Last week the New York Times had an article on LeRoy Neiman, the just-deceased artist who specialized in sports scenes. The writer recalled that when he was in art school, people would often comment that a painting looked like a LeRoy Neiman.
"A reasonably sophisticated art student knew what that meant, and it was not a compliment," the writer said. "To compare a student's work to Mr. Neiman's meant, 'You are trying to distract the viewer from noticing your wooden draftsmanship and your ineptitude with matters of form and structure by larding your canvas with loud color and patchy accretions of paint.' Or, 'What you are making is all frosting, no cake."
The article goes on to discuss Neiman and other artists "marginalized by the cognoscenti" but loved by the masses, including Walt Disney, Salvador Dalí, Norman Rockwell and Andrew Wyeth. (I'm surprised he left out Thomas Kincade, who also became rich and famous well beyond his artistic abilities.) But that's for another discussion.
What struck me about these remarks was how well they apply to the "art quilt" world, if you change a couple of words. Make that "You are trying to distract the viewer from noticing your mediocre design and your ineptitude with matters of form and structure by larding your quilt with loud color and flashy embellishment." Ouch?
All frosting, no cake -- that's as good a description of a large portion of the "art quilt" world as anything else you could come up with. Unfortunately it's probably easier to find some of these no-cake wonders than it is to find quilts with more rigorous art underpinnings.
Go to the State Fair, for instance. The judges are knowledgeable to the point of hysteria about stitching, binding and making points match, but generally have no training in design. Go to the quilt shop, and find patterns and samples that showcase the latest fabrics but don't go much beyond cute in the artistic department. Go to the magazines and books, and find project recipes complete with patterns and directions so you can replicate somebody else's superficially attractive creations.
In particular, I have to agree with the writer's assessment of loud color as a distraction from mediocre design. I once took a non-quilting friend to a show that featured work by a quilter I have no respect for. My friend said, "oh, these are wonderful!" I said, "what do you like about them?" She was slightly taken aback, thought for a bit, and said "I like the color." More thought. No more response.
The fact that I didn't respect this quilter didn't stop her from selling a lot of work and becoming quite well-known locally. She did have a way with brilliant color that knocked your socks off at first glance. But there was nothing beyond the color that I could ever detect.
Fortunately there is another school of thought in "art quilts," one more firmly rooted in the traditional principles of high art than in the worlds of craft and decor. I aspire to be part of that school and am grateful for the venues that support it. I happen to think that Quilt National, the biennial exhibit at the Dairy Barn in Athens OH, is the mother of all such venues, which is why I'm madly piecing away this summer on my entry for that show. Sure, you can argue with the jurors' choices in QN as in any exhibit, but I believe they generally look for the cake, not the frosting. I hope they'll find plenty of cake for QN '13.