These quilts warm the soul

Ordinary fabrics, extraordinary art

ArtReview

February 14, 2004|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

There is only one road leading into and out of Gee's Bend, Ala., a tiny U-shaped peninsula 8 miles wide and 16 miles long cut into the ochre-colored land by a curlicue of the Alabama River 60 miles southwest of Montgomery.

With a population of just 700 people, this isolated island in a backwater of the Deep South might not seem like the best place to look for the most important modern American art of the 20th century.

Yet The Quilts of Gee's Bend, the stunning exhibit of African-American textiles opening today at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, triumphantly suggests otherwise.

The 70 quilts in this show were created out of a generations-old tradition among Gee's Bend's women of crafting humble utilitarian objects with profoundly expressive purposes.

They were made to comfort and warm on frigid nights, to pass time with family and friends, to tell stories and memorialize loved ones, to bring a bit of decorative color to the homes of the poorest of the poor.

They were never intended to be displayed in an art museum; and yet they are surely among the most beautiful and deeply moving artworks likely to be seen anywhere this year.

This is a show that everyone who cares about art in this country will find something to feel good about, because the women quilters of Gee's Bend have somehow managed to touch in their work practically everything that is really important about life and art.

Take, for example, the triangle-themed quilt sewn by Jessie T. Pettway sometime in the 1950s. It is composed of four, long rectangular bars of red fabric which alternate with shorter interlocking strips of pink, blue, white, yellow and salmon in an irregular staircase pattern.

The work has the improvisatory genius of a jazz riff and the exclamatory assurance of a banner. Yet it's more subtle than it appears at first glance: A grid of delicate stitches in fine white thread winds its way across the piece, adding a fillip of sophisticated visual whimsy to the composition.

Or take the quilt by Annie Mae Young that opens the show and that was, in a sense, the germ from which the entire exhibition sprouted.

It is sewn from strips of ordinary blue denim work clothes -- jeans, jackets, overalls, etc., some with the pockets still intact -- and centered by a startling medallion of orange, red and brown corduroy that makes the pattern look like one of Jasper Johns' flag paintings.

When William Arnett, a collector of Southern vernacular art, saw an image of this piece in Roland Freeman's 1996 book on African-American quilters, he knew he had to meet the artist.

His quest eventually led him to Gee's Bend and its community of quilters, who all traced their ancestry back to slaves who had worked the original plantation on the site.

From that discovery grew a project that involved photographing and documenting some 400 surviving quilts created by Gee's Bend residents and identifying the individual styles associated with more than 150 artists. (Most of the quilts in the show were made in the 1950s and '60s; the earliest examples date from the 1930s.)

The quilts in the Corcoran show inevitably invite comparison with the great abstract-expressionist canvases of Pollack, Rothko, Still and others. Their brilliant, slashing patterns and startling color harmonies provoke the kind of shiver of visual excitement that one imagines adventurous early viewers of the New York School must have felt.

But the Gee's Bend quilters actually owe very little to modern art fashions in New York. The singular aesthetic they developed -- which evolved over generations as the expression of a unique folk community -- was born out of necessity and hard times, not art-school theory, and their work has the unselfconscious directness and stubborn vitality of people who have learned to persevere and endure despite crushing poverty and cruel injustice.

Abstract-Expressionism taught us to appreciate the inventiveness, beauty and expressive power of these supple forms created out of scraps and hand-me-downs. With this exhibit, one may hope the dignity inherent in these remarkable women's lives may now also come to be as widely recognized and honored as the art they created.

Art Exhibit

What: The Quilts of Gee's Bend

Where: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. N.W., Washington

Hours: Wednesday-Monday 1- a.m. to 5 p.m., and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday; through May 17

Admission: $5 adults, $4 seiors, $3 students, $8 families

Call: 202-639-1700 or visit www.corcoran.org

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