Quilt. It's a loaded term that stereotypically gets associated with women and domesticity, blue-ribbon state fair competitions or historical craft.
But co-curators Stefanie Fedor, executive director of the Visual Arts Center of Richmond, and guest curator Melissa Messina, take a broader interpretation of quilts in the exhibition, "The Embedded Message: Quilting in Contemporary Art," by aligning the term and its processes to 21st-century cultural expression. With 13 artists from seven states, the exhibition highlights how quilting — as a technique and a tradition — can be a powerful political force.
Using textiles in a conceptual way isn't new to contemporary art. Robert Rauschenberg famously made his first combine with his own bed in 1955. Rauschenberg literally hung his pillow, sheet and quilt onto the wall and then took a paintbrush to it à la Jackson Pollock to overturn the artistic blockade of abstract-expressionist painting. Other artists, including African-American artists Faith Ringgold and Betye Saar, have interrogated textiles since the 1970s in order to question stereotypes surrounding cultural identity.
It's challenging to settle on a few highlights from the exhibition because the work is collectively strong. However, Hank Willis Thomas' "Every Act is Political … (Buren)" from 2016 does stand out even though it sits on the floor in a corner. Made out of decommissioned prison uniforms, the quilt resembles the stripes that conceptual artist Daniel Buren has printed on fabric since 1968. But for Thomas, Buren's words are more imperative: "Every act is political and, whether one is conscious of it or not, the presentation of one's work is no exception."
In Thomas' work, as seen throughout this exhibition, the political is multivalent and nuanced. Thomas's choice of re-purposed prison uniforms uses the presence of the material as an allusion to the people who wore them and marks their absence from the gallery and American society.
Gina Adams' "Treaty of Middle Plantation 1677 Broken Treaty Quilt" (2017) features hand-cut calico letters sewn onto a pre-Civil War era quilt. The text repeats a portion of the treaty, which was later broken, signed by colonial officials and Native American leaders in Virginia. Vinyl lettering behind the quilt lists the names of each tribe. Adams highlights the troubled American history between indigenous people and the colonizers. The text, each letter a different bright color against a manila ground, is visually striking and, once the context is realized, draws a line from 1677 to the present and the recent protests at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation over the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Aaron McIntosh made one of the more sculptural pieces, "Invasive: Pulse Memorial" (2017), a white tree covered with a green vine that represents the invasive kudzu. The work honors the 49 victims of the 2016 massacre in Orlando, Florida, at the Pulse Nightclub and is part of a series that archives the stories of LGBTQ people and claims the kudzu vine, as the artist describes, as a "symbol for Southern queer tenacity in the face of homophobic institutions." More generally, it alludes to mass shootings and gun violence. The looming tree with its hanging branches demands consideration: What will you do under the weight of this memorial?
The list goes on. Kathryn Clark's "Detroit Foreclosure Quilt" (2011) and "Riverside Foreclosure Quilt" (2012) are pieced-together maps showing foreclosures from the Great Recession. Sanford Biggers's "Pink Seated Woman" (2017) examines the history of African and Asian diaspora histories. Elizabeth Duffy's "Maximum Security Penitentiary Quilt, 'P is for Panopticon'" (2016) distills bird's-eye views of maximum-security prisons in the United States into an icon that resembles letters from the alphabet.
Good political art is tricky. Pitfalls include being too didactic or becoming a brash one-liner that confronts people with a singular statement. The best political art is perceptive in a subtle way that draws visitors into the work. With "The Embedded Message," a multilayered textile held together by thread becomes a wonderful metaphor for thinking through meaningful conversations in the face of the complicated issues facing Americans today. S
"The Embedded Message: Quilting in Contemporary Art" runs through Feb. 11, at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond. visarts.org.