This year marks the twentieth anniversary of “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend,” an epic exhibition that opened at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and traveled for four years. The show helped to reframe its titular objects—made exclusively by Black women in rural Alabama—as modernist artworks. Writing about the presentation when it was on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art for the New York Times, Michael Kimmelman was palpably enthused, finding in the quilts’ ingenious geometries “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced,” noting the formal apposition of the designs to those of Josef Albers, Agnes Martin, Barnett Newman, and Frank Stella, without suggesting anything like causality. “The New Bend,” curated by Legacy Russell and opening at Hauser & Wirth in Los Angeles this month, engages directly in the visual vernacular bequeathed by Sarah Benning, Missouri Pettway, and the other women of Gee’s Bend. By contrast, “The Sum of the Parts: Dimensions in Quilting,” organized by Holly Jerger at Craft Contemporary, nowhere mentioned this anniversary or the community it represents—a missed opportunity. Nevertheless, “The Sum of the Parts” and the Gee’s Bend show converge in their centering of issues surrounding community, solidarity, and agency out of so many discrete elements.
This exhibition featured the work of five artists, all of whom engage in the physical and conceptual conventions of quilting. Indeed, Jerger stressed the material more than the formal dimensions of their art (or held that the latter exists relative to the former), emphasizing construction—namely, that each work is essentially stitched together out of a front and back that sandwiches a layer of batting. While quilts are self-evidently three-dimensional, their apotheosis as flat, painting-like planes undermines this quality. Exaggerating such pictorial coordinates, Kathryn Clark’s Map of Washington, DC, After Trump Arrived, 2020, spread across two opening walls, was an open grid of machine- and hand-stitched cotton organdy. An urban planner, Clark mapped the topography of the city, excising various sections to represent the breakdown of democracy under Donald Trump. The strips of connective seams, drooping from small nails, are what remains. Flecked with none-too-subtle patches of blood red, which represent government buildings, the object closes in on itself.
Just beyond this piece, Jade Yumang’s sculptural, floor-bound assemblages from “Drum,” a 2017–19 series that references Drum, a queer magazine from the 1960s known for its frank sexuality and humor, anchored the room. Each work featured a digitally printed page from an issue that was seized by the US Postal Service as evidence to federally indict the publication’s editor on “pornography” charges. Yumang uses this “proof” to create bulbous, tumorlike objects propped up by armatures, integrated with elements of furniture, or enfettered with rope. The text gets turned into a dizzying surface pattern, an impenetrable yet signifying skin. Examples of Sabrina Gschwandtner’s “film quilts” line an adjacent wall. The works are assembled from kaleidoscopic arrangements of cut and sewn 16-mm film strips displayed in (and illuminated by) light boxes. With close scrutiny, one can see tiny pictures of hands and the bodies attached to them, transcribed dialogue, factories, and machinery. All of the images are culled from midcentury documentaries about textile production (which were regarded as unworthy and were deaccessioned from the archives of New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology), confirming the devaluation of women’s work that quilting could redeem.
Different histories of labor enter Carlos Spivey’s and Lavialle Campbell’s art, which stays close to traditional modes of quilting and its rich genealogies. Spivey’s Queen Mother, 2018; Angel with Flowers, 2022; and Heart Volts, 2018, featured composite portraits of people from the artist’s life, with flowers at their feet. Depicting objects of veneration and devotion, they embrace radical abundance. Campbell’s geometrically abstract works likewise accentuated the affirmative space of quilting as one commensurate with survival (very literally, as other pieces within the artist’s oeuvre deal directly with chronic illness and racial violence). It was hard not to take Target, 2022, a taut composition in purples and blacks puckered with concentric sewn circles, as an embodied, implicating rejoinder to modernism’s desubjectivizing formalisms, and as an emblem of hypothetical attack.