It’s hard to imagine what the Depression-era African American women of the South would think about having their utilitarian home goods hung in an arts- and design-focused museum in a technology-rich city in 2012, let alone what they might make of being compared to mid-century abstract artists like Robert Rauschenberg and modern designers such as Marni’s Consuelo Castiglioni and Dries Van Noten.
You might not draw those connections as you walk through the fifty-something quilts in Bold Expressions: African American Quilts from the Collection of Corrine Riley, but those were my immediate references.
I saw striking and organic Rauschenberg swathes in a strip-style quilt from East Texas, circa 1930s or ’40s, and, when looking at examples of what are categorized as "controlled crazy quilts," I made plans to reorganize my already color-grouped closet in a whole new way. Reds and blues hang out with pale pink, two examples put cobalt blue with dull plum and creamy white, and different shades of denim show up in the most inspiring and satisfying ways.
The show’s blankets belong to textile and quilt collector Corrine Riley; art school exposure to modern paintings led her to seek out "things in the real world that displayed this quality of intense personal expression." The hunt yielded rich examples of asymmetry, symbolism, and mixed patterning—one piece might incorporate blocks of the traditional House Top convention as well as Lob Cabin construction though neither is strictly or classically interpreted. In fact, they could be halved, turned on their side, and colored with a whole new set of fabrics.
As with the recent and hugely popular Gee’s Bend exposition, it’s this free-feeling aesthetic that makes the show so exciting and relevant to those practicing or appreciating any and all avenues of traditional craft, re- or up-cycling, art history, and industrial or garment design. It’s Riley’s contention, and BAM’s artistic director Stefano Catalani agrees, that all of the quilters’ decisions—the random red square, the broken pattern—were intentional, but I’ve found that many artists and designers are happy to admit that their best work often comes from a happy mistake or a last-minute recovery from some supply or time shortage.
We can’t ask the women who worked alone and in quilting-bee groups about their decisions. And we can’t ask them to respond to the connections we might draw about their work. Riley knows the name of only one quilter, the rest are anonymous. The work belongs to a past that’s unknowable, abstract, and completely familiar.
In this way, it belongs to a future that feels pretty similar.