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Bee Gee's

An MFAH exhibit captures quilting heritage and quality that is sew fine

It looks like a Joseph Albers painting if Albers were less anal and handy with a needle and thread. With concentric rectangles of heavy denim in faded olive green, worn gray and washed-out turquoise, Loretta Pettway fashioned her Housetop quilt from men's old work clothes. The overstitching of the quilt top to the backing creates a pattern of subtle, sinuously curving dashed lines of white thread. The worn fabric has an incredible patina, and the quilt's repeated washing has melded the different materials together into a visual whole. Pettway is one of several generations of quilters from the African-American community of Gee's Bend, Alabama, featured in "The Quilts of Gee's Bend" at the Museum of Fine Arts.

There aren't any Sunbonnet Sues in this exhibition of bold, vibrant abstract forms. There are quilts split by dynamic vertical white stripes reminiscent of Barnett Newman's zips. Others display solid blocks of color that feel like Rothko paintings and linear designs that parallel early Frank Stella. Skeptics may be reassured by formal similarities between many of the quilts and contemporary and modern art, but the quilts are good not because they have things in common with the work of white male painters from the mid-20th century. These artworks are independently successful as visual objects that are frequently engaging in ways that painting isn't.

The recent abundance of museum quilt shows has sparked some critical backlash that seems largely irrelevant in the case of the Gee's Bend show. There are about eight major quilt shows now touring nationally -- the MFA, the Blaffer and the Holocaust Museum also hosted simultaneous quilt exhibitions in 2001. And museum motivations have become suspect because quilt shows are cheap to ship and mount, have broad popular appeal and are an unimpeachably inoffensive subject for corporate funding -- or, for that matter, suspect corporate funding (Ken Lay is on the wall as a supporter). The Gee's Bend show certainly fills a demographic gap for the MFA as it presents the work of 45 African-American artists, possibly more than the museum has shown in a decade's worth of Black History Months.

Deborah Pettway Young's Roman Stripes variation shows the diversity of the featured quilts.
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Deborah Pettway Young's Roman Stripes variation shows the diversity of the featured quilts.

Quilts dredge up the unwieldy and multifaceted art-versus-craft debate. They were created for a purpose and were made by women, facts that always worked against them in terms of traditional art history. Ultimately, however, it depends on the object. Just as with painting or any other art form, there are quilts of historical interest but artistic mediocrity and -- in the case of the best of Gee's Bend -- there are quilts with such visual power that any other information about them is secondary.

These quilts grew out of a tradition in an isolated Alabama river-bend community. The area was originally the Pettway plantation and then was home to the freed slaves who worked for generations as farmers and sharecroppers. Arthur Rothstein's 1937 photographs of the community and its striking poverty made it the poster child for the evils of tenant farming.

Quilt makers often worked all day in the fields in addition to raising children, cooking and keeping house. They could sit quietly or gather socially only while quilting, because quilts had to be made, although this also gave them their only time for creative expression. They reflected the best of recycling; no one could afford to buy blankets to keep warm, so every scrap of old clothing, every inch of flour sacking and the lint from the cotton gin were brought together for these creations. But just as with any artist who establishes conceptual constraints, amazing things grew out of these parameters, set not by theory but by poverty.

Gee's Bend quilts are fabulous formal explorations of color, pattern, texture and composition. The artists riff on traditional quilt patterns, blowing up and distorting the forms, or conjure up their own bold abstractions. Few of the quilts are square, possessing a wonderfully matter-of-fact directness in their shapes. Forms are often encouraged to go expressively out of kilter, defying any traditionally rigid geometry.

The history of the materials employed in the quilts adds powerful conceptual impact to the work. The aforementioned Housetop quilt from 1963 uses work clothes to incredible visual and emotional effect. Lutshia Pettway's circa-1950 Bars quilt is constructed from a series of disassembled pant legs. Hems are taken down and pockets removed to reveal the darker cloth underneath, while knee patches break up the sections of fabric. There is a palpably heavy content in the worn denim that covered sharecroppers' legs.

Quilts that grew out of the bonanza of corduroy scraps produced from a community venture to manufacture Sears pillow shams made the most of the velvety, linear material. Florine Smith's circa-1975 quilt arranges strips of pale avocado-green and turquoise-blue into four opposing blocks. At the same time, Annie Mae Young created a field of blue patterned only by the linear pieces of the fabric and bordered with dynamic horizontal and vertical combinations of red, green, brown, gold and blue.

The quilts on view are from the collection of the Tinwood Alliance, a nonprofit organization started by William Arnett that seeks to "promote the understanding of vernacular art and artists." Jane Fonda added financial support, and her daughter, Vanessa Vadim and Arnett's son Matt created a video to accompany the exhibition. William Arnett is one of those "good Southerners," a liberal with an acute awareness of how black people have been systematically screwed over. While the alliance is well intentioned and has preserved the quilts, there is also something uncomfortable about the way the people who made them have lost control of their cultural production and its presentation.

The artists, their community and their work are presented in a way that reinforces the outsider's preconceived notions. The show's accompanying video has contemporary sections that feature women as they sit outdoors doing things like sewing and singing and shelling peas. It perpetuates a pointedly romanticized vision of Southern rural life that is not necessarily inaccurate, but is selective and discounts the individual. The overkill comes in the scene of a pregnant dog running across a country lane. As a rural Southerner myself, I've had my fill of the "stray dog with engorged mammaries trotting down a road" image in film and photography.

The quilts of Gee's Bend are amazing, but you get the sense there are too many white people patting themselves on the back for presenting the work of rural black women. At the press preview, MFA director Peter Marzio felt compelled to rattle off several Eurocentric exhibitions that had been shown in the space. Marzio had to state that this was where they showed their best art. His comments came as he beamed at the 33 artists bused in from Alabama and arranged in chairs flanking either side of his podium. "This gallery has never looked better," he declared. Viewers will agree.

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