Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Dark thoughts

I wrote earlier this week about being underwhelmed by looking at the winners in the recent International Quilt Association show in Houston, and opined in particular that the winning quilts in the many pictorial categories were all sweet, sentimental, unchallenging and, at least to me, disappointing.

The Houston show is the largest quilt show in the world, and one that does a good job of showcasing art quilts as well as traditional quilts.  Arguably it's the biggest and best display of art quilts for the masses – its 55,000 or so visitors far exceed the number who see Quilt National, Visions or any of the other exclusively art quilt shows.  It’s as good a place as any to take the pulse of what’s going on in the art quilt world, so my disappointment with the winners may be more telling than if I were to be disappointed at another show.

I've attended this show several times in the past, and in 2004 I went to Houston with a hypothesis: the problem with art quilts is that they are too nice. In my art quilt travels over the last decade I had seen hundreds, even thousands, of art quilts that were pleasant, beautiful, cheerful, serene -- and relatively few showing the wider gamut of emotions that you find everywhere in painting, sculpture and mixed-media.  To test this hypothesis I hit the show floor with a mission: to find quilts that showed irony, sorrow, anger, sex, bitterness, humor, disturbance, sarcasm, cynicism, or any other emotion on the dark side of the scale.

Granted, the fact that many quilts are non-representational made it harder to decide which ones are “nice” and which ones aren’t. So I concentrated on the ones that gave me clues: those showing identifiable subject matter, through images or text, or where the artist statement provided insight.

On the whole vast floor of the show, where 799 quilts were hung, I found quilts depicting:
• two people transfixed by grief after their son died
• an ugly industrial city overshadowed by factories and cooling towers
• a striking, even scary head shot of a medieval Oriental warrior
• three black women from the pre-civil-rights era waiting for a
  segregated bus
• bipolar disorder
• dark, mysterious family drama of an unspecified nature
• an aging mother losing her confidence
• a scene of environmental disaster
• an old man mourning his dead wife
• AIDS victims in Africa

That made ten quilts that show the dark side of human experience and emotion, 789 that didn’t.  And even the quilts depicting dark emotions seemed curiously cheery.  Here are some photos in each category.  Unfortunately, if I wrote down the info about artist and title, I lost it long ago.  If you can identify any that I can't, please let me know!

Elizabeth Barton, Ferrybridge

There was no sex, of either the pornographic or non-threatening persuasion. The only sex appeal was an awkwardly drawn depiction of Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. Not even any couples on their daily rounds, except for the aforementioned ones in bereavement, and one where an old married couple stood there and smiled. (Two artists did reveal in their statements that their abstract quilts referred to their husbands.)

Only two quilts about war. One showed two Civil War soldiers, one blue, one gray, together in their pre-war West Point class photo. One recast the famous Vietnam photo of three soldiers, the two on the outside supporting a wounded man and helping him to walk. But, if you can imagine it, this was a “nice” quilt, the grisly image surrounded by pleasant pastels and the artist statement talking about hope and patriotism.

In Houston’s aisles, children smiled; animals both tame and wild looked grand; landscapes were sunny and beautiful. And not only in the sentimental pieces that nobody would classify as art quilts; it was also true for most of the “serious” work that you can find in art quilt shows.  And would you have expected anything different in a show titled “Quilts: A World of Beauty”?  

Maria Elkins, Ohio Dreaming

Although I didn't attend the show this year, I suspect it wasn't a whole lot different.  Certainly looking at the winning quilts didn't suggest that much had changed.  And I suspect that the Houston show isn't that much different from other quilt shows, even those staking out the art end of the spectrum.

By contrast, it doesn’t take much research to see that in the just-plain-art world, there is a far wider range of both emotions and subjects. My latest “Art In America” reviews recent shows where the artists deal with terrorism, the global financial crisis, torture, slumlords, unemployment, divorce, child abuse, AIDS, the conflict between environmentalism and cheap consumer goods. Why does quilt art play in such a small sandbox? Do we know from past experience that jurors will not accept quilts with darker attitudes? Or do we limit ourselves simply as a reflection of our own comfort zone?

At this point many readers may be saying, “But I don’t want to make ugly quilts! What’s wrong with beauty? There’s enough nastiness in the world already; who wants it in their living room? Besides, nobody would buy my quilts if I dealt in darker emotions.” That may all be true, and I don’t want to suggest that all quilt artists should be making work about hunger, war, pollution, torture, adultery, conspicuous consumption or mental illness. But might it be better if SOME quilt artists did?

And even if we don’t want to do the darker emotions, why do we do so little irony, sex or humor? Must we be earnest from morning till night?


  1. Maybe we get too much already on the box in the corner? (telly)
    Interesting thoughts.
    Sandy in the UK

  2. I agree with Sandy. Beauty and a connection to nature are sadly missing from most of our daily lives. You can get the sex, violence, irony, sarcasm, and other darker emotions anywhere (everywhere) you look. Think how little the general public connects with the art world these days, even to the point of not wanting to fund school art programs. The art world is not meeting the needs of the public. Obviously art shouldn't be totally directed by that, but if you aren't getting your point across, or if its only to a few select people, are you doing your job? Artists during the time of the industrial revolution showed the bad side, but also spent an awful lot of time reminding people of the beauty that was out there, and its importance. This is a total digression, but if we don't appreciate the beauty of nature, we may stop trying to protect it. That would be a tragedy.

  3. Catherine from the UKNovember 23, 2010 at 9:26 AM

    I write as an outsider to this world as I don't produce quilts. However, I am aware of the type of work that is being produced, and I agree very much with your observations about the sentimentality and lack of challenge in the typical output.

    However, I also do have an issue with 'agenda' art. I think that there is a great deal of bad, pretentious art produced in many different media that seeks to gain legitimacy, and stifle criticism, by borrowing fashionable themes such as those you mention. Perhaps I'm being cynical but it strikes me that it's easy enough to insert some nonsense in an artist's statement about the theme of the work being AIDs awareness, environmentalism etc. Sometimes I think the adoption of such themes, especially when worked into bad art, is even disrespectful to those who have suffered dreadfully - e.g. what right do I have to build an art work around my so-called 'response' to e.g. genocide?
    I also think there is a danger in representational art of incorporating clunky, obvious images just so that you can claim to have made a statement about a meaty theme.

    Fundamentally, it seems to me that the key word here is integrity. If you produce with integrity, then it perhaps doesn't much matter whether or not you, the artist, or someone else, the observer, can identify an obvious thematic current in the work. In any case the message conveyed by the work may be quite different for the observer from any intended by the artist. For example, I think the grossly sentimental output of many quilt artists might tell us something quite interesting about women, about their place in society, about faulty or non-existent art education, or possibly lots of other things that haven't occurred to me. I suspect, however, that this message is in no way intended by the producers. If future generations look at this stuff (and nobody can ever predict what they'll be interested in - except to say that it often turns out to be something other than the work of the prevailing academy)they will no doubt take away different meanings again.

    Another message that comes over to me when I see the cutesy, sentimental stuff, is one about over-abundance. A subset of the integrity idea that I mentioned above, is the idea of constraint, whether deliberate or imposed, from which so much good art flows. Sometimes it seems as though quilt artists have got completely carried away with the materials at their disposal - a sign maybe of an over-indulged, ridiculously materialistic society?

    I will finish this lengthy rant by observing that your own artistic output conveys interesting, non-sentimental, ideas and messages and that it is clearly (to me anyway) produced with integrity and graceful constraint.

  4. I'd like to thank Catherine from the UK for her thoughtful comments. She expressed better than I could my own frustration with the "agenda" art that takes on a sameness. Sometimes it feels like the artist chose a "serious" theme more because it's expected than because they have something new to add. An MFA candidate told me, "They want ugly, I'll give them ugly."

    Kathleen, your posts have given us a lot to think about. If I may say this: From reading the whole series I get that you're hoping to encourage reflection on the part of both artists and the people who jury shows. But in no way is anything you've written meant to demean people who are making sentimental work for their own joyful purposes.

    In every life, there are dark days that can be brightened with the act of making. I believe making fosters time for reflection, and reflection that can throw a new light on a dark subject.

    Thank you for this thread of posts. It got me to thinking about symbols that convey darkness and beauty together -- the lotus springing forth from the much comes to mind. I appreciate the food for thought.

  5. Thank you all for your thoughtful comments! Donna, you're right that I want us all to think about what we're making, what we're exhibiting, what we're rewarding. So much to respond to that I think I need to wait till tomorrow and write a whole post.

  6. Making work which depicts the ugliness is generally alien to the nature of the people who make quilts. On the whole, quilters are happy, contented and practical people ..... they are also some of the first people to offer a helping hand, or a quilt to keep them warm and give them comfort ... even the nature of the medium is soft and warm.

    Textiles are made to give comfort and beautify our surroundings, so I think most artists would make more sentimental art when working with fabric. Even depicting cloth in any other medium it is used most for its softening effect.

    So generally, I think it is difficult to make a hard edged statement about the ugliness in the world using a medium we associate with nuturing from the moment we are born when we are wrapped in cloth.

    Judy B

  7. You might have also noticed a lack of very traditional quilts at Houston... (Paducah, Lancaster, Mid-Atlantic, etc.) They show the quilts that are submitted. Plain & simple.

    I also agree with many of the comments regarding the general nature of quilt making. & the fact that we can do find all manner of vices on TV & in other mediums.

    (I am not an artist. quilt or otherwise. Quilting is my hobby - sometimes using a pattern - shock a kit, is just what the doctor ordered for me to combat the depression, anger, knowledge of genocide, etc.)

  8. This has a lot to do with why people make art, plain and simple. Anything you make is contemporary. You make what you have in you to make.

    Sometimes I make "darker" pieces but never without having a need to. I would never think "let me make something serious for a change." Never. And, I would go so far as to think that people don't always know what the "topic" of my pieces are. So how does that fit in? You're free to interpret them anyway you like.

  9. Ironically most of my really good work comes from a strong basis of irony or insecurity. I have never made a happy quilt- not sure what that says about my emotional makeup- but I do know that for me quilt making is an extension of how I am feeling- about work, about death, about myself- about others. Even when I made my cancer comb series it was about my father dying. Maybe that is why I won't even think of entering 95% of the quilt shows out there. It's not snobbery per se- it is an acknowledgment of how personal my work is for me.

  10. Part of the problem with working dark subject as a quilt is the length of time one spends working with the thing. If I were angry or frightened or crazed enough with, say, being assaulted by a TSA pig at the airport (and I nearly am) I don't think I could stand putting in the necessary time from conception to promotion. I think very many people gravitate to quilt making for the personal gratification and comfort of the sensual input of working with cloth. I know I have and many times keeping the principals of good art will slip away in favor of the mindless good times and instant feedback of making.

    (forgive the tardiness of this post. I just figured out that something about Firefox forbids me to post a comment here and had to revert to the Big Blue E to get the job done)

  11. Deb, I'm glad you figured out how to comment! And this one raises a valid point. You have to be quite concerned about an issue to commit that much time to it, and you do have dark thoughts while making such artworks. I ended up in tears more than once while making my war quilts -- but that's OK too.

    I'm going to think about your comment and write about it in a subsequent post. thanks again