Not quite like granny used to sew

Forget the sensations in Saatchi's Young British Artists collection or the experimentations of New York's TriBeCa scene - one of the hot art commodities this year is quilts.

Yes, quilts - those cozy creations piled up in your grandmother's closet. In addition to the dozens of shows and contests put on by quilting groups nationwide, fine-arts museums are hosting some 15 substantial quilting exhibits this year, sandwiched in between the Rodins and the Renoirs.

But these are not necessarily your grandmother's quilts.

The traveling exhibit "The Quilts of Gee's Bend," which recently arrived at New York's Whitney Museum, features off-beat colors and asymmetrical designs, prompting The New York Times' Michael Kimmelman to call them "some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced."

There was also the recent "Oxymorons: Absurdly Logical Quilts" in Muskegon, Mich., and the current "Quilt Visions 2002" at the Oceanside Museum of Art in San Diego, Calif. Both shows feature contemporary quilts, known as "art quilts," which incorporate innovative designs and unconventional materials into concepts that would probably cause nightmares to anyone who tried to cozy up to them.

For instance, quilter Jeanne Williamson Ostroff has placed her "current events (in weekly quilts)" series on the Web (www.artquilt.net), using thread and stitching to create quick, weekly quilts that juxtapose autumn leaves or snow scenes with bombs and war wreckage. And there's no question that the celestial shapes and bursting color in a work such as "Aurora" by fine-arts quilter Michael James were never intended to be anywhere near a bed.

Quilts, of course, have always been artistic. The bold patchwork of even those quilts that were considered traditional was first recognized by a major museum more than 30 years ago. Curator/collector Jonathan Holstein showed "Abstract Design in American Quilts" at the Whitney Museum in 1971.

Today, curators showcasing "traditional" quilts originally intended for utilitarian purposes, such as the "Gee's Bend" exhibit and the early works to be showcased at "Wild by Design" at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln early next year, continue to highlight the innovation and artistry of quiltmaking.

"They are Jackson Pollack's paintbrush on a quilt - with his color," says Peter Marzio, director of the Gee's Bend exhibit at Houston's Museum of Fine Arts. "There is nothing down-home about them," he insists. "You would never, never confuse them with what you would consider a folk quilt."

Curators like Mr. Marzio contend that the balance between traditional and innovative in quilting isn't an either/or issue: Innovation is the tradition. And it's a tradition that some 20 million quilters (the oft-quoted statistic among quilting groups) are continuing with some degree of artistic merit.

Increasingly, quilts are simply becoming an alternative to canvas for self expression.

"For me, it was the function of the quilt that drew me in," says Julia Zgliniec, president of Quilt San Diego/Quilt Visions. "I was a mediocre painter, and what are you going to do with a garage full of mediocre paintings? ... And if [the quilt] didn't work out, I could always let the dog lie on it."

In the past couple of decades, Ms. Zgliniec has seen an increase in conceptual themes in quilts, with more acceptance of machine stitching and embellishment, known as "thread painting," allowing quicker turnaround of a quilter's ideas and emotions.

But not all art critics are convinced that the designs found on quilts fit into the category of art. A Wall Street Journal article incited an angry reaction from quilting groups when it called art quilts "beaux-arts blankies" and suggested that museums were being cheap and lazy when they exhibited quilt shows. "This is a huge question for the art world right now, whether crafts belong in a museum," says Tom Weber, Weekend Journal deputy editor. "One thing that may have gotten lost in this larger question, is to see some of the underlying factors - the relative cheapness of staging these exhibits.... The insurance costs are less, the shipping costs are less. And all this makes the shows pretty attractive. It definitely has a crowd-pleasing element to it, and that's got to be a factor."

The article prompted MFA Houston's Marzio to visit The Wall Street Journal's office in New York. That quilts still get dismissed, frustrates, but does not surprise him. "It's just trying to overcome this thing that when you say quilts, people think Quaker."

Janet Koplos, senior editor of Art in America, agrees: "To attack quilts because they're cheaper to ship - or because people like them - seems wildly off the point," she wrote in an e-mail interview. "The proof of whether something should be shown in a museum is whether it rewards attention, and quilts are as interesting as other art forms."

While the art world debates the relative merits of quilting, one thing remains clear from the museum shows from Maine to Muskegon and beyond: Quilt art is happening, it's evolving - and it's not always cozy.

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