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Fabric of Americana

'Patterns of Progress: Quilts in the Machine Age' at the Autry Museum covers a wide range of styles.


One of the most dazzling art shows in the area at the moment still has a questionable pedigree, by the fickle standards of the art world. Is quilt-making, lavishly celebrated in the show "Patterns of Progress: Quilts in the Machine Age" at the Autry Museum, an art form, a craft, a functional heat-seeking activity, or all of the above?

Wherever you place it in the pantheon of human endeavor and on the scale of what's hip, quilt-making is a great American tradition, and prescient of art trends of the future. Wandering through this rambling, cross-historical sampler of quilt-making, you can't help noticing the links to 20th century art movements such as op art, pop art and minimalism.

In a curious way, quilts may have foreshadowed the fabric of contemporary life. Ours is, after all, a large, patchwork culture and society, made up of increasingly small fragments sewn into, it is hoped, an integrated whole. Are quilts symbols of the American way?

Such questions may or may not besiege a visitor to the exhibition. It's also quite possible to simply admire the handiwork and the physicality of the quilts on the walls. They're made in a variety of ways, with older examples done entirely by hand, and with some contemporary works by quilt-makers who insist that doing it by hand, if laborious, is the right and pure way.

Pieces placed at the beginning of this wending exhibition illustrate the historical sweep of the show. Latter-day quilting bliss is represented by "Me and My 404 Blues," Caryl Bryer Fallert's 1987 self-portrait, with the typical kaleidoscopic patchwork and a touch of gentle irony--recurring images of the artist as a happy seamstress at her machine.

Mary Parks Lawrence's "Floral Basket," circa 1870, with its echoing motifs, and the "Star Medallion Quilt" of 1825-50 come from a time before sewing machines had proliferated and liberated women from the grueling task of needlework. In those labor-intensive early days, quilts were the result of much time and patience, big as the Montana sky.

Then came the revolution, when sewing machines allowed increased production and more elaborate designs. This transitional period of quilting is enhanced by display cases filled with antique sewing machinery and vintage advertisements glorifying this new phenomenon.

Some of the older pieces appear contemporary, and vice versa. Amanda Elizabeth Garman's 1878 quilt "Child's Hands" shows rows of multiple images--you could call it pre-Warholesque--of her daughter's tiny hands. But, unlike Warhol, Garman was no darling of the Manhattan art orbit: She hailed from Kill Creek Community, Douglas County, Kan., a township that sounds like a frontier poem.

Sandi Fox, a contemporary quilt-maker from Los Angeles, is a firm advocate of handmade quilts. Her quilt, "The People, The Place," pays tribute to her municipality, be it less than humble, with a mosaic of local cultural palaces such as the Hollywood Bowl and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

On another front, Ernest Haight, represented by the striking "Falling Blades," gained renown in the field in the '70s by creating a new method of using machines and countering the then-popular shift away from machinery in the quilting world.

The intricate patterns of some quilts suggest the kind of dizzying optical effects of op art, that sensory movement of the '60s. Designs seem to pulsate in pieces such as "Happy Time of Leaves and Berry Blossoms," by Ella First Kill Brown, and Mabry Benson's "Edie's Antique Stars," based on an 18th century quilt.

Erika Carter's "Interiors" features overlapping modules of autumn leaf-like color, reminiscent of a Hans Hoffman painting. Jacquelyn Hughes Mooney, from San Diego, makes quilts with a looser, more ragtag energy compared with the sometimes finicky obsessiveness in the tradition. And the frontier lineage of quilt-making gets a twist, a plea for equal time, in Carolyn Mazloomi's portrait "Nat Love: African-American Cowboy."

No one in the show tampers with tradition quite so willfully--if lovingly--as Joe Cunningham. He calls one piece "The Perfect Existential Object" and another "This Is a Quilt, Not Art," whose title paraphrases Magritte and deals head-on with the anti-quilt prejudice in the art scene. Cunningham skews the persnickety symmetry common to the medium and mixes conventionally colored patchwork with oddly shaped blocks of pure color, all underscored by fanciful stitchery.

This is an inspiring show, with an inherently diverse perspective on the medium at hand. Rebels and traditionalists coexist peacefully here, in true, well, patchwork fashion. If this ain't art, give us another name for it.


"Patterns of Progress: Quilts in the Machine Age," through Jan. 25, at the Autry Museum, 4700 Western Heritage Way in Griffith Park. Gallery hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Tuesday-Sunday; (213) 667-2000.

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