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Art Review : Avant-garde Exhibit Takes Quilts Beyond Cozy Images

November 05, 1986|KRISTINE McKENNA

Just as steel and concrete stand firm with brawny masculinity, fabric, needle and thread are thought to be of the feminine gender.

An exhibition on view through Nov. 16 at the Municipal Gallery in Barnsdall Park suggests that this need not necessarily be the case. Jointly curated by Penny McMorris and Michael Kile, "The Art Quilt" showcases mixed-media fabric pieces by 16 artists--two of them male--that takes the lowly coverlet a long way from the ladies room.

Essentially, these artists paint with fabric, and though their work is considerably less intimidating than identical imagery rendered with canvas and paint might be, these are still fine artworks, pure and proper. Fabric may have an intrinsic quality of comforting familiarity, but these quilts are nothing you'd choose to snuggle up with when bedridden with the flu.

Take a cursory glance at this slick exhibition and one is forced to dismiss cozy notions of women gathered together like a coven of benign witches for a quilting bee. These quilts explore Art Issues--geometric abstraction, sexual politics, color theory, self-portraiture, new applications of traditional materials and the role of folk art in contemporary culture--to name a few.

And yet, for all the weighty thinking going on, "The Art Quilt" remains a profoundly serene exhibition. There's a marked shortage of anger and gloom in these works; there must be something calming about working on a quilt.

Entering the exhibition, one runs smack into Yvonne Porcella's "Snow on Mt. Fuji," a massive agglomeration of beautifully patterned quilts hung in such a way as to simulate a gigantic kimono. Porcella's imaginative updating of tradition sets the tone for the entire show.

Nancy Crow's "Lady of Guadalupe" employs colors and patterning typical of South American textiles, yet before examining it carefully, one would probably describe Crow's handiwork as an early American quilt--Amish perhaps. This is, of course, not what she's up to at all.

Similarly, Terrie Hancock Mangat begins with folk art, then puts a radical spin on the ball. Her work is easily the wildest stuff on view, and she almost succeeds in cramming the entire history of the 20th Century onto a bedspread in "American Heritage Flea Market," which is as fantastically bizarre as a painting by the Rev. Howard Finster. Combining charms, jewelry, cheap souvenirs, badges bearing political slogans, sequins and ribbons alongside images of Elvis Presley, Barbie & Ken, Mickey Mouse and just about every other pop icon you can think of, Mangat's flea market is funny, sentimental and sweet.

Collaborative pieces by Gayle Fraas and Duncan Slade have the hallucinatory quality of murals by the L.A. Fine Arts Squad. In "Marsh Island," we find three fabric panels quilted with images of sea, sky, stone and sand and set into plywood panels assembled in the manner of a small Oriental shrine. Ruth McDowell shows a quilted lily pond with appliqued lilies drooping off the surface, while Deborah Felix's "Discussing Plans for the Future" depicts a man and woman sketched in a manner reminiscent of Matisse.

Heading the formalist quilt contingent is Michael James, whose controlled forays into issues of geometry and color owe a sizable debt to Frank Stella. Slightly more austere--and traditional--are works by Pauline Burbidge, whose quilts center on industrial designs that put one in mind of an ad for Burlington Mills.

The most cerebral piece in the show is an untitled quilt by Veronica Fitzgerald; this large, insanely detailed geometric abstraction vibrates with the optical hum of an Op Art painting.

For the record, the only overtly feminist piece in the show is Joan Schulze's "The Marriage: Woman/Man," which involves two quilts suspended from the ceiling, one partially obscuring the other.

Most of these artists have been plugging away at this sort of work for quite a while and the fact that they remain relatively unknown suggests that the quilt has yet to gain admittance to the hallowed halls of high art. Oh sure, old quilts have been patronizingly rescued from the craft camp, but old art made by dead artists is a comfy thing for critics and historians to deal with. It stays in whatever slot it gets slotted in. But young artists making quilts--pretty quilts to boot--that present themselves as works of fine art? It's enough to send the guardians of the avant-garde (who pride themselves on being open-minded) running for the Maalox.

Above left, Terrie Hancock Mangat's "American Heritage Flea Market" is part of Barnsdall Park exhibit. Below left is Gayle Fraas and Duncan Slade's collaboration, "Marsh Islands."

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