The dancers are in the venue early, working on accumulating ideas for the two encore songs that currently serve as our finale. At present they aren’t dancing in those songs, and it seems a shame for them to essentially drop out of the show at that point — so that will change after our Thanksgiving break. Some of their ideas are based on the movements I’ve been doing during those songs, but both their movements and mine will probably get expanded, tweaked and organized during some dance rehearsals we have scheduled over the break.
It’s a rainy day here, and, as sometimes (but rarely on this tour) happens, we’re stuck at a hotel in the middle of nowhere because everything in town was booked many months ago for some massive convention. I wake up on the bus and look out the windows and see an expanse of highways, parking lots and identical building blocks. We’re 6 miles from the center of town and at least 4 miles from the venue. I inquire about whether there is any mass transit into town nearby — PHART (Philadelphia area rapid transit), as Paul Frazier refers to it — but it’s not close by, either. I hitch a taxi ride into town with Jenni and Steven, who are going to the Mütter Museum, a wonderful wunderkabinett of gross-outs and medical curiosities. I’ve seen it before, so I head to the Philadelphia Museum of Art where there is an exhibition of Gee’s Bend quilts and a retrospective of work by a man named James Castle, whom I suspect not many have heard of.
At the top of the steps to the art museum tourists strike Rocky Balboa poses, their fists up in the air. There are lots of Rockys today, as it’s a weekend — a black-suited Chinese man, a young black kid from a school group and a large white man all assume the position simultaneously.
The Gee’s Bend quilts are something special. They were previously shown at the Whitney in NY, and one can see why. They are made by a small community descended from former slaves on a river near Selma, Alabama. The website states:
From Seattle PI:
Kimmelman's reaction was widely shared. Golden stood alone, or nearly so, at least in public. The subtext of her argument seemed to be that she recoiled at the sight of white people exclaiming over black craft. Their admiration struck her as patronizing. For the same reason, some black people do not want to listen to black blues artists playing in clubs filled with white people "getting down," because white joy of that sort saps a black experience of its legitimacy, creating a chasm between the art and its original audience.
Kimmelman and Thelma’s reactions raise a whole world of questions. Does it matter where these objects — or others exhibited, recorded or written — come from? Does context and history determine the meaning of what we look at and see? In other words, are these quilts amazing because they are made by women unschooled in art history or are they incredible for what they are? Is a song by an unschooled self-taught musician any less moving, deep and wonderful that something by an academic composer? (There’s an amazing record of spiritual songs recorded at Gee’s Bend.) Is there any way to hear or see things free of history, class or context? Probably not. Does it matter? All of this sort of applies to James Castle’s work — and to lots of other stuff as well. We’re not just talking about some quilt makers here.
Here’s one made with leftover blue jeans:
When we see these quilts, do we see them through our knowledge and experience of Klee and Matisse? (I’d add Rauschenberg and Sigmar Polke to that, too.)
Here’s one made out of football jerseys:
And another that incorporates images and text “panels”:
Have we learned to experience these disrupted and “musical” patterns though our experience of fine art? Is that similarity what makes us stop in our tracks when we see these quilts? That certainly must have had something to do with why they have been exhibited in a series of high art institutions. But I would argue that’s not the whole story. The inventiveness, the mixture of African rhythm and Amish austerity, the humor and creativity visible in these quilts is not something only students of art history can experience. Those qualities, I maintain, are human, and they cross race, class and social barriers. I think that the erasing of those lines is part of what we’re seeing and experiencing as well, and it feels good. It doesn’t lessen the work’s context, the specific nature of the history of Gee’s Bend or of each artist in the collective, to feel that either.
Though part of the picture painted here is of an isolated community, separate from the contamination of the marketplace and the art world, that’s not entirely true, at least not the first part. Some of the Gee’s bend quilters were contracted by Sears, the giant mail order dept store, to make pillowcases in mass quantitites that were informed by their tradition. The remnants from the pillowcase material, particularly an avocado green fabric popular for one decade, found its way into the quilts as well. So they’re not “pure” in that sense, though we might wish they were in certain ways. But that lack of purity is often where the joy and creativity lie, and the obsessive need for authenticity and purity are often what saps the life out of a tradition or out of a person’s creative impulse.
James Castle was a deaf man born at the turn of the 20th century on a farm in Idaho. He refused to learn to read, write or sign, but he made lots of art. The work I’d seen previously were “drawings” of banal farm scenes — a barn with a fence, a shed with a chair — made out of soot and spit. This show, a retrospective, shows that he made a lot more than that, in a variety of styles and mediums. As with the Gee’s Bend crew, one can’t help but be shocked at the uncanny parallels to works by Warhol, Ruscha and a whole mess of others. Once again one wonders if those parallels make Castle’s work more incredible. Once again it would be hard to deny that those parallels are probably why his work is being shown here in a giant art museum.
Here’s one of the shack interiors. Completely banal and schematic. There are lots of shack drawings, as if he was cataloging a typology of shack interiors and exteriors. His world, maybe?
A kaleidoscopic rendering of matchbox labels:
And a similar kaleidoscopic rendering of a photo of businessmen:
In these works and in some of the quilts there is what is now called appropriation — using recognizable labels, texts, and images — grabbing them, re-working them, re-presenting them. It’s a recognition that the glut of reproduced images, photos, logos, typefaces and texts that makes up our world and that of the 20th century is indeed our environment….even that of rural Idaho.
Now, one of the qualities that is often brought up to separate Castle or the Gee’s bend artists from those who more regularly show in fine art galleries, auction houses and museums is intention. It is assumed that there is an awareness and intention in a work by Warhol, Ruscha, Betcher, Polke, whomever, that is not there in someone like Castle. I would suggest that his work proves that this is just not true. His intentions may not be geared towards the same marketplace, collectors and trade publications, but aesthetically it’s all there. The response to the world, a way of looking, a seriousness, and an investigation of phenomena, thoroughly done and from multiple angles — it’s all right there. I would argue that his work and that of the quilters proves that, well, nutty as it might sound, some part of the visual and material response to our world is innate — and like myths, a similar response might occur and recur across time and space — unconnected yet uncannily similar.