Sunday, November 02, 2008

Gee's Bend quilt show, Sydney

As part of the Quilt Indulgence festival at Canterbury Racecourse in Sydney, there are Gee's Bend quilts on display. First time in Sydney. I've been reading about Gee's Bend quilts for several years, although haven't had the opportunity to go to the US to see them in any of their art gallery/quilt show exhibits there myself. I've been inspired by the photographs I've seen online and in books, tried my hand at the style with recycled fabrics and OK, call me a fan. So knowing this exhibition was coming up, a friend and I were definite attendees. What follows in this blog entry is, I stress, my opinion. Some may agree, others not, but the world is wide and open to many points of view.

At the racecourse, about a quarter of an hour before the 9.30am opening, we were the third car in the carpark. My experience of other large quilt/craft shows is that, by such a time, the carpark is anything but empty. We were glad there was some signage about, so we were in the right place. Odd. Unsettling, These are GEE'S BEND quilts on show here, acclaimed modern American art.

We wandered up to buy tickets, chatting to some quilting friends (the fourth and fifth cars held quilters we knew, and no, that's not what you usually find, either - Sydney's a city of millions, after all, and the craft show included scrapbooking/papercrafts, thus gathering in people from a different crafting milieu). The longest queue was to get in at 9.30, and we were in that queue for at least two minutes, but no more. Also unheard of. Odder and odder - these are Gee's Bend quilts here...and not unfamiliar, I would have said, to ?the majority of quilters, or at least those interested in art quilts/quilt history, or toddling around the blogosphere or quilting email lists.

In we went, the Gee's Bend quilts our goal. There were quilts on exhibition from several quilt magazines, representing Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Japan. But where - ? We walked past aisles, around corners, past the five or six retailers (only five or six?) and on to the quilts.

Right at the back, in two alleys, were the Gee's Bend quilts. I can't show you photos, because there were No Photography signs (thus the photo of the flyers instead). The catalogue had thumbnails of each of the quilts on display - all were for sale, for prices mostly in the thousands, a few in the tens of thousands.

Maybe the sales angle was the reason they were here, tucked on temporary white alleyways behind an escalator in a racecourse stand, for one weekend only. When their arrival in Sydney was first publicised, some months ago, I contacted a major museum that exhibits textiles among other things, and suggested they should look again at these quilts, given their standing and the success of such exhibitions in major US museums and galleries. Couldn't get them interested.

So here we were. Desperately glad to get a chance to see the quilts for real, not just moderated through a photograph.

What was good:

Being able to see them at all. Magic. Amazing.

Being able to see detail of workmanship - which varied a lot, and demonstrated a variety of different decisions/choices on the part of the makers.

Being able to see a range, from some one considered more successful to others which seemed less graphically successful. The most successful ones, to me, usually involved plainer or tone on tone fabrics - often still a scrap-based variety, but my preference is for the patterning of piecing, in these quilts, over the patterns on fabrics.

We were there early, so had a fair amount of time to browse them before the aisles held more people - but it wasn't at all crowded.

Reading the few laminated biography sheets there about some of the quilters, their family histories and how and why they quilt. It would have been good if they'd set aside an area somewhere, as many museum exhibits do, continuously running the documentary about Gee's Bend and the quilts, so you could see them talking, hear their voices.

What wasn't good:

The sadness of something this amazing being tucked away into a weekend at a racecourse for the quilting fraternity. One of the things about the Gee's Bend quilts, for me, is their capacity to amaze and engage non quilters with the possibilities of quilting as an art form, modern design, in all sorts of ways prompt the response, "I didn't know quilts could be like that!" My guess is that the only people there who weren't quilters were accompanying quilters.

If you look at Citysearch, or the Sydney Morning Herald, there is NOTHING about this exhibition. Nothing. That's such a shame. If an exhibition like this is to find an audience beyond the quilting fraternity, it needs to be publicised to the mainstream media to reach that audience.

The layout - two alleys of them - meant that you could only stand back a few feet to see each quilt. In a larger gallery situation, you can stand back further, see the quilts in different ways. When I was in Melbourne at the NGV in January, one of the pleasures of the rooms, large and small, was the chance to stand back and see items from a distance, as well as up close.

An hour and a half later, we were done. We'd studied the quilts, discussing what engaged us, what our expectations had been, how they had been met/adjusted by the reality of the quilts. I'm still utterly delighted to have finally had the chance to view the real thing, after reading about them for so long. If you have a chance to go today, then do (parking won't be a problem). Among the rest of the quilts on display, we enjoyed seeing them all and were very impressed with a number. Without the Gee's Bend quilts being there, would we have gone? No.

As a quilter and quilt history enthusiast, I'm so sorry that the capacity of these quilts to evangelise, to connect with people, was confined by their context and the limitations of this exhibition. I hope a major gallery or museum does mount a proper exhibition of them in Sydney in the future.

Added later: The Gee's Bend exhibition that has been touring the US for several years is Gee's Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt.  It's in Philadelphia now (thanks for the tip, Candy).  If you want to see what a comprehensive exhibition can involve (and this is just if you access the website, let alone if you go to see the quilts) then here are some links - make sure you investigate the tabs on each page to go deeper/learn more, and also listen to the podcasts:

Hmmm.  Can we have that in Sydney, please?  And just while I'm being curious, why is the exhibition in Sydney not mentioned at all on the Quilts of Gee's Bend website page about current exhibitions ?  Or on the Tinwood Media website (publisher/promoter of Gee's Bend quilts)?  What was on exhibition in Sydney?  

If you haven't read it before, here's the 2002 review from the New York Times which acclaimed the Gee's Bend quilts as astonishing modern art.



candyschultz said...

The collection must be separable since the Gees Bend quilts are also in Philadelphia at this time.

They are wonderful.

virtualquilter said...

Go Rooruu!
A few years ago I was managing (as a volunteer) an exhibition space in a country SA town. The most popular exhibition was art quilts, but then I gave them the same publicity as every other exhibition!
How many people even heard about the exhibition in Sydney outside Australian quilt groups, and then probably only those in NSW unless they are also Scquilters.
If a quilt exhibition manages to get into an 'art' gallery they ignore the quilting fraternity in their publicity, so we don't know about them.
If only we could build up some common threads between us (quilters)and them (in the art world)!

Lynne said...

I had the same experience in Brisbane - no crowds, few merchant stands, plenty of parking space (which we still had to pay for).

I didn't think it was well advertised, although there was a documentary on Foxtel the week before about the quilts.

The workshops were cancelled in Brisbane - (lack of interest/numbers?)and I felt bad for the merchants that were there, because there were so few people there. The other factor might have been the Stitches and Craft show being scheduled a week later, so maybe even the quilters chose to only go to one show.

But it did make seeing the quilts easier, for what it's worth.

bettsy said...

I was about to write the same thing as the comment above ( about the Brisbane show). We had a wonderful time on the first day because no one was there and we could inspect and look all we wanted. I spoke to one of the retailers that was there a few days ago and she said that it didn't improve. I can only think that the timing was a problem but most of all the lack of information and advertising seems to have been a big factor. The sad part about this is that the organizers will no doubt think that it isn't profitable and not do this again - which means we miss out.

DoubleL said...

An odd exhibition I thought. I went to see Gee Bend quilts firstly as I had seen some in Houston a few years ago and was intrigued by them. I loved the Japanese quilts and passed by the rest quickly. I saw the TV doco on cable and enjoyed it. It was all card marking stuff that didnt interest us. We had more fun at the Christmas shop on the way home.