Musings on Photography

Gee’s Bend

Posted in Uncategorized by Paul Butzi on December 9, 2007

This past week, Paula and I drove down to the Tacoma Art Museum to see the show “Gee’s Bend – the Architecture of the Quilt”.

For those who aren’t up to speed on the world of quilting, Gee’s Bend is a small (about 35 square mile) area in Alabama, isolated in an oxbow of the Alabama River. Folks interested in the whole story (and the controversy surrounding the quilts and quilters) can be found in this wikipedia article. I don’t have any grasp of the details of the legal controversy and thus have absolutely no opinion on that.

Anyway, this show is the second traveling exhibit of Gee’s Bend quilts – not the first one that opened in Houston and then went to the Whitney.

So what did I think? I think some of the quilts are amazing. I don’t know, though, that I’d say that as a class, these quilts are “Some of the most miraculous works of art America has produced” (as was claimed for the first show). In fact, I’ll go one step further and say that, after reflection, I think some of the work I saw last week was, well, unimpressive. Now, remember that this is a different show, with different quilts.

One thing I that disappointed me, though, was the show itself. I think a much better, much richer show could be done by taking the same quilts and placing them in the context of the larger quilting world. Somehow I expected that along with the show would travel some educational materials that would form the basis for the guided tour the docent led us on. But either that wasn’t the case, or else the docent didn’t pay attention, because she clearly didn’t have a clue about the quilt world. I have an interest in quilting, and I’ve looked at a lot of quilts in person and a lot more in books, but I’m not even what I would call well educated. So when I think I know more about quilt history than the docent, that’s not a good sign.

I think the Gee’s Bend quilts are important, and many of the quilts are great. But I wanted more of the words of the quilters themselves, and I wanted the exhibit to not only help me understand these quilters and quilts but to help me put this quilt movement in the context of the broader quilting world. I wanted the show to show me more about how the conditions in Gee’s Bend influenced the quilts that got made, and how the geographic and cultural isolation resulted in a quilt style that diverged from the rest of the quilt world. And, sadly, I didn’t get that from the show.

The show also left me with the nagging suspicion that, to the art historians, the great thing about Gee’s Bend quilting is not so much that the quilts are great, or not great. It’s that there was this little unknown isolated backwater, and that people there were making art, and now it’s been discovered, and so the entire thing can now be subjected to the entire art-world deconstruction. There seems to be little excitement that the artists who created many of these quilts are ALIVE and can have discussions about motivations, materials, influences, and art-making. And, in those cases where the quilters are no longer alive, close relatives and artist friends of those quilters are still around. Is art history really so divorced from artmaking that it can’t see this?

And then, finally, one fairly dry observation: along with the dross, I saw some pretty fine art at this show, despite the rather disappointing curatorial work. Isn’t it interesting that not a single one of the artists attended art school, seems to have read widely on art theory, or spent much time engaging with broad overwhelming slew of images that confront us in daily life in our media saturated culture? That would seem to be food for thought for those who encouraged me to not isolate myself.

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  1. Ed Richards said, on December 9, 2007 at 5:25 pm

    > That would seem to be food for thought for those who encouraged me to not isolate myself.

    You do not have to associate with art critics to have a social life.:-) Unless this is a pretty unusual quilters group, a big part of quilting is social interaction. I bet that is what they would talk about if you asked them about quilting.

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