Thursday, April 28, 2022

Sanford Biggers at the Speed, part 3

I've written about the Sanford Biggers show in two previous posts.  Time for a wrap-up.

The piece I liked best in the show was a Tumbling Blocks quilt, with a minimum of paint, overlaid with a dramatic horizontal flame of orange-and-black chevron print.  A little bit of black paint made a curvy outline over the old blocks, a sort of half-silhouette of a key shape.

Sanford Biggers, Quilt 17 ( Sugar, Pork, Bourbon) 

My second favorite was a collage of old quilts, plus a section of curvy stripes made from sequins on a black painted background.

Sanford Biggers, Transition

I liked these quilts because they thoughtfully used large patterned shapes to contrast with and complement the smaller patterns of the vintage pieced quilts.  In both cases there was artistry in the composition and care in the construction.

Sadly, I did not see those features in most of the quilts in the exhibit.  The artspeak at the entrance to the gallery tells us "the quilts signal their original creator's intent as well as the new layers of meaning given to them through Biggers's artistic intervention."  I searched in vain for the new layers of meaning in most of the pieces in the show.

As I mentioned in my first post about this show, I walked in the door as a Biggers skeptic, based on a bit of past knowledge of his work, but would have liked to like this show.  Instead I was surprised at the strength of visceral discomfort that hit me in only the first two rooms of the gallery; all those beautiful antique quilts deliberately messed up with paint and tar to no apparent purpose.  Perhaps it wasn't the defacing per se that bothered me -- I've been known to repurpose old quilt bits myself -- but the slapdash quality of the defacing.  

I went to the museum with two friends, one an artist, one not.  When we compared notes all three of us just wanted to get out of there fast.  I wasn't there long enough to discover exactly what made me so unhappy, and for that I apologize.  

The show will be up through June 26.  I'd love to hear what other people think of it, whether I'm alone in my unease.

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Sanford Biggers at the Speed, part 2

More comments about the Sanford Biggers show.  Not everything in the show featured messy paint applications.  One of the quilts, stretched on a wood armature, had dramatic holes, bordered with black organza to give a striking shadow illusion.

Sanford Biggers, Ecclesiastes 1 (KJV)
A similar see-through illusion appeared in an assemblage of six framed quilt sections, with some two-layer areas where the semiopaque frosted plexiglass was cut away to reveal a quilt about a quarter-inch behind.  

Sanford Biggers, Nyabinghi, detail below

Two of the quilts, both Tumbling Blocks, were overlaid with sequins and lame, glittering under the gallery lights.  No paint drips on these, just fabric collage.  

Sanford Biggers, Ooo Oui, detail

Sanford Biggers, Ooo Oui

Several pieces were made by stretching quilt sections into wood-framed constructions.  The first one we saw as we came through the exhibit was intriguing, made in part from American flag-motif quilts. 

Sanford Biggers, Reconstruction, detail below

But the next four or five, the same concept with slightly different construction shapes, all kind of looked alike, and the fact that they were hung too high on the wall to see most of the surfaces made them easy to walk past without stopping to look. 

Maybe I would have liked them better if all the "construction" pieces had been hung together for comparison, but they weren't.

I'll give you the wrap-up report in my next post.  

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Sanford Biggers at the Speed, part 1

The current blockbuster show at the Speed Museum is by Sanford Biggers, an African American artist whose shtick is to paint on top of antique quilts.  I have been somewhat familiar with his work for several years; in 2017 one of his quilts was in another show at the Speed, and I wrote about it in a blog post.  

I found some things to like in that piece, but I had two big reservations.  First, Biggers made a big deal out of the false story that quilts were used as secret signposts along the Underground Railroad.  Second, it hurt to see a beautiful antique quilt in fine condition used as a canvas.  Surely he could have found a beat-up quilt to paint on!

So I approached the new show with some preconceptions, but resolved to keep an open mind.  I lingered over the artist statement at the entrance to the exhibit, interested to note that he has backed off from his fake-history Underground Railroad statements.  In 2017 the wall tag read "Some quilts were used as signposts for safe houses..."  Five years later, we read "he was intrigued by the heavily debated narrative that quilts in some way doubled as signposts..."  That's progress, I guess, and maybe in five more years he will acknowledge that this narrative is not heavily debated at all, just carelessly repeated by ignorant people.  

But enough nitpicking, let's look at the quilts.  I didn't keep a tally, but it seemed that most of them were in pretty good condition and were simply painted upon and hung on the wall without additional support.  Some were in poor condition, and augmented by patching in pieces from other quilts, or collaging swatches of unquilted fabric, including several kimono pieces, on top. 

Sanford Biggers, Hat & Beard, details

Sanford Biggers, Hat & Beard

Most of the quilts followed the same recipe: start with a quilt or quilt collage, paint loosely over the top, let the paint (or sometimes, tar) drip and blob.  Some of them had intricate and meticulous stenciled designs, but almost always some area of deliberate mess.

Sanford Biggers, Quilt 30 (Nimbus), detail below

I can't describe the whole show in just one blog post, and probably not even in just two.  So stay tuned and I'll have more pictures and thoughts soon.

Friday, April 1, 2022

Voice from the past

If you were reading my blog (or if you were reading the New York Times) during the summer of 2020, you may remember the silly series called Designer DIY that ran off and on in the Times, in which famous fashion designers came up with adorable sewing and craft ideas for readers to do at home.  Mending and embroidering garments were popular repeat subjects, but making flimsy "jewelry" and handbags also showed up, as well as making a dress out of a pillowcase.

One of my favorites was the feature in which you were instructed on how to embroider your name on your sock.  You were told to use an embroidery hoop, and here's a helpful drawing of work in progress:

from NYTimes Style section

You (unlike the artist or the editor) will notice, of course, that it will be impossible to put the sock on your foot, since the sides of the sock are now sewed together.

I came to love these features, because it enabled me to write snarky comments about how lame the ideas were, and more egregious, how awful the directions were.  If you have 15 minutes to fritter away on the internet today, you might want to read or reread these blog posts, guaranteed to give you lots of laughs.

The posts led to a bunch of comments from my readers, many of whom urged me to write the Times and tell them how awful the series was.  So I did.  Sometime in the summer of 2020 I wrote a long letter that spelled out all the things that they were doing poorly, and urging them to clean up their act.  

I wrote, in part: "If your purpose in this series is to win brownie points in the fashion community and give some designers a bit of free ink, then you have probably succeeded, especially among readers who don’t actually try to do the projects. But if your purpose is to give your readers projects they can succeed at and feel proud of, you are failing miserably. I suspect that the great majority of readers who do the projects are also failing miserably, which I can’t imagine is building warm feelings toward the Times.

"Perhaps things would work better if you let the designers come up with the ideas and let somebody who does actual handwork write the instructions. Better yet, let somebody who does actual handwork come up with the ideas too, so you could present projects that are doable and attractive." 

I received no response, until this morning!

When I found an email, saying "Thank you for contacting the newsroom of The New York Times.  We appreciate readers who share their feedback and help us report thoroughly and accurately.  Someone will read your note shortly, but because of the volume of notes we receive, we cannot respond individually to each one."

I am so gratified that someone will read my note shortly.

Meanwhile, if you want to embroider your sock, please use a darning egg, not an embroidery hoop.