BY LENNIE BENNETT
Times Art Critic
When the Whitney Museum of American Art featured Amish pieced quilts in a 1971 exhibition, the art world gasped — homey craft in an institution of high art! — and then fell all over itself in rapturous acclaim.
I can remember how quickly quilt chic entered the interior design vocabulary; suddenly old quilts (preferably the dramatic Amish pieced types) appeared in glossy shelter magazine spreads, and my friends and I hung them on our walls in lesser versions of those glamorous interiors.
That mania, along with a burst of nostalgia in 1976 during our nation's bicentennial, is generally credited for a revival of interest in quiltmaking, and for introducing the art quilt, a new genre, which began snowballing in the early 1980s. Sixty-four examples at Florida International Museum on loan from the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum are a survey of that movement.
They illustrate how the art quilt really is a different animal even from the beautifully executed quilts we're used to seeing in exhibitions. The art quilt uses the quilt as a means rather than an end, as a painter uses oils or acrylic.
The show is arranged chronologically beginning in the early 1980s with experiments in breaking from craft strictures and expectations. Tafi Brown's Jewells looks like a standard Diamond in a Square quilt from a distance but at closer look you see that she uses photographic reproductions on the fabric that tell the story of a wood-frame house being built.
Radka Donnell shook things up in 1982 with a quilt that looks more like an exploration of Matisse motifs. In 1984, Nancy Erickson references influences such as cave paintings and Picasso's monumental period in a boldly appliqueed work, The Purple Woman, the Guardians and the Sand.
Experimentation continued into the 1990s. Patty Hawkins exaggerates the optical illusion of the old Tumbling Blocks pattern in Road Blocks, which has the intensity of an abstract expressionist painting. The association of a quilt with comfort and sense of security was subverted by a number of artists who used them as vehicles for political statements, as Terrie Hancock Mangat did with Desert Storm, 1993, which looks like another pretty quilt from a distance. As you move in, you see it's laden with tiny plastic skeletons, crushed toy cars and gas stations.
Thank heavens beauty persists and is valued, as in Phil D. Jones' impressionist traditional landscape, Red Rover, and Erika Carter's abstract interpretation, Solitude IX.
There are a few cliches and banalities in this show, but the size of it guarantees a rich and varied introduction to the art quilt. It taught me a lot about its possibilities and potential.
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Almost as big and impressive is "Sew — It's Art," quilts selected by curator Christine Renc-Carter from six guilds in Pinellas County. Clearly, we have a lot of homegrown talent. Some are national award winners.
Pauline Salzman is allotted a small gallery for a group of her charming portraits — dogs, especially — and scenic narratives. Carol Betts' showstopping celebration of rural Florida's abundance is displayed so that you see its equally compelling backing, the flip side of paradise after pollution does its work.
Vignettes featuring old sewing machines, tools, materials and catalogs and choice vintage quilts are arranged throughout the gallery.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.