Digging for roots of a Southern art BMA: Some African influences are more obvious than others in the rural quilts displayed at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Always obvious, though, is the works' creative excellence.

June 16, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

"Log Cabin Quilt: 'Pig Pen' " by African-American Pecolia Warner has something in common with traditional American log-cabin quilts, especially the building up of small rectangular strips of cloth into larger rectangles that are then put together in a pattern to form the completed quilt.

But where other log-cabin quilts may be more regularly patterned and colored, this one is notable for its creative idiosyncrasies. What's that long, dark band going down the quilt three-quarters of the way over to the right? Why is each of the 16 "squares" that make up this quilt so different from the others that we can't impose a logic on what we see -- we just have to go with the flow of the artist's mind?

Similarly, Leola Pettway's "Star Variation Quilt" is rooted in the familiar star quilt, but introduces so many asymmetrical, pleasantly jolting variations that the piece as a whole takes on a humorously subversive feel.

These are two works from "Signs and Symbols: African Images in African-American Quilts From the Rural South" at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

A moderate-sized traveling show from New York's Museum of American Folk Art, it incorporates about two dozen quilts and much related material. It endeavors to show that many of the techniques and motifs used by African-American quilt makers descend in some way -- direct or indirect -- from African origins.

The influence may be basic to the making of the work, such as the use of strips or an applique technique. Or it may relate to the iconography of the work, such as the use of visual elements that relate to religious symbols, writing or charms.

Sometimes these are well-illustrated by the examples shown, and seem to make a lot of sense. A mojo, we are told, is an African-American cloth charm that protects from evil forces, and it descends from concepts of charms in both West and Central Africa. The two quilts used to illustrate this motif show clearly how it manifests itself in their designs.

Other examples, though they may be valid, appear less convincingly shown. To say that a diamond or a triangle shape on an African-American quilt refers to an African precedent is pretty vague, since such shapes are common to many cultures.

And indeed, the texts here at times retreat to indefinite positions, such as that a certain motif "brings to mind" one in African art or that a certain parallel "may be coincidental."

What appears to unite all of these textiles in the most essential way is their improvisational creativity. Rather than contenting themselves with repeating a pattern element slavishly to create a regular, symmetrical design, these artists delight in asymmetry and the introduction of the unexpected.

"Use of line, design and color varies with a persistence that goes beyond a possible lack of cloth in any particular size, color, or pattern, suggesting an intentional creative process," reads the most illuminating text here.

It is that quality that raises these works to such a high degree of artistic accomplishment and visual pleasure.

Art show

What: "Signs and Symbols: African Images in African-American Quilts From the Rural South"

Where: The Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive near Charles and 31st streets

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through July 28

Admission: $5.50 adults, $3.50 seniors and students, $1.50 ages 7 through 18

$ Call: (410) 396-7100

Pub Date: 6/16/96

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