Surface Tension: Contemporary Quilt Art
James Howe Gallery, Vaughn-Eames Building
1000 Morris Ave, Union, NJ
Nov. 1-22, 2006
Sandra Sider: Juror & Guest Curator
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.
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.
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
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.”