The New York Times has a fascinating new article about the life and work of Rosie Lee Tompkins, whose stunning quilting art is currently the subject of a retrospective exhibit (online, and in person) at the UC Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive.
I certainly hadn't heard of Tompkins before this. Nor had I given much thought to quilting as a modern art form, let alone a radical one. Sure, I'd seen centuries-old craftwork on display in museums. But, as I learned from the Times article, Tompkins work was a uniquely American expression — a predecessor in a way to the remix culture that would later lead to the development of hip-hop. Sometimes, you have to use whatever materials are available to you, and transform them in ways that can (hopefully) fulfill both practical and artistic purposes. And that's exactly what Tompkins did:
Tompkins was an inventive colorist whose generous use of black added to the gravity of her efforts. She worked in several styles and all kinds of fabrics, using velvets — printed, panne, crushed — to gorgeous effect, in ways that rivaled oil paint. But she was also adept with denim, faux furs, distressed T-shirts and fabrics printed with the faces of the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King Jr. and Magic Johnson.
A typical Tompkins quilt had an original, irresistible aliveness. One of her narrative works was 14 feet across, the size of small billboard. It appropriated whole dish towels printed with folkloric scenes, parts of a feed sack, and, most prominently, bright bold chunks of the American flag. What else? Bits of embroidery, Mexican textiles, fabrics printed with flamenco dancers and racing cars, hot pink batik and, front and center, a slightly cheesy manufactured tapestry of Jesus Christ. It seemed like a map of the melting pot of American culture and politics.
While works like this one relate to Pop Art, others had the power of abstraction. One of her signature velvets might be described as a "failed checkerboard." Its little squares of black and dark green, lime and blue, slide continuously in and out of register, creating the illusion of ceaseless motion, like a fractal model of rippling water
It's a long-ish feature, but it's absolutely worth reading.
The Radical Quilting of Rosie Lee Tompkins [Roberta Smith / The New York Times]