Friday, November 12, 2010

Representational "vs." Non-Representational Art

There's been quite a bit of chatter lately on some textile art internet groups about what appears to be a growing trend: juror preference for non-representational over representational work.    The conversation started when an attendee at the Quilt=Art=Quilt show (which she thought was very striking) commented on her perception that there were very few representational pieces in the show.

To start, let's be clear on some definitions.  Because I can't possibly say it better, I'm going to borrow from Elizabeth Barton:

A quilt which strove to totally recreate a specific scene or photograph would be representational, one which took some elements from a scene and modified them would be abstract and one which had no reference whatsoever to anything in real life would be non-representational.

So, is it true?  Is there a preference for non-representational and abstract work over representational?

Without knowing the pool of entries, it's difficult to fault the jurors with having a bias.  Perhaps there simply weren't as many good representational works submitted as non-representational.  And, let's face it, even a Renoir would look out of place in a room full of Pollocks and Kandinskys, so can't you blame a juror for thinking the same in selecting a cohesive textile exhibit.

However, I have done a little bit of research over the past few days and I do think there's some merit to the statement that abstract and non-representational art is being shown more often in some recent exhibitions. To start, I reviewed the Art Quilt Elements catalog.  I know that there were over 600 pieces entered into that show.  Of the 50 which were selected, only three would qualify as representational.  The rest were predominantly non-representational, with about seven that could be considered abstract -- and they're pushing the definition to its limit.  

Then I looked up the artists who were accepted recently into Form, Not Function at the Carnegie.  The jurors received almost 400 entries and 31 were selected.  While I wasn't able to access pictures of all the selected works, I extrapolated from other artworks on artist websites as to what type of work the artist does.   There are certainly artists whose work uses identifiable human form (such as Shawn Quinlan), but they are highly stylized and abstracted, so only four artists that I could identify -- extrapolating from other works they've done -- might have a representational piece in the show.

Finally, I looked at Rayna Gillman's blog post about the recent Festival of Quilts in England. She notes that European textile artists are predominantly creating abstract and non-representational works and this was reflected in the show.  You can see that borne out in her pictures.  Hmmmm.......  

So what does this all mean for those artists whose voice speaks to them in representational terms?  Well, I don't think it means give up.  I think perhaps it means create more and better work and get it out there.... if that's what motivates you.  Some of the representational works I came across as I did my research had a social or political bent to it, but I don't think that's necessary to do good work.  This trend does suggest that we have to create art that does more than make a viewer say "oh how pretty".  It has to be thoughtful and evocative on several levels.  It has to give pause and pull a viewer in to consider and contemplate.   But then, isn't all good work supposed to? 

That's what I think right now, but I'd love to hear your comments and thoughts as well.  If I've missed something or misrepresented something, my apologies in advance and please be sure to let me know.   


susan Schrott said...

Well Said Vivien. As an artist whose work is clearly representational, I am strongly committed to staying true to my voice. My goal is to create art that expresses my visions without any thought to potential venues, juried exhibitions or what might be the trend. With that said, I am pleased to mention that my work has been juried into Schweinfurth, Pen and Brush Gallery in NYC, Earlville Opera, Sacred Threads to name a few, and a solo exhibition slated for the Spring of 2011 in Peekskill NY. My point is, be true to yourself the rest is out of your control.

Natalya Aikens said...

definitely well said as usual! keep working is my answer, don't stop. and that goes for all of us.

Michigoose said...

Vivien, I too have been thinking about this and am not sure where I will be going with it.

I think perhaps that the push to non-representation may be part of the art quilters push to be accepted into the art world instead of being labeled as "craft." If the piece is representational, then it is easier to dismiss it as being "craft" and "not art." However, if the piece is abstract or non-representational then it must stand solely on its design/execution feet and is, perhaps to the minds of some, more readily accepted as "art."

I think that this is short sighted as certainly in my book, Rembrandt is just as much loved as Mondrian. It also calls to question abstracted reality such as the pieces by Franz Marc, Gustav Klimt, and other German expressionists who made what is clearly representational, yet abstracted. Pretty pictures? Some of them are hardly that, yet the command of design, use of color and their statement is breathtaking. Are any of these less valuable? Then why should quilters have to constantly justify their work.

As art quilting/fiber arts mature and are more accepted, I think that this will change. Think of how machine quilting was NOT accepted by "real" quilters for some years and yet now, it is recognized as being equal to but different. Are photographs or watercolors any less art than oils?

I will explore non-representational art because I think I must before I draw conclusions as to my own work. Yet, I know that my feet are firmly planted in the representational world.

wlstarn said...

Not an opinion, but Hollis Chatelain's new piece "Innocence" won Viewer's Choice last weekend in Houston. She has won Best of Show there, I think, 3 times as well. It's representational but also very much fine art, and a remarkable piece (as is all her work). I've read some of the story behind it (she has a facebook page, Imagine Hope), and was lucky enough to see it in person. Don't know if she entered any of the shows you mentioned. Don't see how her work could be rejected from any show.

Cindy said...

Well said and thought provoking! I was just getting to the same conclusion through my own observations... and I agree with the previous comments also: stay true to yourself and your vision and just keep working!

Kristin L said...

Location, location, location. In the shows that aim to push the quilt as art it does seem to be a trend towards non-representational. BUT, having just been to the big quilt show in Houston, I can say that the representational in quilt art is alive and well. Everything that garnered praise from jurors and viewers was recognizable. Recognizable as a landscape, a portrait, a quilt pattern, etc. I suspect that Paducah is the same. One epiphany I had was that figurative work is not really part of the quilt vernacular. Sunbonnet Sue and Baltimore Album style fruit baskets and silhouettes are the figurative language of quilts. So, it's really hard to work realistically and make it feel right. So much looks trite. But that doesn't seem to stop the work from being made. I think the obvious answer would be to point one's work toward the venues that appreciate it, but the better answer would be to make what one is compelled to make (representational or not) but to strive always to make it as good as one possibly can and to really study light and form and composition no matter what one's subject may be.

Vivian said...

I enjoy working in many styles. My subject seems to dictate how I treat it. Sometimes I'll do a piece that is representational ... because nature made it complete. Other times, it is some aspect/emotion I feel and then it becomes abstract or non-representational.