Surface Tension: Contemporary Quilt Art

Surface Tension: Contemporary Quilt Art
James Howe Gallery, Vaughn-Eames Building
Kean University
1000 Morris Ave, Union, NJ

Nov. 1-22, 2006
Sandra Sider: Juror & Guest Curator
Exhibit Website

Reviewed by Rayna Gillman

Surface Tension, which opened November 1 at New Jersey’s Kean University Howe Gallery is, on the whole, a strong, thoughtfully presented exhibit of contemporary quilt art with a focus on surface design. In selecting work for this show, Sandra Sider’s goal is twofold: to select quilts that “would represent the diverse range of surface design” and would also stand on their own as works of art. For the most part, she has succeeded.

Because a survey is, by nature, a comprehensive view, a few pieces included in the show seem to be there because they include techniques that rounded out the survey, rather than because they are strong works of art. However, while not all viewers would agree with every choice, the juror’s talk about how she juried the show provided invaluable background that enabled those who attended to see the work with additional depth and perspective.

The roster of top-notch artists use airbrushing, collage, batik, beading, burning, cording, crochet, cyanotype, discharge processes, digital imagery, dyeing, embroidery, felting, rubbings, gel transfer, monoprint, painting, photo transfer, resist processes, screen printing, shibori, solvent transfer, stamp printing, and stenciling.

Despite the variety of styles and processes, the show is remarkably cohesive. To begin with, there is sufficient space between the work so that no piece encroaches on another and the viewer can see each work without distraction.


Surface Tension – Installation

In addition, a great deal of care is taken to hang pieces together that speak to each other, a key ingredient in a strong exhibit.

Schulze and Sellers

Joan Schulze – Three Bowls and Sally Seller – Half

While these two pieces are entirely different, the vessels as well as the colors and shapes connect them. Each surface is spare in its own way: Joan Schulze’s minimalist “Three Bowls” uses digital printing and drawing with toner and stitches; Sally Seller’s “Half” uses beads with restraint. Both are beautiful in their simplicity.

In another example of conversation between pieces, Linda Dunn’s “Shadows” is paired with Arlé Sklar-Weinstein’s “Through the Eyes of My Father I: Fish Vendors.” The dialogue here is in the sense of memory, transparency, and the use of images transferred to cloth. Weinstein uses sheers to accomplish the layering over her father’s vintage photographs; Dunn layers both text and old images through a variety of transfer techniques to create transparency. Both pieces imply a story and it is up to the viewer to fill in the blanks.

Dunn and Weinstein

Linda Dunn’s Shadows and Arlé Sklar-Weinstein’s – Through the Eyes of My Father I: Fish Vendors

Two of the show’s pieces are felted. Liz Axford uses silk organza and wool felt to create “Text and Subtext,” a knockout piece with the texture of ancient documents. She uses stitches effectively and mysteriously as calligraphic marks in this contemplative piece.


Liz Axford – Text and Subtext

Axford detail

Liz Axford – Text and Subtext – detail

Bonnie Wells uses felt differently in her asymmetrical and vibrant “Reclamation.” The piece is unified by her repetition of circles, varied in color and scale, dyed and discharged.


Bonnie Wells – Reclamation

Another standout is Marilyn Gillis’ “Reflections from a Blue Moon.” She combines shibori and clamp-resisted fabric dyed by Elin Noble and Judy Robertson to create a serene work elegant in its simplicity.


Marilyn Gillis – Reflections from a Blue Moon

Less is more in Pat Owoc’s understated “Niche.” Disperse dyes on polyester create luminosity and two simple, graceful lines speak eloquently.


Pat Owoc – Niche

Nancy Erickson’s “Interiors #8: Private Dancer” is the initial piece on the gallery wall. The oldest piece in the exhibit, it may have historical significance as the first in her painted animal series, but its size and color are jarring and looked out of place. Fortunately, hanging it nearest the entrance minimizes its potential to overwhelm the other work.


Nancy Erickson – Interiors #8: Private Dancer

Linda Colsh’s poignant “Iron Lace” and Elizabeth Barton’s abstract “On the Latch,” both thought-provoking pieces in neutrals, hang between two bright bookends, a jarring juxtaposition.


Center pieces: Linda Colsh – Iron Lace and Elizabeth Barton – On the Latch

Mildred Thornhill Reynolds’ “The House is on Fire” is festooned with crocheted yarn and a three-dimensional stuffed sofa. While the piece deals with her daughter’s home burning to the ground, a tragic event, the piece itself seems oddly comical and overly cute.


Mildred Thornhill Reynolds – The House is on Fire

On the other end of the wall, Toni Disiano’s “Three Blue Blocks” provides balance, but her three little screenprinted squares are lost in the off-balance composition. From a distance, they have little impact.


Toni Disiano – Three Blue Blocks

Lisa Chipetine juxtaposes an abstract collage of sheers, discharged fabric, and other items with a very traditional background. It is not clear what the title “Trapped” refers to, but the heavy, white-on-white trapunto’d traditional background does not work with the airy collage that sits on it.


Lisa Chipetine – Trapped

However, in the scheme of things, these are minor. Despite the difficulty of mounting a survey show, this exhibit is successful because:
1) The juror has a clear idea of what she wants to accomplish.
2) The show has an overriding focus.
3) The walls are not crowded.
4) The work is hung with regard to how it relates to its neighbors and there is a balance of size and shape.
5) The pieces are varied in style, color, technique, and voice, but they are presented cohesively.
6) Each work speaks in the individual voice of the artist who created it.

“‘Surface Tension’ is an important historical document for the art quilt movement. The tight focus on use of contemporary surface design techniques shows an accomplished use of the media.”

18 Responses to Surface Tension: Contemporary Quilt Art

  1. lisacall says:

    This review states:

    To begin with, there is sufficient space between the work so that no piece encroaches on another and the viewer can see each work without distraction.

    But in looking at the image of the installation shot I believe the quilts (all about 35″-40″ wide according to the exhibit website) are between 12″ and 16″ apart. In my opinion this is far from sufficient spacing between the work.

    When calculating running footage for a show I was told to take the width of my work and double it and that would give the necessary space (not that you would necessarily hang everything equal distance apart but that you need as much “white space” as you have art).

    This work doesn’t come close to that ratio. It looks very crowded in the image and I can’t imagine it doesn’t look the same in person – although I haven’t seen.

    I have seen plenty of other shows where large work is hung only a foot or so apart and it does not look good.

    So I disagree with the reviewer. Although I am not a curator – I’d be interested in what curators feel about this installation.

  2. Rayna says:

    Lisa – the pictures do not really do the exhibit justice. There was really sufficient room between the pieces to allow them to breathe. Trust me, I get very grouchy when things are too close together.

  3. lisacall says:

    Rayna – am I correct that these 40″ pieces are only about 12-16″ apart?

    If that is true I do not agree with you – in this photo the pieces appear crowded to me as they do in some of the photos on the exhibit website.

    I would be curious what the running footage is of the walls used for this exhibit vs. the running footage of the artwork itself.

  4. Laura Jones says:

    I enjoyed reading this review a great deal as it had pertinent points and clear photographs to highlight them. However, I do object to any reviewer who puts in statements such as those for Lisa Chipetine saying that the trapunto background doesn’t work with airy collage on top of it. This is a subjective statement; we -the reader/viewer/visitor might not agree, and we don’t have the artists statement so that we can make our own value judgement. It is the reviewer’s own opinion, which is fine, but it cannot be a statement of fact.

  5. Rayna says:

    Laura – you are right – it was a subjective statement, which is true of all reviews. The reviewer’s response to work in any exhibit; as to any play, book, or piece of music in a concert, can’t help but be subjective. Even professional reviewers! This is why if you read multiple reviews you will rarely see unaimity about a particular work of art, movie, or exhibit. And while the movie may get good reviews from everyone, one reviewer may think a particular scene is corny and another may think it is an important emotional center of the movie. No different with art exhibits. Some pieces worked better for this reviewer than others. If you go to the website at the top of this page, you will no doubt find that some pieces work better for you than others. The piece you refer to is an interesting piece and the juror selected it. It simply did not work for me. De gustibus non disputandum est.

  6. lisacall says:


    This seems to be a recurring theme in the comments to these reviews. Any negative comment about the work is termed subjective and therefore irrelevant. No one has yet said “but you said this was a good quilt and that is subjective – I need the artist statement so I can decide for myself”. Interesting.

    Obviously the review is written by the reviewer from their point of view. But hopefully in a good review the reviewer describes the work and gives a reason for why the piece was not successful. In the case you point out the reviewer states that a combination of heavy and airy techniques was not successful. You don’t need an artists statement to make this determination. The work is a piece of visual art and if it can’t stand alone as visual art then there is probably something amiss.

    The purpose of a review is the bring to light some of these issues, to put the work into a framework or context for the viewer to then go and make their own evaluation. Noone said you have to agree with the statement. And the statement was not made without explanation or in malice.

    Just like restaurant reviews and movie reviews, you may not agree with everything you read in an art show review. But to say it is subjective and therefore objectionable is ridiculous. Over time you might find reviewers you agree with more or less just as with any part of life that is regularly reviewed. The review process is part of the art world. And while the reviews are written for the viewing audience, the artists can learn something from them also.

    Laura – Would you prefer we never review the shows at all? Or say only nice-nice things? Are we artists or are we just pretending?

  7. Sandra Sider says:

    From the juror/curator:
    BOTh Rayna and Lisa are correct concerning the spacing of the quilts. The four quilts in the first image in the review are definitely spaced closer together than all the others, considering their scale. My idea was that these four sensational pieces would pull viewers into the exhibition–they are seen on the far wall as one enters the gallery. (In the review, the image does not show the space to the left, which leads into a corner, opening up the wall. Liz Axford’s quilt, with its airy texture, hangs by itself on the wall immediately to the left, opening the space even more.)

  8. Susie Monday says:

    Not to beat the same drum too loudly, I agree with Lisa’s comments. One of the most frustrating things for me as a quilt artist has been the oversensitivity some people have about criticism. We all need to get clear that words about our work as just that, subjective opiinions, hopefully from an informed, educated, experienced perspective that does give that subjectivity standing in the world of art. (And Rayna certainly meets those criteria). It is not “mean” to state that something doesn’t work. The artist can disagree, others can disagree. Or agree.

    For example, with the piece by Toni Disiano, I also feel that the composition of this particular piece calls for larger square, or perhaps a different intensity or value of color. It may be that the artist is working with the idea/the problem of emphasis with a small detail to balance a large space — that is a valid design problem. But, I agree with Rayna, as least in as far as I can tell in the photo provided, that the compositional problem was not solved — posed, yes, solved, no.

    This does not mean that the artist is a bad artist, a bad person or an unskilled craftswoman. Our work is not us. We are not our work. We are striving to create work that is powerful, communicative and visually interesting. Criticism that deals with elements of design, with technical issues, with communication blips, even with tone misteps — all are valid. And it takes courage to speak out as a reviewer for all to read those opiniions.

    I think the comments about this also has to do with women wanting to support one another emotionally, a goal that is sometimes at odds with with truthtelling. I try when I receive a critique, to remember that the only way my work will grow and improve is to learn from my shortcomings. I appreciate criticism, even if I don’t agree with it, but especially when I do. And as hard as it is, I am learning to separate my feelings from my wisdom in this area.

  9. Omega says:

    I found this to be an excellent review, making me look more at the individual illustrations, and making me wish fervently that I could see the show itself. It is illuminating to read so clearly what the exhibition’s intention is, and whether the reveiwer believed the outcome to be successful. I believe that more analytical reviews of exhibitions as well as of individual works are necessary for us all to understand what is involved in the design and purpose – philosophy of both areas.

    Comments make us look closer to see if we agree or not, and often to examine areas which we let slide for whatever reason. When we offer our work for exhibition we are implicitly courting feedback, and I have found that it is the negative reactions which often lead to more self-examination and growth in my work. This is probably the case because the negative comments tend to have more analysis attached than the positive ones.

    I found the comments in this review to be considered and constructive, and it would be most interesting to read what the artists themselves have to say in reply. It is a rare treat to be able to read the replies of curators and exhibitors to reviews, and I hope that this grows on this site.

  10. Rayna says:

    Susie — when the editors of this site edited my review, one of the things they left out was my suggestion that if you rotate Toni DeSiano’s piece 90 degrees to the right (a quarter turn) so that what is on the right is then on the bottom, it becomes a different piece. The large dark part anchors the piece and the three blue squares become a focal point. In fact, this abstract piece communicates a whole ‘nother story — at least to THIS viewer.

    I am sorry that this was omitted from the review; it is very much what we do in our crit group when something one of us has is just not quite THERE. And very often, when you rotate a piece, the composition changes and it emerges as a much stronger piece.
    Try it yourself by rotating your computer screen, if you can. I’d be interested in what you think.

  11. We’re been looking at other reviews in other publications, and they don’t discuss, in main, “suppose this were less blue?” “how about we elongate it twice as much vertically?” “let’s rotate it 90 degrees”.

    It’s a valid crit group point, yes. That’s what crit groups do.

    What reviews do is talk about what is, rather than what might have been. Rayna’s review doesn’t need to crit-group the pieces. It needs to discuss them as is, and it does that quite ably.

  12. Sharon R says:

    Since Rayna posted the “turn a quarter” concept for Toni DeSiano’s piece, I had to respond. Personally, this is one of my favorite pieces, at least as photographed. I like the concept of finding a surprise in the screenprinted images only when closer to the quilt. And I feel turning the quilt 90 degrees makes it seem like there’s a living room couch on carpet and 3 pics on the wall — not nearly as interesting an image for me as the current positioning.

  13. Caron says:

    As an artist I have created pieces which could be similarlily reviewed to Toni DiSiano’s. I am usaully aware of compositional errors, as they are often pointed out to us by cri t groups and friends. Sometimes I make the necessary corrections, but, sometimes, that error was added by my sub-conscious, and perfectly recflects a complex emotional state I have otherwise been unable to express. Those errors, as glaring as they may be to others, stay. Come whatever critiques may bring, I know my art is a reflection of my flawed existence. Sometimes I can make it look prettier than it is, and sometimes I don’t want to.

    Why do we assume as viewers of art the pieces placed before us should all be well composed and always “pleasing”? Isn’t art supposed to challenge us?

  14. lisacall says:


    I’ve been pondering your comment for a while now thinking about how to respond.

    I’m not really sure what you are asking.

    Are you saying that you want to make art but don’t see why you should put in the effort to make it quality art?

    Or that you are making art that is purposefully trying to challenge our expectations for what art can be?

    Or something else.

    One thing that I think about in terms of my art is Sturgeon’s Law (wikipedia article here), which states ninety percent of everything is crud. If you believe this might be true then how this applies to art is an interesting thing to think about. I certainly know I’ve made my share of art to fit into that 90%.

    Another thought on the subject (and of receiving poor reviews in general) is an article on the blog Art & Perception here. It talks about 4 pitfalls that can lead one astray when making art. Here is a snippet from the article:

    Blaming the Audience – Finally, when one of our works of art fails, the temptation is to blame the audience. They aren’t perceptive enough, they aren’t smart enough, they don’t have the right education, or perhaps they simply aren’t sensitive enough to respond correctly to your work (which you feel is absolutely superlative in every respect). If only we had the RIGHT audience, we assure ourselves, our work would get the recognition and acclaim it (and we) deserves.

  15. Caitlin says:

    Wow. This was not only a helpful review which raised issues I need to address in my own work, but the comments have been very informative as well. For now all I can contribute is my thanks to all concerned. I’m working towards a group exhibition of 5 diverse textile artists next year, and will continue to read everything posted here – it’s an education.

  16. Caron – I don’t agree that art issupposed to challenge us – rather I feel it should speak to us, engage us in some way, but challenge, not necessarily. I am just as happy to find a piece of art which I find speaks to me in a way that I feel delight, or perhaps some kind of intrigue or insight, pause for contemplation perhaps, I own at least one piece that calms me whenever I look at it – challenge does not necessarily have a role in any of the things I look for in “art” And as for composition, I think you are underrating the importance of good composition to the overall impact of a successful piece, claiming it desplays emotional state doesn’t change a bad into an aceptable composition. The elements of design are the tools by which the artist creates and speaks to his audience – if you aren’t speaking a common language communication is absent or confusing at least. The elements of design are totally separate from skill in workmanship or technical alacrity.

    Lisa – I’m with you – my first look at the installation caused me to think what a shame they were so crowded together. I have to doubt that seeing them in flexh would have corrected or changed that feeling. Rayna may indeed claim the shot didn’t do justice to the quilts pictured, but that is quite a different issue from the spacing one.

    And finally, we come to one of my pet peeves – the artist statement. I think a successful artwork speaks to a viewer whether or not there is an artist statement to help the viewer know more about what was on the artist’s mind at the time of creation. Same goes with the average floor talk by a curator. A succesful work does not need a statement about its symbolism OR about how the artist made it, designed it and so on. Catalogues, IMHO, can serve the artist well with some relevanrt bio and general info about a body of work, but please, let the work speak for itself. And, then I think as Lisa mentions, we will see that maybe up to 90% of art (quiltart included) is less than art – perhaps crap is a bit harsh, but “Nice Decoration” comes to mind. And like Lisa I have produced a good percentage myself down the years.

    Thanks to Rayna for a thought porvoking review. And thanks to Sandra for what seems to be a fairly comprehensive survey exhibition. I wish I had been able to see it, but at least though this site I can sample some of the effect.

  17. wendy feldberg says:

    Indeed, this is a great discussion. Thank you for the well thought-out responses.
    I would like to wade in about the relationship between the Artist Statement and the notion of the work being allowed to “speak for itself”. Robert Shaw, art quilt guru, suggests that it is good if artist try to help both the the viewer and the curator understand the work from the artist’s point of view, and that an A.S. should provide some guidance. I have come to believe that he is right. Not exactly in the vein of “to understand all is to forgive all” but in order to situate the work’s origin in the artist’s own personal world and art sub-culture. To understand and be understood one should share a common language and in this sense the work that “speaks for itself” needs cultural interpretation sometimes. Enter the sensitive and knowledgeable curator and reviewer, not to mention viewers and peers.

    As a viewer (and an artist), I hope for a curator and reviewer to approach art work first from an understanding of what the artist is trying to achieve or convey -even to take appreciation and interpretation futher than the artist herself might have understood or dared…I expect that the work displayed will not be to everyone’s taste and that the artist might have to school tendencies to hypersensitivity and fears of rejection… I think it is fair to look for evidence from reviewers et al that efforts have been made to understand the work displayed and so to establish a reliable context for their expression of taste. As a result of good curating, one hopes “unready” work would escape both display and review.

    2 cents from Wendy (preparing for a show and getting anxious…)

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