A Pattern Language: Michelle Grabner, Angie Wilson and Lena Wolff
CULT |Aimee Friberg Exhibitions, San Francisco
By LEORA LUTZ, AUG. 2014
A Pattern Language (which closed August 2nd) was a group exhibition featuring three women artists who are all investigating quilting and sewing as a conceptual vehicle for talking about larger issues such as gender, labor and community. The title of the show is lifted from the book of the same name by the DIY architect Christopher Alexander. Specifically, pattern language is a means of categorizing design practices within a particular rhetoric so that designers can build a vocabulary within a common language. And such is the case with traditional quilting. Many of the pieces in the show use recognizable quilting motifs, such as Double Wedding Ring, Blazing Stars and simple four-patch techniques. Other works conceptually reference the craft using fabric or textile innuendo rendered in fine art materials, such as painting, graphite or photography.
There is a rich history of American quilting dating from the late 1600’s that continues to this day. Shortly after the Constitution was written, religious revivalism encouraged family growth and living a solid, domestic life. The responsibility to uphold such moral values fell heavily on women of the household to harness skills that perpetuated a certain expertise within the architecture of the home. Desire to prove oneself and to express ones attributes as a master of botany, cooking, sewing and décor were paramount—time and effort consuming. Domestic art-forms such as quilting were private things, made by women of the household, but used by all members of the home and in a sense were a kind of story-telling. They typically illustrate the culture and life of the eras in which they are made, particularly pastoral, home and city scenes, floral motifs, fashion, war, hunting, sailing, farming, birth, slavery and death.
In light of the recent decision by the Supreme Court to award companies the right to deny contraception coverage for employees’ benefit programs, this exhibition seems timelier than ever. The exhibition A Pattern Language is not overtly political, but the subtle and embedded references reiterate the social struggle of women’s lives, gender identity and the often-times demoted history of quilting in fine art circuits. Not only is the work an exploration of visual patterning as the title suggests, but it conceptually brings to the fore issues that inform these artists’ practices.
On view is a selection of accessible signature works by Michelle Grabner, all in keeping with her practice to investigate the domestic realm, its social implications and its ever-present controversy as a place and a system. Her work looks closely at texture and reiterating the precision and labor embedded in the act of weaving or sewing. Untitled (red) (2014) and Untitled (black) (2014) are archival inkjet prints of woven fabric. The photographs are so detailed that they give the illusion of actual fabric under glass. Several other pieces are gesso that is either imprinted, carved or rubbed with woven or gingham fabric in order to create reliefs that are reminiscent of relics, as if cut frieze from architecture.
Her most compelling piece Untitled (dot tondo) takes on the guise of a rag rug. Rag rugs, also known as medallion rugs are woven objects made from strips of fabric, traditionally wool, denims or other heavy remnants from work-oriented garments. As the strips are concentrically aligned to make a growing ring, they are sewn with heavy thread or string which creates a swirling stitch. Grabner has replicated that stitch on the tondo using a black gesso field with white Flashe dots. Here the domestic object is rendered as a painting, making evident the inherent juxtaposition between the geometry in folk craft and formal abstraction in painting and how the two intersect as art forms.
This juxtaposition is most evident in Lena Wolff’s contributions to the show, which are modern renditions of traditional geometric quilting configurations called out in paper. With over eight substantial pieces in the show, the reiteration of Wolff’s process and the repeated imagery would have benefitted from being hung all together. If so, viewers could begin to draw connections between the shapes and their collective history more readily. For example, four of Wolff’s pieces feature the previously mentioned star pattern. One the earliest quilting patterns, stars were introduced to Native Americans by Christians, to which early Americans incorporated their own renditions that they already used in their own crafts. In A Pattern Language, Wolff delivers a similar approach by taking traditional motifs and rendering them in modern, minimalist collages. One such star is a stand-out however—Radiant Star at approximately 60” wide and rendered in birch. The materials mimic crown molding surrounding a room and the off-white shade is similar to the standard pale “Navajo White” used in rental apartments—a version of the color manufactured by almost every home-improvement paint fabricator. The collision between language and material drives the problematic implications of sewing and décor on all cultures of women.
Contemplating this eerie read of Wolff’s Radiant Star, a different piece by Angie Wilson is its partner. Entrance is a striking unconventional diptych located in the small black center gallery room with directed lighting. The dark room creates a night-time atmosphere surrounding the piece. On the floor is a dark hand-woven rug with a red slash running through. Above is a red woven tapestry with the shape of the house in negative space comprised only of the warp threads (warp threads are installed lengthwise on a loom). The threads draw the eye downward toward the rug, almost in contemplation, while the point of the house shape draws the eye upward in reverie. The piece is conceptually predictable, but unashamed about that—it’s presence a reminder of the roots in this exhibition.
Similarly, Wilson’s piece Traditional Queer Double Wedding Ring Quilt turns that tradition on its head. Using fabrics from feminine undergarments, the quilt is predominantly in pink, red and off-white tones. Wedding ring patterns are used in quilts created by a guild or family for a wedding gift made collectively by the community for the happy couple. However, by queering the history of this object, Wilson brings the work to our present state of yet another law (same sex marriage) that affects the lives of the people it governs. Who decides?
History is evident here in all of these works. Someone once said to me that stories keep getting told because the story teller does not feel heard. There is something kind of plainly obvious about that. By reimaging iconic shapes and patterns are the artists perpetuating a problem or making us remember? I would posit that A Pattern Language is not simply remembering—it is re-listening.
Leora Lutz is an artist, writer and educator based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her art practice stems from a conceptual framework with a desire to bring ritual and routine closer together. She is a regular art writer and critic for several national and global publications both online and in print as well as the author of published exhibition essays and research papers.
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