27 October–30 December 2022
[En anglais] So much has changed. So much is changing. So much still needs to change. Art history today looks nothing like what I have studied thirty years ago—the white cis-male benchmark that implicitly filtered everything we saw and thought; the institutional conservativism that safeguarded it. What back then seemed unquestionably cohesive appears, today, fragmented. What seemed whole is now shattered.
How to look. When to speak. What to say?
Everything must be renegotiated: pasts, presents, materials, voices, and formats.
But this is all good news.
What was conveniently called the evolution of art—a wholly inorganic, fully masterminded, exclusivist art-historical device—not only concealed the key roles played by other cultures and minorities but also erased important parts of sociocultural assemblages that by their essence challenged any form of hierarchy, status quo, and separatism. As such, the evolution of the art metanarrative in the West has also produced an inescapable codification of media and materialities, some of which have been fetishized and others trivialized with equal intensity.
The art vs craft (read male vs female, white vs BIPOC, and so on) dichotomy is only one of the detrimental hierarchical forms of discrimination operated by the metanarrative. Its influence endures; even today, paintings and sculptures, regardless of their artistic merit, are more readily accounted for as art than is a vase or a chair, which according to tradition is implicitly degraded by the practical function that it serves in everyday life. This and many other absurd art quasi-dogmas have disconnected and erased histories, peoples, geographies, materials, and agencies, thus also producing very partial and skewed readings of the world we live in.
A case in point is offered by the Jacquard loom. In 1804, Joseph Marie Jacquard invented a device that used punch cards to mechanically encode reproducible woven designs. He thus both revolutionized the fashion industry and laid the foundations for computational sciences. As the mathematician Ada, Countess of Lovelace, observed in 1843, “The Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns, just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves.”
Despite this important technological genealogy, the art-historical metanarrative has kept textiles and high art carefully separate just as it has marginalized computer-generated art—at least until very recently, when NFTs showed that it could be monetized in highly lucrative and cost-effective ways. The metanarrative of Western art history essentially is a capitalist story in which the canon has been entirely defined by collectors and dealers that art historians have often conveniently courted to validate the presumed naturalness of artistic evolution.
Textile, quilting especially, is embroiled in a very female history of what, to the metanarrative, is classified as craft. For centuries it has been a form of expression popular with BIPOC cultures, and it has always materially disrespected notions of technical dexterity and skill that pertain to painting. Folk art, outsider art—any conception that quilting might have fallen into until recently has belonged to the margins, the lesser, the limited.
It is in this context that The New Bend, curated by Legacy Russell (artist, writer, and executive director at The Kitchen, New York), currently on show at Hauser & Wirth in Los Angeles, makes a substantial contribution to the history of quilting as a radical form of political art. The title of the exhibition openly, and cleverly, references a group of quilt-making African American women working on former slave-owning plantations in Gee’s Bend, a hamlet in Alabama. Influenced by both Native American and African textiles, the quilting made in this region departed from the geometrical modularity of previous approaches and embraced a much freer, more improvisational slant to composition that incidentally echoed modernist painting. It is for this reason that, unlike other quilting traditions that have remained anchored to folk art/outsider art (subcategories in Western art history), the Gee’s Bend group has enjoyed exposure in important museums, such as the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Whitney, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This, too, is a problematic aspect—the artworld can incorporate the Other only when it sees itself reflected in it. Russell’s exhibition, however, goes well beyond: it aims to break that mould, to stretch the boundaries of what quilting can be and do beyond current trends. It recovers the ground-breaking, political charge of the Gee’s Bend quilts—their ability to challenge the status quo, blur boundaries, and make the marginalized (cultural, racial, and societal) visible again, while offering opportunities to contemplate new aesthetics that make room for a non-canonical art history to emerge.
The contemporary artists presented in the exhibition all have different involvements with the Gee’s Bend quilting traditions. Some, such as Eric N. Mack, Tomashi Jackson, Basil Kincaid, and Dawn Williams Boyd, are of Gee’s Bend ancestry. Others, such as Zadie Xa, Sojourner Truth Parsons, Anthony Olubunmi Akinbola, Eddie Rodolfo Aparicio, Ferren Gipson, Myrlande Constant, and Qualeasha Wood, are, according to Russell, in conversation with the Gee’s Bend tradition as they explore contemporary departures from it. Featuring many queer-identifying, BIPOC artists, alongside white practitioners (many are also men), the exhibition is extremely diverse in scope and committed to queering anything in its wake.
For instance, through her quilting practice, Xa, a Korean Canadian artist, brings expressive motifs of feminist shamanism in the Korean tradition together with ecological and sci-fi influences. Williams Boyd, who astutely describes her quilts as “cloth paintings,” directly addresses social injustice, misogyny, and racial violence to deconstruct the idea of history as a unitarian narrative. Aparicio challenges the very notion of what a quilt can be in works, such as Holbein En Crenshaw (Washington Blvd. and Crenshaw Blvd., LA, CA) (2018), in which he deliberately avoids square or rectangular outlines and includes materials such as rubber, sulphur, bits of trees, and paint residue. Jackson’s The Three Sisters (2021) layers images of intergenerational groups of women to emphasize the interconnectedness of communities and geographies. To this end, she also employs a range of materials that are not commonly associated with quilting, such as dust and soil from the Parrish Art Museum grounds and paper potato bags. Such heterogeneity and lack of conformity to material prescriptions are important; they map new aesthetic languages and storytelling approaches rooted in new materialist conceptions of interconnectedness.
Rachel Eulena Williams infringes on the sanctity of the canvas by tearing and cutting its surface to produce a sculptural effect that blurs the boundaries of media and hierarchization. Wood dramatically updates conceptions of quilting by using a Jacquard weave to digitally quilt computerized images through queer craft. Manipulated with Microsoft Paint and embellished with internet avatars, her work produces new visual languages of identity formation for today’s cyberworld.
Whereas the lower gallery at Hauser & Wirth dazzles with the alternation of engaging three-dimensional installations and wall-mounted pieces that stretch the media boundaries of quilting, the upper floor proposes a sombre and focused end to the exhibition. Dedicated to the work of Ferren Gipson, a London-based artist and author, this section powerfully anchors all the other works in the show to the idea of labour. Subtle in essence, even minimalist at times, and yet very impactful, Gipson’s quilts foreground hand stitching and seams (the structural foundations of quilting) as the unequivocal and indelible mark of a kind of labour that has often been erased, along with the peoples who performed it, by official histories. No narrative, no figuration, just traces of the human livingness that, through close proximity and contact, is incarnated in every small gesture—the sedimentation of irreplaceable and idiosyncratic forms of commitment, resilience, and endurance. Gipson’s quilts are a radical and powerful reflection on the very art of quilting, its past, and what it can bring to contemporary discourses. The perfect end to a thought-provoking and downright timely show.