Saturday, 7 November 2015

Quilts in the White Cube! Can this be for real?

I had a very surreal dream this week. I imagined I went into a contemporary art gallery in the heart of Central London's gallery-land, to discover a huge white-walled room devoted entirely to quilts. Amish, Mennonite, Gees Bend, hexagons and log cabins were strewn across the display stands and draped on the walls, while aesthetic young men engaged in earnest art-speak with their smartly dressed Mayfair clientele.

Leola Pettway, Gee's Bend quilt, 1970

But wait... No, surely not, could this have been REAL

Indeed yes. Having shaken my head in a  previous blog about the tokenism that underlies even those fine art galleries that admit textiles through their hallowed portals, here is the White Cube, no less, giving itself over to a serious examination of "the rich symbolism of textiles and their political, social and aesthetic significance through both art and craft practice".

Alighiero e Boetti, La Forza del Centro, embroidery, 1990.
William Morris Pimpernel wallpaper, 1876

And there's more. Downstairs, filling the lower ground floor, the exhibition continues with textile works - embroidery, knitting, applique, rugs and carpet - as well as textile-related paintings, by modern and contemporary artists including Mona Hatoum (I studied her evocative use of embroidery with human hair for my degree, and there is an example here) and Alighiero e Boetti, whose embroidered letter-blocks are colourful and jolly, even though described as "metaphorically charged conceptual work".

Stirling Ruby, BC, fabric, glue and bleached canvas, 2015

The gallery write-up ticks many of the boxes used when referring to textiles: anonymous; domestic; quotidian; useful; decorative; pattern - words so often used in the Modernist past and even into the Postmodern anything-goes present as terms of belittlement and dismissal.

Yet here I feel they are terms to be discussed and explored, celebrated and enjoyed.

Rudolf Stingel, Untitled, oil and enamel on canvas, 2007

Boetti, the gallery claims, is "contesting traditional notions of authorship" by employing Afghan women embroiderers to execute his designs, while Hatoum's Rugs were made by Egyptian rug-makers, and an installation by Danh Vo is a "collaboration" with weavers in Mexico.

Sergej Jensen - and his mum - Untitled, handknitted wool on canvas, 2003

Sergej Jensen "commissions" his mum to do hand-knitting to his specification, but does not think to give us her name. (Mrs Jensen?) If one had the energy to embark on the well-worn debate of what distinguishes art from craft, that would be a fruitful place to start. 

Is it the case, then, in this exhibition of "This way for the craft, downstairs for the art"? Even here it's not so simple. The Gees Bend quilts makers are named, while others are labelled as "Unknown artist".  Artist! 

The quilts are amazing. They're in an art gallery. Losing the Compass is on until January 9, 2016. Go and enjoy them.

 Amish and Mennonite quilts, 19th and 20th century

1 comment:

  1. Thank you very much for the post on Hot Art in the Big Smoke!
    Not sure about the stepped display - the quilts looked very dead and lifeless and just wondered if were supposed to sit on them!
    Yes the old Art/Craft question… but did you tell these On Trend Hipsters that in America quilts have been Art for thirty plus years! ? xx