Stitched and Bound is a biennial contemporary quilt show held in Perth, Western Australia. It has always been open to only state residents, and so, living outside WA as I have for some time, I usually can’t enter. So this year I was delighted to be invited to write the catalogue essay. To do that, I therefore got to preview images of all the quilts the jurors selected, which was great, since I felt sure I’d be unable to visit Perth while this show was hanging through september last. There were some very exciting pieces, and although I was a little underwhelmed by a few, I know there can be a huge difference in impact between a hanging quilt on a wall and a digital or catalogue image; and there are always a couple of delightful surprises on opening night. I’d have loved to see it, but anyway, now the show is down I’d like to share some of my impressions, a review in effect, which includes a few exerpts from my catalogue text, and several images posted with each artist’s permission.
All contemporary quilts and quilt-like objects have a common heritage in the traditional stitched layered textiles that provide warm bedding in many parts of the world. Our Australian wagga has several international counterparts, among them ‘britchy quilts’ in USA, ‘mantas traperas’ (scrap covers) in Uruguay, ‘boro futon’ in Japan, and more. Whether produced from salvaged textiles or made from all new fabrics, typically traditional quilts combine decorative elements with the utility of warmth. Utility and decorative values assume different priorities according to source, but in many countries today traditional forms of quilt making have given rise to a thriving contemporary art form, the ‘art quilt’, whose only function is decorative.
Into this modern fabric-based genre come additional elements from other major decorative arts: painting, drawing, printmaking, photography and urban graffiti, whose symbolic or representative imageries invite the viewer to engage with the artist’s personal observations and interpretations. A fine example of work combining these and more specific needlework traditions (below) was Marjorie Coleman’s piece, “The Tenants” 130cm h x 51cm w, in which the surface design of free hand stitchery considers, in Marjorie’s words, “what happens over time on a limestone wall in a public walkway”:
plus detail of Marjorie Coleman’s work:
Some of these quilts feature surface designs of paint, print or dye. Textural surfaces link them to low relief sculptures and carvings. Hand and machine stitch link them to other ‘needle arts’ including surface embroidery, spinning, crochet, knitting, and lacemaking. The themes and issues adopted by the individual artists also reflect what is on the minds of quilt artists elsewhere, and this ninth biennial exhibition, stitched and bound 2012, shows work typical of art quilt exhibitions generally. Several make social comment; there is beauty and ugliness; bemusement, philosophical contemplation, wonder and joy. Small details are set against some large concepts including strong personal convictions on current political and social and environmental issues. An exhibition such as this one highlights a major issue facing many contemporary art quilt makers: how to produce meaningful art in that zone of interplay between the whole heritage-of-the-quilt-as-bedcover-thing and the potential of the textile medium for significant contemporary art.
The allowable maximum dimensions were pretty typical – 200cm w x 300cm h – yet only three works came anywhere near those measurements, and the rest were a lot smaller. I wondered if is this a time and materials constraint? Or are WA textile artists just not tackling large projects? They’re not alone – its common elsewhere.
Nothing in the entry conditions required all works to hang on a wall, so I was glad to see at least one artist constructed her work to be displayed flat – below is Marianne Penberthy’s beautiful 20-part, 3D work, ” Perhaps Renewal”, 78cm w x 46cm h
Although art quilters come from different directions, many make a direct transition from traditional quilt making backgrounds, where technical excellence is most highly prized. For these quilt makers, pushing against the boundaries of traditional quilt making can be both liberating and occasionally bewildering, as here there are no rules and it would seem that for ideas, materials and techniques, anything goes. The wobbly lines and torn frayed edges on some of these quilts are not sloppy or inadequate workmanship; they result from artists’ decisions to work that way for reasons to do with their subject. Some artists chose to include irregular shapes and raw unfinished edges in their work, the most successful of which included Cherry Johnston’s “Open Circle” 95cm h x 100cm w:
showing front in full, and on the right showing part of the back including the edge.
Another piece with rough textures and edges, carefully planned and controlled, was Louise Well’s “It’s not just what you see…” 77cm h x 63cm w:
I loved this piece and would like to see it sometime. The title, which turned out to be entirely apt, intrugued me, as this is a design of bright colours glimpsed through surface slashes on a duller fabric. I didn’t need the artist’s statement which elaborated- “The hidden stories you hear by being in the right place and time, asking the right questions … amazing, wonderful and sometimes sad. This work is about 99 of those stories which have given me much admiration for the story tellers.” Art quilt exhibitions generally ask for an artist statement, but I often wish they wouldn’t; as a few well chosen words in a title can be the most eloquent ‘statement’ of all, and further, and poorly worded or windy artist statements are more distracting than valuable. IMHO.
The next point I am going to make is on an issue dear to my heart. When the first of these biennials was organised back in 1995, it was felt that if those WA quilters who were experimenting with non-traditional quilts as art works were to be encouraged to enter such a show, they needed to know the whole show was not going to be swamped by competition from the decidedly strong works being made by many artists in that medium from other states, some of whom were internationally prominent at the time. Things have changed – and with much strong work being done within Western Australia, I think textile artists no longer need this form of ‘protection’ from artists around the rest of the country. All West Australian artists work in some degree of isolation even if they live in their capital city, and anywhere else in the state they are certainly a large physical distance from other major population centres in the country. For people wishing to travel to see textile exhibitions, travel is expensive over large distances, although now the internet and paper catalogues help counter that to some extent. On the very rare occasions touring exhibitions do appear in Western Australia, they always bring new influences and spread new enthusiasm. But they are expensive to tour, and logistically demanding. I have always thought it rather a shame that the exhibition is only open to WA residents – for, by making it open to others around Australia, WA textile art lovers and contemporary quiltmakers could expect to see first hand some work from makers around the nation included in this now well established biennial. Greater competition from outside WA would only serve to encourage new levels of experimentation and innovation, by all practitioners of quilted textile art. The WAQA membership may comprise mostly traditional quiltmakers, but there is a strong segment of people learning and experimenting beyond the traditional, and within mainstream quilters there is quite a large segment of makers who, although they do not work these ways themselves, nevertheless have interest in what is happening in the contemporary field.