A Sense of Scale Juror's and Curator's Statements
I am a decorative arts curator who is also in charge of collecting contemporary objects. Although my academic training was in the material culture of Colonial and Victorian America, my collections at the Newark museum range from Colonial silver to Venetian glassware to hand-made artworks known as craft. This includes a very large collection of textiles and needlework, among them a celebrated quilt collection begun by my museum’s founder in 1918. Nearly thirty-two years after starting my job here in Newark, I still approach every object, regardless of its age or medium, through the lens of material culture and the decorative arts. If an object is also a work of art, then it is a bonus. But it must be a good object in my eyes, first and foremost: it must reflect its craft well and demonstrate that the maker understands that process.
The premise of this year’s SAQA exhibition, A Sense of Scale, contrasts large-scale quilts with small-format works. This allowed me to sidestep a personal bias, which was a great relief. As a quilt collector, my instinct is to prefer the large-scale “bed-sized” quilts, in spite of the fact that I know they were never intended to function. In the same way, I collect only contemporary ceramic vessels, even non-functional sculptural vessels. This is because the interpretive link between the functional and non-functional is important to me in terms of allowing the viewing public to make those connections. Fine art has no such restraints, but I’m not a fine art curator and have no desire to be.
It sounds elementary to say it, but when I look at contemporary quilts I look for the same things that I look for in historical quilts: color, texture, pattern, stitch. Handcraft has no particular sacredness for me; skill does. For modern quilts I add content, although it is not required. The nice thing about craft is that beauty can be an end in itself.
Of the thirty-two entries selected for the 2012 exhibition, just three really fell into the narrative mode. Denise Seavey’s Young Patriot, Linda Colsh’s Deny & Ignore, and Teresa Barkley’s Freedom From Hunger: Cabbage and Potatoes. These use very different approaches to narrative, each telling a particular story, and yet they all celebrate the tradition of patchwork and stitchery. Colsh’s quilt crosses over into another category that is always a draw for quilt artists: landscape.
The six landscape quilts I selected also ranged widely, both in scale and in literalness. Anne Helmericks-Louder’s Outlaw: Jackrabbit offers a dazzling, large-scale, sensory overload of fabrics and textures. Regina Dunn’s Beach Fence, M.C. Bunte’s Western Expanse, and Rosalyn DeBoer’s Panorama present quieter, more contemplative small-scale landscapes, with possible implicit narratives. Ann Loveless’ Seasons manages to take an age-old theme within the landscape tradition and imbue it with a fresh intimacy that separates it from the crowd. Interestingly, the close-up, nearly abstracted quality of Seasons also offers a convenient segue into a category that emerged in my selection, one that I think of as “nature close-ups.” Jean Renli Jurgenson’s Venice Alley is a particularly striking urban landscape, creating a sense of place and suggesting potential narrative in a highly abstracted, claustrophobic setting.
Barbara Lange’s large scale Monochrom III – Prey offers a similar kind of intimate view of nature, again with an implied narrative and a startling use of color and texture. Intentionally or not, Lange evokes highly detailed Japanese textiles and nature paintings of the Meiji era. Alleyn Renli Ecob’s Old Rusty
Scythe, Kathleen McCabe’s Four Succulents, and Stephanye Schuyler’s Leaf Seasons are visually very different, but each makes expert use of color and stitch to create vivid, in-your-face impressions of nature that can be appreciated with a single glance or studied in detail. By contrast, Betty Busby’s Diatom
2 presents us with a microscopic view of a natural world normally hidden from sight, and Jill Le Croisette’s Sunstars on a Stream is a full-on abstraction, only alluding minimally to the physical reality of the image in the artist’s eye.
The use of abstraction in which things are still recognizable is a time-honored tradition in American art (going back to Arthur Dove’s 1910 Abstraction #3, in the Newark Museum collection, considered the first abstract painting made in America). Ann Turley’s Orbs in Transition, Andrea Limmer’s Gray Matter, and Regula Affolter’s Finance Brain/in the mind’s eye are all groups of small works that use abstraction in this hybrid way. Objects are there to be seen but are presented in a way that emphasizes their shape and color and renders their literal forms secondary. Joan Dyer’s Forest Dancers, Janet Root’s Attachments 1, 3, 4, and 5, and Cynthia St. Charles’ Red Nebula push the level of abstraction one step further – each in a strikingly different way in terms of technique and textile choices. Dyer’s work seems closest to Le Croisette’s abstraction of nature, and yet they have very distinct personalities.
Barbara Schneider’s Reflections, Mingled Waters, Var. 22 and Aafke Swart Steenhuis’ Cornfield can only be interpreted outside of their abstract graphic qualities because of the titles, which immediately make them understandable to a viewer in a way they might otherwise not be without these defining labels. Lyric Kinard’s Family Ties is, of course, an implicitly narrative piece, but rendered so as to obscure the story to the viewer, or possibly to force the viewer to impose their own interpretation. Again, it is the title that suggests the narrative, rather than any inherent imagery.
Alison Schwabe’s Flowlines, like Cornfield, makes the viewer look for something recognizable, but ultimately demands to be appreciated purely in terms of color and line. Ellen Piccolo’s Steps and Carol Churchill’s Tiny Bubbles Make Me Happy use titles to underscore imagery in otherwise geometric abstractions. Tommy
Fitzsimmons’ Full Circle, Ruby Horansky’s Untitled and Casey Puetz’s Centricity all riff on the geometry of the circle and the square, skillfully arranging color and quilting patterns to create effects far beyond what mere paint on canvas could achieve. Terry Jarrard-Dimond’s Plus Blue and Kerri Green’s Large and In Charge approach most closely the traditional geometric patchwork of the nineteenth century without sacrificing a contemporary spirit that speaks eloquently of modern abstract art and color sensibility.
For all their diversity of style and technique, the quilts in this year’s SAQA exhibition share one common thread: quality and artistic integrity. Their use of textiles and stitchery honors the traditions of quilters who precede them, without sacrificing originality or personal vision. These are not artworks that could be created in any other medium: their “quilt-ness” is essential to their artistic impact. This is what the contemporary art quilt ought to be.
— Ulysses Grant Dietz
Senior Curator and Curator of Decorative Arts
The Newark Museum, Newark, New Jersey
A Sense of Scale is an unusual exhibit for SAQA. Instead of specifying a particular theme to be used as the subject matter of the entries, artists were asked to explore the design principle of “scale” in the creation of large and small quilts. Consequently, the exhibit contains a wide range of sizes: the largest quilt is 90 x 90 inches; the smallest is 12 x 12 inches. To further develop the principle of scale, the smaller works are grouped into “installations” consisting of at least three pieces created and arranged by the same artist.
The exhibit space also imposed some unusual restraints. The exhibit will be displayed at the International Quilt Festivals in Houston, Cincinnati, and Long Beach in 2012 and 2013, and it will be mounted on the outside walls of the SAQA exhibit space. The very specific amount of linear space available ultimately limited the exhibit to 32 works.
SAQA artists accepted this unusual challenge and responded with 119 entries representing a wide range of styles and subject matter. In his final selections, juror Ulysses Grant Dietz preserved this variety while creating a cohesive collection. I did not envy him the task of making these decisions! I hope others will find his essay as instructive as I do.
I thoroughly enjoyed this experience as managing curator of a SAQA exhibition. It was enlightening to find out what goes into putting together such a show, and it was a pleasure to work with so many competent and pleasant people.
Although it has some unusual aspects, A Sense of Scale is completely consistent with other SAQA exhibits in the ways that matter most: the high quality of the work submitted, the thoughtful coordination of the selection process, and the excellence of the final collection.
— Anne Hiemstra