Recently I exhibited in a solo show at the Newport Art Museum. In an adjoining gallery there was a solo show of a woman painter. Next to each of my quilts there was an “artist’s statement” about the meaning and motivation for the work. This information was solicited from me by the curator. Next to each of the paintings was a small card reading dimension, medium, and date. I was struck by this difference. Painters never give “notes for understanding” for the viewers; quilters nearly always do, especially in group shows.
No matter what style When art is representational, the artist and viewer share many elements of a common language. One may not “get” the story completely correctly – a man leading a woman on a donkey traveling in a forested part of a European landscape may be the Holy Family en route to Bethlehem, or they may be peasants on the way to market. While it is clear that there is a forest, a donkey, a man, and a woman, and that we can infer something about weather conditions, time of year, age of the people, there may well be more. Allegorical, historic, or religious meaning is clear to a viewer only if she shares a cultural context with the painter. The exact meaning of things and their relative importance depends, then, on this shared context. The job of an art historian or curator is to discover and explain this context. The artist often gives a hint with a revealing title “Mary and Joseph” or “The Woods Near Dresden” or “The Fight into Egypt.”
Representational painting exists in another context where we can evaluate its purely artistic aspects. Is the red cloak the correct color? Were the pigments hand ground or commercially produced? Is that dot of red placed in a good position within the painting to enhance the total composition? Is the modeling of the folds stiff or masterful? Some of this information can be evaluated and appreciated by a naïve eye; some of this requires education into the elements of technique and style. One needs to learn a codex of new words that designate and clarify these “purely artistic” elements of the painting. Still, the naïve viewer can appreciate the delicate beauty of the woman’s face without knowing that her line of sight exactly follows an important diagonal alignment within the composition. The “story” in representational art is accessible or can be imagined. Whether it is a “successful” painting or not is independent of the ability to present a story.
When painters moved away from representational art into abstraction and then on to various nonrepresentative styles, there was not always a “story” apparent in the picture. In fact, with action painters and abstract expressionists the painting became a sort of souvenir of the artistic process, the artistic mood. The paint often did not designate or refer to anything outside its own physical existence. Instead of a “story” there was a “secret”. What was a viewer to do now? The art critic’s job expanded from uncovering and explaining the “story” and evaluating the technical mastery of the artist to becoming a medium who translated what he saw into another language. This language described visual cues and clues that were accessible to just the very few. Paintings’ stories became completely self-referential – the painting was about painting or about gesture or about color or about minimal purity. A limited few understood the newly evolving codex. Most viewers had a “where’s the beef?” reaction to a great deal of contemporary art because they were looking for a “story” that painters were not interested in telling anymore. A new myth arose of the painter as explorer and hero venturing ever farther off the edge of the storied world into an ever thinner ether of self searching for something unique and new to “say” but said in a language known only to the artist and guarded by the artist.
“Getting” this new art was a measure of the sensitivity, intelligence and possession of esoteric knowledge, or pure guesswork as to what it really was up there on the gallery wall. An industry of critical reviews, art magazines, retrospectives, heavy books, even movies attempted to interface between the obscure workings of the artistic mind and the public. Perhaps this is not so very different from the need to know the Bible to understand art produced in Medieval Christian countries so that the image can be correctly decoded.
So, where do we as contemporary quilters come into this? Contemporary quilts emerged in the mid 70’s after much of the innovation and exploration in painting was running its course. Quilting came out of a complex past itself – the completely geometric exploration of grid based block designs (although many of these geometric patterns had symbolic and/or narrative subtexts); the pictorial elements of appliqué; the memorial, celebratory or friendship quilts which often included text, biblical quotes, personal messages, dedications. The historic quilt existed in more than one dimension and carried “artistic” elements and often a “story.” In fact, the “story” in each quilt is such an important part of historic quilts that the contemporary quilt is expected to carry a story as well.
This experience that quilts hold a “story” is, I believe, the basis of an expectation that an artistic statement (telling the story) belongs with art quilts when they are displayed. The tradition of “show and tell” of quilt guild meetings expands into the artist’s statement on the wall next to the quilt or accompanying the photo of the quilt in the book. The contemporary quilt world includes “lay” quilters coming out of the guilds and bees and the “art” quilters who have passed through formal training at an art school. There is a blending of these two traditions that can be seen in many quilt shows and show catalogs and collections of art quilts. Very often a statement about the individual quilt, the quilter’s process, inner motivation, special techniques, and intention toward the viewer are solicited and displayed alongside the exhibited quilt or on the same page as the printed photo of the quilt.
A SAQA open discussion via email about my experience elicited seventeen responders who felt that quilters should save statements about their work for an artist comment book or limit information to title, dimensions, date on the wall. Twelve respondents felt that there was something significantly valuable in being able to read artist’s explanations of a quilt simultaneous to looking at it. Two felt undecided. I will close with two quotes from these pro and con replies.
“Bravo! This is one of my soapbox topics. I see the artist’s statement as one of the regrettable but persistent little archaic ties that bind us to the traditional quilt world and its modus operandi just as securely as any mother’s apron strings. Honestly, regardless of medium, I have always felt a well-chosen title is all the statement a viewer needs to start to interact with a work.” - Alison Schwabe
“I have to say, I find the artist’s statement to be a great conversation starter. I don’t find it archaic or even see it as being connected to the quilting world in a negative way. I can’t see how the artist giving a brief statement could take anything away from the work itself. The back story adds a great dimension to the viewer’s experience (if the viewer wants to read it.) In fact, I wish paintings included statements as well—especially when the artist doesn’t even give the piece a title.Maybe artists working in other media can learn something from us instead of us constantly trying to change ourselves to fit into the ‘art’ world.” - Kate Themel
My conclusion is if we want to be considered serious artists, our work should stand alone on exhibit just as painting, prints, photographs, and sculptures do. My personal sense is that a piece of visual art should first of all be an aesthetic, visual experience. Additional information is just that: additional information.
But, maybe that “additional information” is the point after all for most viewers. It brings back the older tradition of the “story” in a piece of art. Is it too elitist to demand that a work of visual art be evaluated and appreciated first of all visually? Would narrative, polemics, persuasion be better expressed in another way if the visual components are not uppermost in the mind of the creator?
SAQA member Judith Larzelere is a full time art quilter. She lives in Westerly, Rhode Island and her web site is www.judithlarzelere.com.