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Avant-Garde Quilt Explosion!

A guide to weird and wild contemporary-art quilts by conceptualists, code-breakers, feminists, fashionistas, Afrofuturists, and street artists

Luke Haynes, On My Bed #1 Tradition, 2006, various textiles. Click through for larger image.  COURTESY BROOKLYN MUSEUM, GIFT ABRAHAM & STRAUS/© THE ARTIST.

Luke Haynes, On My Bed #1 Tradition, 2006, various textiles. On long-term view in the contemporary-art galleries of the Brooklyn Museum. Click through for larger image.


From the Log Cabin quilt Rauschenberg chose to make his Bed to the glorious abstractions of Gee’s Bend to the communal, elegiac, and now digitized AIDS Memorial Quilt, quilts have been around the contemporary-art world for decades. Now, as the border between art and craft continues to dissolve, quilts are coming front and center.

A current exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts and an upcoming one at Boston’s MFA, which showcase the labor and artistry behind traditional quilts in different ways, suggest the reasons that a growing number of artists are drawn to this typically American medium.

Rigorously mathematical; narrative; intimate; made of found materials, often salvaged from treasured garments of their makers; portable; diaristic; and usually made by women, including a significant number of African Americans, “quilts have always lent themselves to giving a voice to the unheard,” says Stacy Hollander, curator of the American Folk Art Museum’s recent show alt_quilts, which featured three contemporary artists who stray far from the original definition of the quilt, even as they remain fixated on its structure and patterns. From Chelsea galleries to major museums and beyond, here’s where to find some of the edgiest art quilts out there.

Lara Schnitger
Anton Kern Gallery, New York (through February 15)

Whether in her epic fabric structures–a sampling of which is currently at Anton Kern–or her fierce costumes for dance, her performative collaborations with My Barbarian, and her jumpsuits for Red Hot Chili Pepper Flea, Lara Schnitger has channeled all manner of textile arts. The Dutch, Los Angeles-based artist excavates text and image by removing color from dyed fabric, creating a stenciled effect that conveys her all-caps urgency.

Now Schnitger is bringing her post-patchwork esthetic to a new couture line, Sister of Arp, which launches in a runway show at Kern on February 8. The collection, called Never Alone, is dedicated to the working (and breastfeeding) mom.

Left: A model wears clothes from Lara Schnitger’s Never Alone collection from the Sister of Arp line. Right: Lara Schnitger, Never Alone, 2012, cotton and linen, quilted and bleached. Click through each image for more information.

Amy Wilson
“Space is the Place,” BravinLee programs, New York (through February 8)

Amy Wilson’s Soft MoMA is a quilted, free-hanging lament to the loved and lost intimate museum experience the artist enjoyed as a child. Step inside its enveloping folds, where, via two quilted alter egos, Wilson reflects on her discomfort in a shiny new museum world where everyone else seems to be smiling. The quilt made its debut at BravinLee the day after MoMA announced plans to raze the American Folk Art Museum building to create a giant glass lobby.

Amy Wilson, Soft MoMA, 2013-14, fabric, paper, pencil, thread, and wood. Click through each image for more information.

Stephen Sollins
“Stephen Sollins: Correspondence,” Pavel Zoubok Gallery (February 13-March 15); “Creativity at Work,” Sun Valley Center for the Arts (February 21-May 24)

“Sometimes I like my pieces to look more like quilts, other times I like them to look more like paintings,” says Stephen Sollins, who has obsessively deconstructed the patterns and structures of several traditional quilts in the American Folk Art Museum’s collection. “Alt_quilts” paired one of the originals–the Log Cabin Quilt, Barn Raising Variation that Mary Jane Smith made with her mother from 1861-5–with Sollins’s “appropriation” of its composition, an intricate construction made with pasted-paper interiors of billing and financial envelopes. Some of his envelope works are coming to his February show at Pavel Zoubok, along with new works that bring a digital element to the process. The artist scanned an image of a “crazy quilt” from the Folk Art Museum’s collection, digitally processed it to extract the shapes of its parts, assigned the results through a random number generator to various striped envelope patterns, and made a facsimile of the original quilt with them.

Left: Stephen Sollins, Untitled (Double Archive with Rotation), 2013, used envelopes, printed paper. Right: Stephen Sollins, Untitled (Correspondings), 2014, paper from used envelopes, xerographic and ink jet prints on paper. Click through images for more information.

Queer Threads
Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, New York (through March 16)

“Queer Threads: Crafting Identity and Community,” a dazzling show at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in Soho curated by John Chaich, features LGBTQ artists who use thread-based craft materials, techniques, and processes—including, of course, quilts. Melanie Braverman tenderly embroidered a range of anti-gay slurs onto a quilt made from antique fabric. Aaron McIntosh reproduced the covers of vintage gay magazines as digital textile prints embedded with the patchwork of traditional quilt pattern. L. J. Roberts honors communities in an underground LGBTQ subculture in The Queer Houses of Brooklyn, a delirious multi-textured sculptural visualization on loan from the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Left: Aaron McIntosh, Fragment #3: Roses Are Red, 2012, digital print, vintage fabric and thread. Right: L.J. Roberts, The Queer Houses of Brooklyn, 2011, poly-fill, acrylic, rayon, Lurex, wool, polyester, cotton lame, sequins, and blended fabrics. Click through each image for more information.

Sabrina Gschwandtner
RISD Museum, Costume and Textiles galleries (starting June 10)

When the Fashion Institute of Technology de-accessioned its 16-millimeter film documentaries about textile crafts and the women who made them, Sabrina Gschwandtner snapped them up. Then she made them the substance of her art. For her series of “Film Quilts,” she watches the movies; cuts up the film strips; transforms them through bleaching, dyeing, and drawing, and assembles them into designs derived from popular American quilt motifs. For one of her newest works, The Enchanted Loom II, she used three films–among them an experimental science documentary that links the brain to a loom–weaving the frames together to create 12 quilt squares in an octagonal star pattern. The piece will be installed at the entry to the RISD Museum’s new Costume and Textiles galleries when they open next June, and will be on view indefinitely.

Sabrina Gschwandtner,The Enchanted Loom II, 2011, 16 mm film, cotton thread, polyamide thread. Click through each image for more information.

Sanford Biggers
“The Shadows Took Shape,” Studio Museum in Harlem, New York (through March 9); David Castillo, Miami (April-May); “Soft Pictures,” Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin, Italy (through May 4)

Since 2009 Sanford Biggers has been painting on old quilts, infusing their patterns with sacred geometry, cosmology, and echoes of the quilt code said to have marked the Underground Railroad. His work Vex, on view in “The Shadows Took Shape” at the Studio Museum, riffs on the Afrofuturist notion of Harriet Tubman as an astronaut who led slaves to their freedom guided by the stars. Embedded in the quilt is a QR code leading to a film about interplanetary escape the artist made with his band, Moon Medicine. “If there’s code already embedded in quilts, why not put another code in the quilt,” the artist reasoned. Biggers has now begun collaging quilt fragments on archival paper. The new works will be in his show at David Castillo this spring.

Left: Sanford Biggers, NorEaster #1, 2013, assorted textiles, silkscreen on muslin, acrylic and latex paint on archival paper. Right: Sanford Biggers, Vex, 2013, antique quilt, silkscreen on muslin, spray paint, fabric-treated acrylic, tar, glitter, sound and video element, QR code. Click through each image for more information.

Faith Ringgold
National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C. Rose Benté Lee Sculpture Gallery; “Women Choose Women Again,” Visual Arts Center of New Jersey, Summit, New Jersey (through April 13); “Body Conscious,” Amelie A. Wallace Gallery, SUNY College at Old Westbury, Old Westbury, New York (February 3– April 10); “Stories and Journeys: The Art of Faith Ringgold and Aminah Robinson,” Mattatuck Museum of Art, Mattatuck, Connecticut (March 30 – June 8).

Combining quilted fabric, acrylic painting on canvas, and words, Faith Ringgold has been making her signature brand of story quilts for three decades, reaching back through history to connect with a great-great-great-grandmother who made quilts as a slave. Civil Rights, personal narratives and aspirational fantasies are ongoing themes in her works, including Tar Beach, which inspired her famous children’s book, and Jo Baker’s Bananas, on long-term view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. In addition to her dozens of quilts in museum collections around the country, Ringgold currently has two works from her “Faith Ringgold’s Over 100 Pounds Weight Loss Performance Story Quilt” series in group shows around New York; excerpts from “Coming to Jones Road,” a story of escaped slaves, will be at Connecticut’s Mattatuck Museum this spring.

Left: Faith Ringgold, Coming to Jones Road Part II #6 Chasing Butterflies, 2010, acrylic on canvas. Right: Faith Ringgold, The American Collection #4: Jo Baker’s Bananas, 1997, acrylic on canvas with pieced fabric border. Click through image for more information.

Cat Art Show, 101/exhibit, Los Angeles (through February 2)

The inspiration behind Lost and Found, an appliqué quilt by the street-art duo FAILE in L.A.’s Cat Art Show, was the type of person who might collect lost-cat posters. From there it was a logical progression, the artists explain, to the cultures of scrapbooking, quilting, and  modern witches in motorcycle clubs, who are one intended audience of this piece.

FAILE, Lost & Found, 2014, appliqué quilt. Click through image for more information.

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