Monday, September 30, 2013

TMI -- art label department

Elizabeth Barton left an interesting comment on my post last week about Quilt National.  She wrote, "I thought there were far too many quilts that depended on photographs printed onto the fabric -- even to the point of the company printing the fabric being mentioned in the descriptive labels!"

Her point was different, but I glommed onto her mention of Spoonflower on the labels.  I've been noticing similar practices in several art shows I've attended recently, and I find some of them highly annoying.

My top peeve is a list of materials beginning with the words "art quilt," especially in shows where everything there is a quilt.  "Art quilt" is not a material; arguably, "art quilt" is not even a valid category (do we see a lot of "art paintings" or "art sculptures" in galleries and shows?).  And why you should say it in a list of materials and techniques is beyond  me.

My second peeve is a list that includes brand names, including but hardly limited to Spoonflower.  I've seen labels talking about Thermofax screens, Cherrywood and Lunn fabrics (why not Gingher scissors, Olfa rotary cutters, or Bernina sewing machines?  why not Aurifil thread or Warm & Natural batting?  why not Clotilde pins or Homasote design walls?)

Nor am I wild about process descriptions that tell you everything but whether the artist stopped in the middle to take the laundry out of the dryer.  Like "words/phrases cut from magazines, glued to paper, scanned, printed onto fabric" or "pastel drawn from life, repeated applications of fabric and paint" or "silk thread on the surface and lingerie thread in the bobbin" or "fabric 'aged' by the artist over a winter in my back yard."

I don't like to see process descriptions like "cut intuitively" or "using my digital photos as inspiration."   Isn't practically everything an artist does in some way intuitive?  Doesn't every work of art have an inspiration?

If I have to generalize, these over-elaborate descriptions seem to combine the worst elements of narcissism and insecurity.  The former, because it implies that viewers yearn for more, more, more information about the artist's every breath.  The latter, because it implies that the too-eager artist has to prove that every step she took is indeed legitimate.

Part of the problem is that quilt and fiber shows often conflate lists of materials (the standard element of descriptive labels for every art medium) with lists of techniques (of particular interest to fiber artists and aficionadas, because there are so many techniques out there and it's not always apparent which ones were used).  So one kind of list (commercial cottons, bamboo batting, silk thread, etc.) oozes seamlessly into another (arashi shibori, hand embroidery, quilted with a long-arm sewing machine).

This quilt show practice of TMI may serve one purpose -- telling aficionadas everything they want to know about how a piece was made -- but not another -- acting like we're part of the larger art world.  And arguably catering to the aficionada's desire for info on technique may just hold said aficionada back from appreciating the art aspects of the work.

When I go to museums I see labels that simply say "oil on linen" or "bronze" or "painted wood" or "matériaux divers," and they seem classy and sophisticated.  When I enter quilt or fiber art shows I describe my work as "machine pieced and quilted," or if required to state materials, I'll add "commercial cottons."  When I enter all-mediums art shows I just say "fiber."  Maybe that's too bare-bones, but I think a bit less information is sometimes more powerful and intriguing than too much.

What do you think?

at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

short and sweet!


  1. I agree with you, Kathy. Those too-long lists of materials and techniques have long irritated me! And they do distract me from looking at the work. I think the words "mixed media" suffice.

  2. Yes, yes, yes! Cringe making......

  3. Totally agree! Who cares if you twirled a baton while using your tin snips as you were watching your paint dry?! If forced to list materials, just list general materials, for goodness sake!

  4. When I see these descriptions it takes me right back to State Fair 4-H competitions! I so agree! WHY do they do this and yet claim professionalism? I know Thermofax isn't supplying free stuff... (BTW, Love your blog, Kathy!)

  5. Yes! My descriptions have got more and more silly lately.. *deliberately* playing with the format..

  6. I think this is a style vs substance problem. It seems connected to the fact that people who paint in oils use the term artist. People who create with fibre use the term fibre artist. Why? No-one says "oil paint artist". It is something to do with a confusion about craft vs art and when the transition has been achieved from one to the other. It is a mistake to think this transition can be indicated by describing process. Paul Rand said:
    "To design is much more than simply to assemble, to order, or even to edit: it is to add value and meaning, to illuminate, to simplify, to clarify, to modify, to dignify, to dramatize, to persuade, and perhaps even to amuse. To design is to transform prose into poetry".
    It's not really important what materials you use and in what order. However, some people who are confident with the generic term "artist" fall into the same process trap: I am thinking pickled sharks and fibreglass skulls, here...

  7. At least the explanations of the subject are shorter. The first art quilts were accompanied by an essay explaining the thoughts behind the work ... in my mind if you had to explain visual art in so many words the art wasn't working.

  8. I absolutely agree with you - very well put. When I looked at the long lists of materials and processes in the QN label descriptions, I felt as if that was more the competition than the quilts themselves - who got the longest list, and used the most processes? I think they should be eliminated altogether.

  9. I recently started listing my work as:

    fabric, dye, thread, batting

  10. I agree, Kathy, it irritates me that the art quilt world is still caught in the historical precedents of traditional quiltmaking. Even Quilt National requires an extensive form that details process, materials and techniques. In fact, I remember once sitting in a lecture at a SAQA conference that encouraged artists to be very specific in their descriptions for the judges. How that translates to exhibition labels I have no clue.
    I have the same feeling about Artist's statements. Do I really need to know that you were going through a hard time while raising three puppies and holding down two jobs to understand your artwork? I think as a group we might consider a set of guidelines that would help artists (and curators) elevate the way the work is labeled.

  11. I'm all for brevity. The labels aren't supposed to be step-by-step instructions...