I was thrilled last year when my quilt won best in show at "Innovations in Fiber Art VI," co-sponsored by the Sebastopol Center for the Arts in California and the Surface Design Association. It was especially sweet because one of the juror/judges was Joan Schultze, one of my idols from way back.
And I was pleased again to learn that the Surface Design Journal, SDA's publication, was going to review the show. So when the magazine came this week I quickly skipped to what they had said about my piece:
"Given the Innovations title of the exhibition, it is interesting that the Best in Show Award went to Kathleen Loomis of Kentucky for Crazed 16: Suburban Dream, a pieced and machine-sewn patchwork wall panel of striped commercial cotton fabrics. No doubt a visual tour de force, this complex mosaic of small squares and rectangles builds a sense of movement that captures the obsessive-compulsiveness of quilting -- but does it represent innovation?"
The reviewer's comments brought to mind those made by Pauline Verbeek-Cowart, one of the 2011 Quilt National jurors, who wrote, "Not a single entry in my opinion represented that leap into new territory, or challenged conventional notions of the medium and stood as a radical new approach. ... I was hoping for some sort of embrace of these new materials and tools. I was prepared to see digital embroidery, laser cutting, conductive thread and light-emitting diodes (quilts are layered; there are pockets, perfect for hiding and holding wires and batteries), or photochromic pigments. These are just a few of the materials and processes that fiber artists are exploring at the moment (and have been for years)."
Well, if they've been exploring this stuff for years, how innovative are they? Haven't we been seeing digital embroidery on quilts for decades? The quilt/art world is admittedly slow to embrace new techniques and materials. I still laugh that in 2003 Quilt National gave its award for "Most Innovative Use of the Medium" to Michael James for a piece that was produced on a large-format printer, decades after people had started using phototransfer in quilts. But is this bad?
I'm not sure I would be thrilled and inspired to see a room full of fiber pieces that light up or change colors or conduct electricity. I suspect the ratio of gee-whiz to art would be higher than I normally enjoy. Just as painting is not dead, traditional fiber formats still have much to endear them to artists.
True, many shows have "innovation" or a variant in their titles, and many more announce in their call for entries that they want new and innovative work. I suspect this is a knee-jerk reaction because it seems like a good thing to write in the brochure. (I've probably done it myself, because I've been tapped to write a bunch of brochures and news releases and juror statements.)
I agree that new formats and materials should be welcomed in fiber art shows. I am happy when shows rewrite restrictive rules to be more inclusive and less quilt-police-like. But encouraging the new shouldn't mean dissing the old. (Here's what I wrote about Quilt National last year, along the same lines.)
Am I just saying this because I love and work in a traditional format? I don't think so. I believe that when you choose to work in a "materials-based art" you do so because something about that material -- and its traditional, more functional history -- calls to you. If so, then materials-based artists -- whether in fiber, ceramics, glass, metal or wood -- may be less inclined to go full-out avant-garde than artists who paint, sculpt or work in video, sound, chocolate syrup or other inherently radical fields. But hey, it seems to go with the territory.
I further believe that if you choose to sponsor or jury or review a show of materials-based art, you should respect that traditional history and recognize that many of the practitioners don't want to escape it quite yet, and that's not necessarily bad.
What do you think?