By BRUCE HELANDER September 27, 2023
Ricco/Maresca, one of America’s leading outsider art galleries, initiates their fall art season with a wonderful show titled “Sewn Together: The Converging Worlds of African American and Boro Textiles.” The display, on view through October 21, 2023, explores the connection, distinct ancestry, backgrounds, cultural context and shared commonalities of quilted designs, which can appear as a seemingly haphazard construction that relates to modern abstract designs in terms of their historical significance and artistic expression. Five years in the making, this exhibition offers the visitor a rare and enjoyable selection of utilitarian swatches of recycled materials that are not only striking in their character and patched designs but upon close inspection, bring to mind prominent contemporary artists who share a similar sensibility. Early painterly works by Philip Guston come to mind, as well as works by Paul Klee, Frank Stella, Hans Hofmann, Tony Berlant and Louise Nevelson, among others. Famous artists who also integrated geometric shapes in their works include Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Bridget Riley, Robert Morris, Josef Albers and Mary Corse, among others.
The popularity of quilts for use as bed coverings served the dual purpose of decoration and function. During the nineteenth century, ‘quilting bees’ gained remarkable popularity as a social gathering during which remnants of fabric were cut and shaped and pieced together into a design. These were not fashioned by artists or designers, but were a communal effort, most often sewn by local housewives, that perhaps benefited a neighbor, for instance. A “bee” is another word for a party or social occasion, and in this case, it’s a quilting party, thus it was called a “quilting bee” including the buzz! The communal collective would sift through scraps of used material that had a preexisting pattern or color. Many of these early compositions were designs within a circle that sometimes incorporated a dazzling repeat arrangement. These may have been the very first pattern artists, whose delicate craftsmanship is now commercially collected and hopefully used. There have been a handful of contemporary artists who utilized the concept of pattern in their work, including Robert Zakanitch, the grandfather of the pattern and decoration movement of the 1970s, as well as others, most recently Christopher Wool, who silkscreened repeat patterns in black and white of simple fences or repeat fabric designs, which were on view during his Guggenheim retrospective in 2014.
Another example of artists whose work uses patterns and has quilting characteristics is African artist El Anatsui, who recently showed in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Biennial, cleverly pieces together hand-cut fragments from recycled tin cans and signs that eventually are cut up into small multi-faceted geometric square shapes and “woven” together with thin wire to produce a wavy quilt-like design that is installed directly on the walls.
One big surprise apparent in this fascinating exhibition is how remarkably picturesque these weathered and worn quilt surfaces are, still holding their own unique aesthetic presence while presenting themselves unintentionally as precursors of constructivist-oriented fine art. Created centuries before the “discovery” of incorporating idiosyncratic geometric designs into contemporary art, which later were manipulated into arresting simple square compositions from artists like Josef Albers, these vintage quilts have achieved museum distinction and are now finally celebrated today.
The idea of using a bedspread is an ancient custom and is referred to in some of the earliest written sources, such as the Bible: “I have decked my bed with coverings of tapestry.” First came the invention of cloth thousands of years ago by the Egyptians in the first dynasty, which naturally expanded to wearable items that logically evolved into everyday things like blankets, which were as beneficial for keeping one safe from insects as they were for keeping you warm and cozy. Boro textiles originated in Japan—‘boro’ means ‘tattered rags—and can mean patched and repaired clothing and bedding. It is specifically from rural farming communities and was born out of necessity due to limited resources. Adaptively re-using patchwork materials extended the life of worn-out fabrics that otherwise would be discarded. Boro quilts were created primarily for serviceable purposes and their development reflects the practicality and ingenuity of the Japanese rural population during difficult times; and as works of art they are an appropriate aesthetic sidekick to African American rustic quilts.
In the past, American quilts have played a significant role in documenting and preserving their creators’ culture and experiences. Remarkably, during slavery, the Underground Railroad quilts could also serve as coded messages to guide enslaved people to freedom. The idea of a patched quilt having an encrypted code embroidered into a pattern in clear sight of the enemy is a story of intrigue and intelligence and a clever will to map a clandestine route to liberty. Many of these textile compositions must have captivating stories behind them that will remain a secret forever, but the remarkable designs continue to be outstandingly innovative and starkly beautiful and, in this case, thankfully saved for posterity and protection.
At the end of the day, it’s a fine and respected curatorial position to reconstruct history with evidence of singular utilitarian-based creativity regardless of circumstance or a specific narrative, or for that matter a former mindful choice for keeping warm. But the inherent exquisiteness of this amazing retrospective with an interesting common denominator pictorially overrules whatever previous roles these pieces of hand-sewn cloth had initially. In this memorable show, the metamorphosis of adaptively and imaginatively reusing disparate ragtag materials brings together all the elements necessary for engaging and masterful crafted works of art at first designed as form following function.
Concurrent with Sewn Together, a curious one-person show of hand-drawn compositions by Leopold Strobl that have a remarkable, honest portrayal of stark landscapes accented by shaded forms that seem to lurk out of nowhere with absorbing skill. WM
Bruce Helander is an artist who writes on art and is a member of the Florida Artists Hall of Fame. His most recent book is “Chihuly: An Artist Collects” (Abrams, Inc.). He is a frequent contributor to numerous publications including The Huffington Post and Forbes.view all articles from this author