Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The juror thinks -- why worry about technique?

Earlier this week I wrote about my recent experience jurying a quilt/art show, and talked about what should be shown in the detail shot.  Lisa Call responded with a great question:  "Why are you looking at technique for an art show? Why does it matter how it is made? Painters don't submit detail images when they enter juried shows. Why not do away with the detail show requirement all together and judge the work solely on its artistic merit?"

I had to stop and think about it before I could figure out the answer.  I did some research.  Maybe they don't ask for details in painting shows, but when I looked back in my files at the last couple of all-medium museum shows that I have entered, one wanted detail shots and one didn't.  Presumably painters would have submitted details too in that first show. 
If Lisa is right that painters generally don't submit detail shots, I wonder why not.  Having looked at bazillions of paintings in museums all over the world, I know that sometimes the up-close view of how the paint is applied makes a picture more interesting than I first thought when I saw it from across the room.  Wouldn't jurors benefit from a closer look at such works, and wouldn't those painters' chances of getting into the show improve with a detail shot?

I think that artistic merit can be judged from across the room (aka full-view images) but when you look at it up close you can be seeing artistic merit as well.  And we do scrutinize painters' techniques when we enjoy their art -- think Jackson Pollock's spatters vs. Gerhard Richter's mirror paintings vs. Jasper Johns' encaustics over newsprint, just to mention three that come to mind immediately. 

But I don't want to talk about paintings, I want to talk about quilts, because the show I was jurying was limited to quilts. 

As a juror, I cop to a lot of curiosity about how things are made (as opposed to how well).  Before I start to evaluate a quilt's quality, I like to know what I'm looking at.  I think this is a valid idea for a juror to entertain, because so many quilts that want to be art are so heavily influenced by technique, and certain techniques have almost become cliches.  If so, whether or not the techniques are well executed is almost beside the point; more pertinent is whether the piece has some originality.

But OK, I also like to know about craftsmanship, which I think is what Lisa is questioning.  I think the rules are different in quilt shows than in all-medium shows.  I'm not talking about Quilt Police rules (although some of the most prestigious art quilt shows do impose rules that may seem a bit arbitrary) but the unwritten rules about what standards should apply in shows that see quilts as art.

I think much as we might like our work to be regarded solely as art, and even though some shows and organizations are dedicated to having quilts seen that way, we have not yet totally escaped the craft tradition of our medium.  Yes, Tracey Emin or Louise Bourgeois can make a quilt that is welcome at the Tate Modern even though it may be baggy, lumpy, crudely sewed and downright sloppy in its execution.  But that same quilt is probably not going to get past the first round of jurying at Quilt National (or any of the other serious art quilt shows -- I use QN as shorthand for the big leagues) .

To a certain extent that's a good thing.  People who walk in the door to see Quilt National or Visions or a SAQA exhibit are probably expecting a high level of craftsmanship as a given, and then want to find artistic merit as well.  Poor craftsmanship in these venues tends to reflect poorly on the whole field.  Since I have seen many, many of Lisa Call's quilts in person, and know them to be meticulously crafted, I have to think that she values this quality as much as I do.  We know that if we showed a quilt that was baggy, lumpy, etc. it would give many people an excuse to not like it; they would be so distracted by the poor execution that they might not even look at the artistic merit.

Lisa and I both know that we could choose to abandon the quilt circuit and attempt to show our work solely in all-medium venues, and if we did, maybe we wouldn't have to spend so damn much time at meticulous piecing and quilting because the greater art world doesn't know the difference or care.  But having chosen to enter QN we know that good craft gives us extra points.

I think the moment when quilt shows decide that artistic merit is the only way to judge, and craft or technique means nothing, is the moment when we don't need quilt shows any more.  What would be the point?  We might as well go up against the paintings and the sculptures instead of restricting ourselves to the limited competition of quilts.  

What do you think?


  1. A few years ago our local art museum had a traveling exhibition of small art quilts. Many were striking compositions. Quite a few featured embellishments like beads and fringe. Several were not stitched, and were obviously glued together. The workmanship in most was poor, if quilt show standards were applied. The interesting part was comments from other museum attendees, folks who kew little about quilts, and some who didn't know anything about sewing. (I asked them about their backgrounds, after hearing their comments and discussing the exhibition with them. I did not provide any of my opinions.) Many of the comments were about the poor workmanship. These people expected art made with fabric to show some knowledge of sewing construction.

  2. I think that if you want your work to be evaluated by the standards established for painting, then you should paint.

    Fiber is not paint. It boggles me how many people fail to grasp this most obvious point.

  3. I believe a detail image should show one of the elements that is unique to our art form -- the stitched line. That line adds a dimension to our work that can't often be appreciated in a full view. I'm not certain that a detail shot always has to showcase technique, but should show artistic intent.

  4. True artists hone their craft. The highest level of craftsmanship an artist can bring to the work elevates it and serves as the conduit for artistic voice to emerge and showcase it most effectively.

    I don't believe viewers of art need to have mastered the craftsmanship skills associated with a particular genre of art in order to recognize excellence when they see it.

  5. I agree with Lisa Call. I don't think that having a quilt show, in which the primary purpose is to view and enjoy quilts means that you have to judge technique as well. I also agree that excellent technique can lift the quality of the art but it doesn't necessarily do that. I've seen plenty of beautifully crafted quilts that are just ho=hum (or flat out boring) art pieces and vice-versa. We should go up against the paintings and everything else and not be restrictive, its just that most of us would rather view quilts than other forms of art. It seems that some us just can't let go of that tradition that you describe. We just can't let go of the "craft" to see the "art", even though those baggy, saggy pieces of art would never appear in most shows.

  6. Anonymous -- I hear what you're saying and continue to wrestle with the question of whether a juror should judge technique.

    But I think there's a difference between wanting to examine the technique so you can judge it good or bad, and wanting to examine the technique so you can better understand what you're looking at. I hope that as a juror I care a lot more about the latter than the former.

  7. I think it is both, not just about technique but also about craftsmanship. Some things can only be seen in the details.

    I have a friend in FL and we constantly discuss the construction in many art quilts. It bothers us that some prolific quilt artists are successful on the production line quilt process where quilts are thrown together, glued, stamped, and painted on and acknowledged as quilt art. Yet some relatively unknown quilt artists are only able to produce a few great pieces a year, which is a shame because of the limited time or resources they have available. I too opt for quality craftsmanship, but that won't get you far without visual impact. No one would question the craftsmanship of Nancy Crow or Susan Shie, both using very different techniques. Both are great craftswomen.