Saturday, February 28, 2004

The Quilts of Gee’s Bend

Bars and string-pieced columns - by Jesse Pettway c. 1950sThere are some museum exhibitions that almost from the first seeds of their conception are destined to great success. And thus I will reveal in the second sentence that I will join the chorus of art critics, writers and curators across America who have lavished nothing but praise on “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend,” currently on exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC until May 17, 2004.

But in addition to the visual power that this exhibition brings to the viewer, I believe that it also teaches several lessons that I think have so far been missed, or perhaps avoided, by all the reviews and articles that I have read about this show. I will thus concentrate on those aspects of this ground-breaking show, but first a little background.Housetop – center medallion - by Gloria Hoppins c. 1975

The Quilts of Gee’s Bend display the craft produced by the women (mostly) of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, a very isolated, small African-American community in southwestern Alabama. As one of the quilters put it herself at the press preview, “the road ends in Gee’s Bend and there’s nothing else past us.” Descended from the former slaves of two area plantations, the inhabitants of Gee’s Bend (who call themselves “Benders”) have been historically an agricultural society that was geographically isolated and nearly self-sustaining at a bare survival level through agriculture.

And the women of Gee’s Bend not only plowed and planted and worked in the fields alongside their men, but also reared large families, cooked and kept house and made beautiful quilts; not as art, but out of necessity. These quilts first began to emerge outside Gee’s Bend in the 1960s, but are only now making a true impact across the rarified upper crust of the fine arts world; a world usually too pre-occupied by what’s new, rather than “discovering” the art of common people such as the wondrous ladies of Gee’s Bend.

And because the quilts were created out of necessity, and driven by the availability of material (a torn shirt here, a worn out pant-leg there, etc.) their designs grew out of practicality, rather than a conscious attempt to deliver art. This practicality, plus the physical constraints of making a quilt, then unexpectedly drives the designs of these quilts towards an astounding visual marriage with modernist abstract painting. But not by design, and not by intention – but by a combination of necessity, natural design talent and availability of materials.

Whodda thunk it? Art abstraction without art theory.

Chinese Coins” – variation - by Arlonzia Pettway, c. 1965 Ignore the fact that they are quilts, look at the exhibition and the Gee’s Bend quilts’ designs immediately “pass” for abstract paintings that can be absorbed into the modern abstract genre without a second thought. But unlike the work of abstract painters, schooled or browbeaten into art theory by curators and art critics, the quilts’ original designs come out of a “homegrown” and highly developed collective talent for structure, design and color. So much for “teaching” and force-feeding art theory.

“The quilts,” said Arlonzia Pettway, one of the quilters, “were made to keep us warm.” Art faculties all over the world should make a note of this.

The quilts are also now teaching us powerful lessons, not only about art, but also about American history, art criticism and political correctness.

The New York Times dubbed this show one of the “ten most important shows in the world,” and art critics who one would imagine would rather have their eyes poked out with a blunt butter knife than hang a quilt as “art” in their post-modernist flats have all lined up to applaud this show and connect the bridge between craft and fine art for the quilts of Gee’s Bend.

Is this honest art criticism? Are we applauding the artwork, or are we applauding the quilters?

I submit that they (and I) are doing the former not only because some of us recognize the visual power of the craft, but because we are also completely enthralled by the latter. Once you meet the beautiful, serene, elegant and honest women whose hands created these quilts, you cannot help but realize that there are no losers in their success.

Mary Lee Bendolph is 67 years old, and she responded to one of my questions by saying that when she was eight years old, her mother sold the quilts as cheap as $1.50 and even Mrs. Bendolph has sold them as cheap as $5.00. These days, an Arlonzia Pettway or Mary Lee Bendolph quilt can go for as much as $6,000, as the fame of the quilting community spreads around the world.

“The Good Lord provides,” they both say. You don’t hear that very often in a hoity-toity art gallery or museum.

Gee’s Bend is certainly not the only quilting community in the United States, probably not even the only African-American quilting community in the South, and as beautiful and historically important as the quilts are, they nonetheless fit right into the well-known “secret language” of visual arts among African Americans in the South – Gee’s Bend is a tiny, but important, component of that language.

I don’t think that this is a language that has been clearly understood by mainstream critics and curators so far, as it is a traditional language – far from the giddy, rarified atmosphere of contemporary art. Seldom is anything traditional in the radar of today’s art scene. And thus, this is a traditional visual arts language that has been largely ignored by most high brow art critics and institutions, so preoccupied and focused on what’s new, rather than what’s good.

It is thus ironic, given the Civil Rights history of the quilters, that the quilts of Gee’s Bend suddenly cross the art segregation line between craft and art; in fact a bridge that seldom a “craft” has crossed before, and also present an insurmountable dilemma to art critics and curators worldwide, as this is a show that would be suicide (because of today’s political correctness) to dislike via a bad review.

The quilts force tunnel-visioned art critics and curators to look outside the latest “trendy” videographer or back-lit photographer with mural sized boring photographs. This is an unrecognized accomplishment of this show.

And I also submit that these works should no longer be boxed into a segregated label of “African American art” or “fine crafts” or whatever – they are simply brilliant examples of what common people, without art theory, without labels, without “isms”, without agendas, without grants, without endowments and without college degrees can deliver: sublime fine art.

Great American art.

The Quilts of Gee’s Bend is on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art from February 14 through May 17, 2004.

See historical photographs from Gee's Bend from 1937-1939 here. By the way, most of these photos are from the collection of the Library of Congress and taken under Federal Government sponsorhip; therefore, if you like any of them, you can actually get them directly from the Library of Congress at a great deal!

Buy the catalog, books and CD's about the Quilts of Gee's Bend at Amazon or through the Tinwood Alliance. You can also buy the video through the Corcoran here and the catalog here.

Voices of Gee’s Bend: A Gospel Brunch - Sunday, February 29, 2004 at 10:30 am.
The Cafe des Artistes on the ground floor of the Corcoran is celebrating the exhibition The Quilts of Gee’s Bend with a special Gospel Brunch featuring vocalists from several of the choirs of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. The pricing for the Gee's Bend Gospel Brunch is $23.95 for adults and $10.95 for children under 12 and includes general admission to the museum. Reservations are now being taken for seatings at 10:30am, 12 noon or 1:30pm. Please call 202.639.1786 to make a reservation.

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