Tantalizing Quilts Woven with Poetic, Political Messages

published March 13, 2018 in Hyperallergic

The artists in Piecework embed intriguing, coded messages into their quilts.

Vanessa German, “Delia Quilt 1” (2015), silkscreen on found quilt (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Pavel Zoubok gallery is currently hosting an intriguing show entitled Piecework. Riffing on the traditional women’s work of piecing fabric together, the five artists in this exhibition have produced quilt-like works that belie the traditional definition of the genre.

Using a wide variety of approaches, though mostly sticking to a rectilinear format, the artists all share an interest in embedding messages into their quilts. The origins of this practice have been traced to the American urban myth that quilts made in the 17th and 18th centuries had escape directions for slaves “coded’ in their patterns. There have been many historical attempts to debunk this urban myth, yet it persists. The idea of conveying messages with fabric, however, remains an enduring and intriguing jumping-off point for artists.

Installation view of Piecework at Pavel Zoubok Gallery

Diane Samuels’s “Poetry Quilt” (2017), measuring a mighty 87 by 90 inches, is constructed of paper and backed with fabric, while the surface is covered with poems that have affected the artist’s life. The giant panel is constructed of hundreds of strips of painted and drawn-upon paper, which she painstakingly pieced together and then wrote over, in the tiniest font imaginable, the poems that have been meaningful to the artist throughout her life. From far away everything merges into a rhythmic sea of jewel-tone colors. It’s only upon very close inspection that one sees the writing (a magnifying glass would have helped) and is able to make out the words of some of the most beautiful poems in the Western cannon, including ones by T.S. Eliot, Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, and Adrienne Rich.

Diane Samuels, “Poetry Quilt” (2017), paper, paint, craypas, ink, glue, backed with cotton fabric, 87 x 90 inches

There are two chilling pieces by the artist Joe Lewis made of Kente cloth, a Ghanaian woven fabric that has traditionally been used as a message of identity — the patterns of the cloth signal who the wearer is, their tribe, and their status in the world. Lewis has made two “Juvenile Body Bags” — literally. He covered one side of the plastic body bags used for children (the bags are shockingly small) with the cloth associated with Africa and the African diaspora. In the center of each is a clear plastic window with a blank “toe tag” — that is, the tag used to tie to a corpse to identify it. The tension between the beautiful hand-woven cloth and the shocking message of the bags is powerful.

Joe Lewis, “Juvenile Body Bag 2” (2018) ( detail), kente cloth, plastic boday bag, paper toe tags

Donna Sharrett’s two pieces in the show, from her series Tailored Herbaria(2018), appear to be in the decorative tradition of textile work. The pieced, embroidered, and embellished groups of stylized tree leaves make for very attractive wall pieces. However, upon doing some research, spurned on by the pieces’ mysterious titles (like “41°10’8”N 73°49’15” W”) I found that the pieces refer to the exact geographical location of flora endangered by climate change. The coded message becomes a tangible alert to parts of the natural world we are in danger of destroying.

Donna Sharrett, “201.8 41”2’5” N 73”58 46” W”, clothing, jewelry, guitar strings, guitar-string ball-ends, fabric, thread

If anything, this exhibition is slightly frustrating because it is small and left me wanting more. Pavel Zoubok Gallery is hoping to expand the exhibition in a different space and this would indeed be a welcome development. Piecework is a tantalizing taste of the possibilities inherent in what was once only considered “women’s work.”

Piecework continues at Pavel Zoubok Gallery (531 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 21.

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