Friday, November 21, 2014

Q = A = Q 9 -- a trend toward abstraction?

Yesterday I wrote about representational imagery in the Q=A=Q show at the Schweinfurth Art Center in Auburn NY.  Shortly after the show opened I exchanged emails with Patty Kennedy-Zafred, who had a quilt in the show but had not been able to attend the reception.

She wrote me:  "It appears that a large portion of the pieces chosen were abstract, color/design study, a trend I'm seeing more and more.  Do you think that is just coincidence, a trend in the art quilt movement, jurors' preferences?"  She said she thinks the same was true of other recent major art quilt shows.

I don't know whether the preponderance of abstract works is really a trend, but it was true in Q=A=Q this year.  And as both a Q=A=Q juror and an interested observer of the art quilt scene, I think that's probably a good thing.

In my experience, the great majority of representational imagery to be found in quilts is decoration rather than art.  Flowers, birds, rose-covered cottages, snowscapes, mountain sunsets.  For the non-traditionalist, puppies, fish, kids playing (extra points if your own kids or grandkids or puppy).  For the very adventurous, render your puppy in purple instead of his natural brown and white!  Many of the quilts featuring such decorative images are very pleasant, but I have a hard time thinking they belong in a high-end show of quilts as art.

What makes it art, in my mind, is a concept, an intention, a message, something more than "it's pretty."  (And I'm not just describing quilts; there are plenty of paintings that stop at "it's pretty," and while you might enjoy them on your bedroom wall they probably don't deserve space in a museum.)

Also in my experience, most representational imagery in the quilt world tends toward the highly realistic end of the spectrum.  The more it looks like a photo, the more it's likely to be the viewers' choice.  Unfortunately, fabric isn't a medium particularly conducive to photorealism.  Sure, you can painstakingly render your photo in pixelated form, find fabrics of the appropriate value and hue, and   applique them for a startling resemblance to the original picture, but aside from the technical gee-whiz of the transformation, this process generally leaves me cold.  I'm usually not sure why the artist did it, or whether the resulting quilt is a step up or a step down, artistically,  from the original image.

Many quilt artists paint directly onto the cloth, then finish it by quilting and maybe elaborate thread painting.  I tend to like this kind of work, provided it isn't just sentimental flowers and mountain sunsets, although there's still the lingering question, if she wanted to paint this picture why did she render it as a quilt instead of on a stretched canvas.  Other artists accomplish painterly effects with fabric collage, a technique I love.  For some reason, I don't often wonder if she wanted to do a collage why did she render it as a quilt instead of as paper pasted on a support.

Patricia Kennedy-Zafred, Sand and Sea: The Children of the Canneries

Of course, if you want photorealism, you can simply print your photo onto the fabric.  Sometimes this works brilliantly, as in Patty's Q=A=Q piece shown above.  She has taken historic photos from the Library of Congress, reproduced them on fabric, overlaid them with text describing the subjects, and enhanced the photos with dye and ink.  The result is clearly her own work, incorporating comment and context, and not just a rendering of the original photo.

But too frequently quiltmakers stop after they print the photo onto the fabric.  I've seen too many photos just plopped into the middle of a quilt, perhaps with some handlettered identification.  I won't jury that kind of work into a museum show because it doesn't seem to have a purpose.

A Toronto curator was recently quoted in connection with the World of Threads exhibit as saying, "It is essential for artists working in fibre to push the boundaries.  Think long and hard about what the conventions and cliches are of your media and process.  Why does it have to be that way?  Do other people find what you are making meaningful?  Does it communicate to them?"

Too many representational quilts are "conventions and cliches," in my opinion, largely because of subject matter but also because of technique.  I guess a lot of abstract quilts are also cliches, but in general I think the quilt format is more friendly to abstraction than to representation.  That's probably because of the predominance of geometric and abstract blocks in traditional quilts, a heritage that is hard to escape.

What do you think?


  1. I agree with you that abstraction is more suitable to the medium of fabric. Many artists do push the boundaries beautifully, and you have shown some examples. However, this seems to be trying to make fabric something else, such as paintings or collages or printmaking. These all can work, but I ask -why?-fabric itself has a grain, and its great characteristic is color. I prefer to work with that but then, others beautifully make it into something it is not. I guesss this is art.

  2. I've always thought "It's pretty" was sufficient justification for a thing's existence BUT people have such wildly differing definitions of "pretty" that it's no use in defining art.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  3. I think that this post and the other ones you have written about quilts=art=quilts are very valuable for all of us who use the quilt as an art medium. Thank you very much for taking the time to be so thorough in your coverage of the exhibition.

  4. You are one of the first I have read who put my thoughts into words. I noticed too that often some of the top prize winners are too representation in that they have little or no content and are purely decorative. "just too cutsy" I really applaud your comments.

  5. I agree with all that you said and feel the same way.

    I also think that if the photo is just printed on fabric with some stitching around it, why not just use photo as the artwork itself instead of putting it on fabric?

  6. Well said- I haven't seen Q=A=Q this year but from the press and seeing photos online I LOVE your choices! The 'thing' is that this show has veered away from the quilty-ness of quilts and well into being a first class art show that just happens to be of fabric. And because of the show's excellent reputation for showing the best out there, the applicants are also the best out there- those artists expressing their ideas by pushing boundaries and not to be confused with a 'quilt show'. Art today IS abstraction, as artists express new ways of seeing things in this current age. Rarely does another photorealistic oil painting hold my interest other than to draw my jaw at the perfection--and move on. This show is right up there with Visions, QN, and Elements as the most interesting and important shows to get to. Congrats, Kathy- great post.

  7. Okay so does that mean that artists that paint squares or geometric forms of any kind should be sewing? I think that quilters have a very narrow view of what seems to be "art" or "acceptable" to them. Why not paint fabric? Canvass is after all a fabric. I do agree that a piece should have some kind of narrative and not just be pretty or sofa art, but how the artist chooses to interpret this narrative should not be judged.

  8. Kathy, Thank you for this rare insight into the mind of a juror. These posts about Q=A=Q are invaluable access to process, which we would be fools to not learn from. Unfortunately, until people who work with cloth escape “crafting” and enter the realm of “craft” their work will continue to be relegated to the wall behind the couch or to the foot of the bed. There seems to be a lack of understanding as to the kind of textile work that deems worthy of a museum or high end gallery showing, regardless of it being “representational” or “abstract” or “conceptual” or “technically masterful” or “naive” or “outsider.” In the NYT, Maureen Dowd recently wrote: “Art is meant to explore all the unattractive inner realities as well as to recommend glittering ideals. It is not meant to provide uplift or confirm people’s prior ideological assumptions. Art says, ‘Think,’ not ‘You’re right.’” While I love the idea of a supportive industry as much as the next person, this isn’t reality in the world of art and design; it seems, however to be a given the world of “quilters.” And this is the painful line. This is where we push. And it’s uncomfortable and it’s not for everyone. An artist has to ask why he/she is compelled to explore a specific subject and medium. And if we aren’t asking ourselves WHY we are working with cloth and in the quilt form — What is the narrative pulse? What is the compulsive heft? — then it isn’t craft. It is crafting. Be willing to critique and be critiqued. Be willing to push and then push harder. And if you don’t know what this means, then read and read more. Find your peers. And then work and get rejected and question yourself, your impulses, and then work again, often for no other reason than you Can’t. Not. Do. This. Work.

  9. I actually believe that shows like Quilt National, Quilt Visions, etc. continue in a "quilt" rut. I do not believe that just because it is fabric it must be presented in a certain way and I certainly do not believe it must be pieced. Art is a continual exploration. I think quilters get stuck in their preconceived ideas of the traditions from which the form originated. I would love to see more expansion of different approaches. It would bend and intrigue the mind.

  10. I'm having some difficulty with the 'resource book' some folks are talking about. In the context of original art it seems counter-productive to the argument when at any time one is allowed to use a public domain photo as a reference. Is this not the very same thing people are gnashing teeth about?