relationships, and both the work of Nancy Crow and Lisa Call. No big surprises when one looks at the details. But if those details weren't so pristine, would we like the work as much? Perhaps not (otherwise, why would these artists spend so much energy on fine craftsmanship?) I think Viviene brought up an excellent point about intent as well. So, between the nature of the fiber medium and the desire to measure intent, I vote for details.