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
• 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.)
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?