Sunday, October 28, 2007

Going West - Quilts & Community @ The Renwick Gallery

We weren’t the only ones who could not (even with begging and pleading) gain admission to the Corcoran’s exhibits on a late Saturday afternoon, so if you are headed for the Leibovitz/Adams shows, get there early in the day! All wasn’t lost … the Renwick is a few short walking blocks away and we comfortably strolled through the Going West exhibit without nary an elbow bumping. The Renwick Gallery is a fine, first rate museum in its own right; it houses a dynamic collection of examples of American contemporary craft, art, and design spanning the 19th - 21st centuries.

Featured in the Going West exhibit are about 50 rare quilts from the first quarter of the 19th century to the 1930s. If you can imagine embarking on the journey out west, and having to bring along only a few cherished keepsakes, then your appreciation for the sentimentality of these items will be right on key. Or better yet, imagine the life of a woman newly established in her prairie home, and her need to create items not available at the local Target.

Necessity IS the mother of invention, and the Going West quilts prove that there was a deep focus on recording family history, using available objects (see the quilt made out of neckties), the irrefutable strength of the creative spirit, and the desire to commemorate important anniversaries in the lives of community members. It is interesting to consider how these quilts might have represented efforts in journaling or even fundraising. And from a crafts perspective, well they are just inspiring.

If you plan to visit the gorgeously detailed works, we would like to suggest a method of viewing. To really appreciate the work, materials, and time invested in craftsmanship, the trick is to stand as close to the quilt as the museum curators will allow. Isolate a six inch square, or a series of six inch squares, to really see the art embedded in the various cloths and stitches. This is particularly illuminating with the use of velvet cloth against other materials - one can see how the shimmer impacts the commonality of cotton cloth for example.

A quilt is a collage, a composite whole of smaller unrelated parts. And although the whole can be quite stunning, the devil is in the detail with a careful examination of the pieces. If you consider assemblage, construction, color selection, and composition, it will help to transport you back to the Wild West. Quilts from this exhibition are a fine example of a continuum along the tradition of useful textiles. They provide insight to the essential role that quilts and the making of quilts played in the lives of women on the frontier and they are (in my mind) a testament to feminism even, in their own sort-of-quasi-political-way.

The Going West exhibit runs to Jan 21, 2008. The Renwick Gallery is part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and is located on 17th Street & Pennsylvania Ave, NW. Admission is free. Hours: Daily, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., closed December 25. Tours and General Info: 202-633-8550. Be sure to check the calendar, as the Renwick hosts a series of crafts demonstrations, lectures, receptions, and musical performances in its mission to collect and preserve the finest in American crafts.