Friday, October 22, 2010

The judges speak...

Yesterday I asked you how you would vote on these three works if you were jurying Quilt National. The vote was overwhelmingly NO. Some people pointed out correctly that the pieces aren’t quilted, so they would be ineligible, and that’s true, but most of you looked past that and rejected them on their design. Not everybody was as plain spoken as the reader who said “I think even I could whip all three of them up in a few hours without much thought,” but I got the vibes that many of you had similar thoughts, just expressed them a little more tactfully.

People didn’t seem to like them much for a gallery show, either. “They show very little creativity and little technical ability,” one reader said. “I'd vote no to both as none of these make me want to look at them again. Nor do they tell a compelling story,” another said. “I find all three pieces uninteresting in terms of design and color… They do not draw me in, or do they invite me to linger,” a third said.

One commenter said, “Kathy, I hope these aren't yours.”

Well, gentle reader, not to worry. They aren’t mine. They were made by Louise Bourgeois, described by the gallery mounting this solo show as “the most important female artist of our times.”

Bourgeois, who died earlier this year, had stashed away many pieces of fabric over her long lifetime, from clothing and linens used by herself and her family. In the last few years she pulled them out and cut and restructured them into “fabric drawings.” A show of these fabric works opened in London last week and other fiber art bloggers have commented on it (here) and (here).

Interestingly, the tone of some of these comments has been adoring – totally opposite from what my readers thought!  For instance, one wrote, “I find all of these pieces engaging and attractive on first view, and then despite their apparent simplicity – maybe because of their deceptive simplicity, I am intrigued to gaze on them longer. I think that it’s a question of the compositions, the balance and choice of colours, the intensity of them which detain me.”

Bourgeois had what we might charitably call an unconventional or uncharitably call a traumatic childhood, as suggested by her signature motifs of spiders, cages and genitalia. I find it comforting to read her statement, “I always had the fear of being separated and abandoned. The sewing is my attempt to keep things together and make things whole.”

Louise Bourgeois, Crouching Spider, 2003

I confess that when I set up yesterday’s “quiz” for you, I deliberately chose some of the least interesting (to me) images of those posted on the gallery’s website. Some of the other works might have gotten our votes for Quilt National, especially those riffing on her spider motifs.

Her pieces where she wove fabric into grid patterns are also interesting.

But what struck me about the show in general (at least the images shown on the gallery website, which I assume are representative of those on exhibit) was the importance of CONTEXT. When we see the images without knowing anything about the maker, they are described as uncreative and uninteresting. But when the viewer knows they were made by the most important female artist of our times, they’re described like this:

“Bourgeois’s fabric drawings are abstract yet acutely personal works, retaining allusions to the materials’ past incarnations… Stripy and chequered drawings that Bourgeois began making in 2002 weave thin strips of her garments together, bending the modernist grid…. Rather than being minimalist, these morphing geometries are supple and embracive, softly corporeal.” (quotes from the gallery press release)

If you visit the gallery site you can see several more of her fabric drawings, plus some sculptures -- well worth your time, I think. 

So what lessons do we take from this little exercise?

- that if you are a world-famous sculptor you can sew a couple of pieces of old fabric together and people will rave about them

- that if you or I made the identical pieces, people would not rave about them

- that fiber art shows, such as Quilt National, have different standards than the big-time art world – blind jurying being one important element

- that the big-time art world is totally built upon the foundation of reputation, connections, sales track record, and market trends

- that fiber artists kind of bristle when art made of fiber doesn’t play by our rules

- but that fiber artists may also feel validated in some respect when a world-famous artist chooses to work in our medium instead of her customary one.

Are we being defensive when we bristle? Do we love the work because of the famous name? Or does the emperor have no clothes? I don’t know. What do you think?


  1. I commend you for the thought provoking duo of blog posts! I was completely surprised and delighted to take your point of this exercise. I had heard of Louise Borgeois's work through another fiber artist, but as an outsider, would not ever have thought of her in your first blog post.


    Diana Angus

  2. This little exercise of yours has really raised my ire.
    First, I immediately recognized the pieces as the work of Louise Bourgeois. After reading Olga's blog entry about Louise's exhibition in London, I ordered the book, have it now, and have enjoyed it immensely. I am particularly interested in her fabric weavings, as I have done some myself and was interested in what she would do with it. Also, the website of the gallery only shows a small selection of what is in the book. I still don't understand why you would select less interesting pieces except to show that name sells in the art world. You think that it doesn't in the quilt world. Sure it does. I see a quilter selling her work on the internet, $40 for a 4" by 4" piece that any quilter with some experience could do herself. But it's a form of homage to the artist. I like her work so much that I would like to own a piece of it. There is a UK felt artist whose work I like so much I asked her for scraps and she gave them to me to settle an overpayment.
    Secondly, you say that Quilt National has a blind jury. Well, you think that when they see a piece by you at least one of them doesn't recognize that it is by you. The jury would only be blind if they had never seen any fibre art. Now that is an interesting prospect!
    Joanne in Canada

  3. Anonymous makes good points in regards to Blind juries , name recognition and context. I adore Louise Bourgeois but if these were the only works she had ever made I would not be so adoring. I do love the fact that she saw fabric as a viable art material. It is the gallery that has choosen to exhibit the works and they will sell due to her status in general. I also know that a person who focuses on the "attitude" of being and artist will have a different approach to the fabric from someone who focuses on being a quilter, art quilter etc. I did enjoy the article you have presented. One of the things it makes very clear is that every work is not equal....even if you are accomplished and famous. We just have to use our own judgement.

  4. Joanne -- I certainly did not mean to denigrate Bourgeois, whose work I have been familiar with and admired for many years. And I'm sure much of the fabric work in this show was far more impressive than the three pieces I chose to post in the blog.

    But I was interested that those three pieces, which underwhelmed me, were put in a big-time show and featured on the gallery website. I looked at those pieces knowing who made them, but wondered what people might think if they didn't know what (whom) they were looking at. Now I know, at least for the 20 or so people who commented on the blog post.

    You're right, of course, that "blind" jurying isn't 100% blind, especially within the relatively small world of art quilts. That's another issue. But in any pool of entries, there will be plenty that the jurors do not recognize, just as most of the people who commented on yesterday's post did not recognize Bourgeois.

  5. While I didn't care too much for any of the first set of photos yesterday, I felt unqualified to comment because I'm a casual quilter and not-really-an-artist (or farthest from it, as I'm an accountant!) However, I was slightly intrigued by the last one-it had a representional feel to me and I had the impression of falling snow over water or something.

    Anyway, your experiment made me think about qualifications to judge and I have to admit that I don't particularly think that anyone has more inherent right to judge another's work than anyone else. I might be in some ways more, or less, qualified to understand how that work came into being (techniques, difficulty of medium, etc) and I agree that there must be certain criteria met for an item to fit into a category (how can a "painting" be made without paint, for example) but the fundamental reaction each individual has to any work they encounter is unique. I guess I'm saying that trying to compare or judge works is so deeply subjective that the whole attempt is somewhat fruitless from a purely spectative perspective. But then we get to the business of art and that's where you must start to find ways to judge the relative merits of works in order to grant monetary value of one thing over another... As a non-professional, I'm glad to be able to simply appreciate (or not) however I feel. I liked the two-fabric piece a little (although I would never have purchased it, nor been inspired too much by it.)

  6. Joanne - you said "I see a quilter selling her work on the internet, $40 for a 4" by 4" piece that any quilter with some experience could do herself."

    Have you priced oil paintings of this size?

    Are you saying quilters shouldn't price their work in the same range as other artists because "any quilter with some experience could do it herself"?

    I think most quilters seriously underprice their work. Kudos to the person you are referring to.

    [I sell my 2.5 x 3.5" work for $40 - if you want a 4"x4" textile painting of my work the price is $90.]

  7. I would never recognize Louise's work because...I am not familiar with her work. However...I am familiar with lots of art quilters' work because I study their work...hence I might make a bad judge for some shows because I can easily recognize some artists' works.(Not that I would ever be asked. ;-))
    Good experiment, Kathy.

  8. I wonder what L.B. thought of these, her own pieces. I think celebrity is such an interesting thing-people swoon over a pair of shoes, a signature, whatever, because it belongs to someone famous. Is that what's happening here?
    In the case of the three pieces you showed us, I can appreciate them as entries in a sketchbook. When we look at the sketches of an artist, they can inform us about process, we can have a window into the ideas they were experimenting with, notes they've jotted down for future reference. It doesn't mean that each little sketch was a full-blown artistic expression. And as is often the case, critics and fans can read much more into it than the artist intended. I love many minimalist artworks from the 70's, so it's not that I think complexity equals artistry. But it also doesn't mean I have to gush over every pencil line (or stitch) touched by an artist, no matter how much they are reveared. (Love some of her other work-thanks for posting it!)

  9. Lisa, my point was that just as name sells in the art world, it sells in the art quilt world. I think that you should get as much for your work as you can. I don't know what a 4" by 4" oil painting would sell for.

  10. I really enjoyed these two posts. I was too late to leave a comment on yesterdays but probably would have said the same as most of your viewers. Out of context you will see only what is presented but with the story you will see the depth.

    I could never be a judge. It is hard to set aside biases for me. That would include colors that I like, styles that I like, artists that I like etc. I would probably put more weight on what I do not like just to compensate and in doing that perhaps make the wrong choice. I often disagree with the ribbon winners so I know this must be why. I can not imagine what judges go through to do their best and judge the "winners" without bias. It has to be a very difficult job. Like they have done with the academy awards in judging film, I choose not to use the term "winner" but instead choose to say "the ribbon went to". There are far more Winners out there that we will never know about.

  11. On page 3 of the Style Section of todays NY Times [10/24/10], there is reference to LB's show with a beautiful red and black sample fabric. Quite different and striking than those examples shown on this blog. Now if that had been shown, I would have voted positively for both questions posed. Yes to QN and yes to a show.

  12. Divagirl -- yes, I saw that item also in the Times. I would probably have voted yes on that for QN, along with the pink/red/black spiderweb design shown with this post. thanks for your vote!!

    if you can cut and paste this address into your browser it's worth checking out the gorgeous image

  13. I found a new blog today, raggedclothcafe. And what was she discussing----Louise's work. I thought you would be interested.

  14. thanks, Judy -- I do follow that blog and referenced it up above in this post. we are not the only fiber artists intrigued by the Bourgeois show and its implications!

  15. I'm late to the discussion, but I've enjoyed reading all points of view. Kathy, this was a thought provoking post.