Assembling Narratives: Quilting Impulses in Contemporary Art at Dorsky Gallery Curatorial Programs
April 11 – June 27, 2010
11-03 45th Ave
Long Island City 718 937 6317
Six artists who make works that resemble quilts have been gathered together at the Dorsky Gallery in Long Island City in an exhibition called Assembling Narratives: Quilting Impulses in Contemporary Art. The show, curated by Donna Harkavy Flavia S. Zúñiga-West, draws from a diverse group of mostly women who are using with quilting techniques in a variety of ways.
Traditional quilting is a communal activity; made in quilting circles or “bees.” It offers rich associations: family, tradition, home, bed, hand, the individual and their relationship to the community. Quilts were made for a significant time in a woman’s life and usually displayed the creative thrifty-ness of materials; the idea that things must be re-purposed and useful for generations to come. Traditional quilts also offered women an outlet for astonishing creativity in the piecing together of materials, as evidenced by the magnificent quilts of Gee’s Bend. As quilts began to move off the bed and onto the wall, it was inevitable that they began to be seen in relationship to painting and drawing.
It is a rich field for an artist to explore and contemporary female artists began to incorporate elements of quilting in the 1970s as both a way to empower the materials and techniques of craft and to reject the “male dominated” materials of traditional painting and sculpture.
Faith Ringgold is a pioneering figure in this genre. Her work from the 1980’s combines elements of story telling, painting and quilting in her “story quilts.” On display at the Dorsky Gallery, No More War Stories Quilt and No More War Stories Part II records the memories of African American wives and mothers of GI’s from the Vietnam War. The stories are written in vernacular, by hand along the borders of the quilt, which also includes tie-dyed and camouflage fabric. The stories are poignant, fragile, tender and personal, which matches nicely with the feeling of the artist’s hand in the writing and visible stitching.
Sabrina Gschwandtner uses strips of 16mm film to make her intricate and labor-intensive translucent quilts. The films are painstakingly sewn together in a traditional strip quilt pattern and are shown on a giant light box. Upon close inspection, you can make out tiny figures and images in the strips and the resulting quilts have a rosy coloring of decayed 1960’s film. Strip quilts were an exceptionally thrifty way to make use of even the smallest scrap fabric. Gschwandtner also used a salvaged material: the films are educational shorts deaccessioned from the Fashion Institute of Technology that cover topics such as the history of fashion, textiles and (appropriately enough) quilting. The titles, Quilts in Women’s Lives and Once Upon a Sunny Morning refer to the films from which the quilts are constructed.
Donna Sharrett’s large decorated doilies are composed of a laundry list of materials–rose petals, hair, lace, pearls, rings, silk, old pennies, bone–much of which has personal significance to the artist that is not necessarily conveyed to the viewer without reading her artist statement. The rose window composition and variety of materials has a Victorian feel. The titles of her two works, Forever Young and The Long Black Veil, hint of a personal tragedy.
John Sims, the only male artist in the show, investigates quilting as a community activity and his African heritage by using African fabrics and black squares in a checkerboard grid. Each black square features an embroidered black square, and the title, My Square Roots, brings home the pun. He sought out the help of an Amish quilting group to learn the technique. Sims is also the only artist who combines quilting and video: a projection of another checkerboard quilt is projected onto the floor. But this one, maddeningly out of focus and too dim for the space, was less revealing. HyperQuilt was composed of images of 13 other quilts plus some images of the artist. According to Sims’ artist statement, it was created by a mathematical process relating to p and a spiral number sequence with traditional Amish colors assigned to the numbers, although this was not evident in the projection.
The most stunning and interesting work in the exhibition was from Anna Von Mertens. Unlike the other works that were made by assemblage of materials, this work is one solid piece of fabric that is dyed to read like a landscape. The luminous hand-dyed color goes from a dark blue on the top to a golden yellow strip at the bottom, like the first pale light of dawn in an utterly featureless landscape. White stitches of varying length and thickness arc over the dark sky like time-lapse photos of the movement of the stars. The title, Dawn (Left Illinois for California, April 15, 1859) refers to an inscription on an 19th century quilt made by two pioneer families as they are about to head west for California. The stitching refers to exact star movements, plotted by a computer, in the hours that led up to dawn on this date. The work embodies all the hope and fear of a significant moment in time without depicting the story in a way that is genuinely satisfying.print