Sunday, August 1, 2010

Intentional and Unintentional Events

Hello everyone! I hope you are enjoying the summer and staying cool. It has been a hot and humid summer here in Maryland, but we are still working away.

While the blog has been on a unintentional summer holiday, there has been quite a bit of activity occurring including the opening of the My American Series quilt exhibition, the opening of a quilt exhibition at Banneker Museum in Oella, MD (not to be confused with the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis, MD) which includes the work of Dr. Gaither and several of her students, as well as the beginning of the latest addition to the My American Series!

The My American Series quilt show opening at School 33 in Baltimore was a smashing success with 200 people turning out for the first night. The quilts look absolutely magnificent together, as though they were made for that space. Each of the exhibited quilts has a label talking about its creation as well as a grid explaining the different parts of the quilt. The grids are invaluable tools as they help to explain some of the stories you might not notice without them. I know there were several squares on the quilts I had never genuinely looked at until proofing the final text for the grids - especially on the Airport quilt and the Brown's quilt. 
With the School 33 show, I was very interested to see how the layout of the show would work. The exhibition space consists of two large rooms which could accommodate any mix of the quilts, however not all six could fit in one room. The big question was, which quilts will be matched up in each room? Will they be placed in age order, size order, numbers pulled out of a hat? As it turns out, the quilts were placed in a unconscious grouping that Dr. Gaither didn't even realize until I pointed it out. The quilts were paired in numerical order with the odd numbered quilts in one room and the even in another. This resulted in the Brown's, Poulson Slaver, and J2WH quilts in the first room and the TTT, Airport, and Watermen quilts in the second. The pairings worked out well, ironically with the largest three quilts in the smallest room.

The smaller room held the even numbered quilts which are also the most colorful. The result was a very warm feeling when you walked into the room. Quilts are intended to wrap yourself up in them and feel surrounded by warmth and walking into that room you do just that. The vibrancy of each of the quilts' colors creates an invitation to come closer and discover the stories in each. All three of these quilts are executed in very different ways. If you imagine walking into the room with one quilt hanging on each wall, the Airport quilt hangs on the wall to your left, the Watermen quilt is on the wall facing you, and TTT is on the wall to your right. The Airport quilt is a standard Baltimore Album-style quilt with different squares each telling a story. TTT is a crazy quilt with seemingly no rhyme or reason to its design, simply that it is a map of northern Anne Arundel County with images and text. In the middle is the Watermen quilt, a mixture of both styles fusing together two different ways to tell stories through quilts with squares surrounding the large open center with a map of the Chesapeake Bay. The placement of these three quilts together allows viewers to take in very separate stories while easing you into different styles of quilting through their colors, warmth, and vibrancy.

The larger room (which is the entrance to the exhibit) hosts the three quilts with the most well known stories - Baltimore philanthropists Ed and Sylvia Brown, Maryland's history of slavery, and President Obama. With three big stories, you need lots of room to take them in. Each of these quilts is done in the Baltimore Album style demanding the visitor to come up close to examine each of the squares to learn the full story they are sharing. In wanting people to view the quilt closely, you need extra room to make sure several people can view them at the same time. During the opening reception, I saw many people leaning into these three quilts to examine them at length before standing back to look at the whole quilt which is the exact opposite of what happened in the other room.

In each of the rooms, viewers were given different ways of looking at art without even realizing it. They were subconsciously asked to view artworks as a whole and to deconstruct them. They were asked to look at how small details in one section influence the overall appearance and meaning of an artwork. This begs the question, what would happen to the visitor's experience and impression of the quilts if they had been paired differently? What if they were ordered numerically with the Brown's, TTT, and Poulson Slaver quilt in one room and the Airport, Obama, and Watermen in another? It is worth considering how that would change the feeling of each room as well as how it would alter how you would consider each artwork.

Not sure what I am getting at? Let me explain through a story from my past life as a contractor at the National Portrait Gallery. In 2006, NPG reopened to the public after a multi-year building renovation and reinstallation of its entire collection. One of the exhibition series the museum introduced was entitled Portraiture Now which highlights the work of current portrait artists. The first installment of this exhibition included the work of two photographers, two painters, and one sculptor. The sculptor, Nina Levy, creates portraits by making sculptures of her subject's heads which are then exhibited by hanging them at their actual height. For this exhibition, the museum asked Ms. Levy to create the heads of each of the other artists in the exhibition. These four heads were then hung on one side of the room in a group while a full body sculpture of Ms. Levy was placed in the opposite corner facing the four heads. When you walked into the room, it appeared that the sculpture of Ms. Levy was contemplating the four heads on the other side of the room. What does this say? Was the placement of these artworks meant to suggest such a thing? What did it imply that the four heads were men and the full body sculpture was a woman? What about the fact that she is the only 3-D artist while the others all deal with one dimensional objects? What does it add to or take away from the exhibit installation that the full body sculpture was not created for this exhibition unlike the other four pieces and had in fact been created completely separately from this whole process? What would you think if the full body sculpture was in the middle of the room and the four heads in the corners of the room? What if the heads were not displayed in a group? What if...? Are you beginning to see what I mean?

Now that I have sufficiently filled your brain with food for thought, I am going to leave you to contemplate. More blog postings to come and in a much more frequent manner. After all, I have pictures of the National Black Theater Festival quilt in construction to share. For a teaser, let me share this - after finishing the Watermen quilt, Dr. Gaither stated she wouldn't make another quilt that large. Let's just say the name Pinocchio came to mind when thinking about that statement as I looked at this latest installment of the My American Series!

By the way, only 2 more weeks to see the My American Series at School 33 Art Center! The exhibition closes 14 August 2010!

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