by Sarah Archer
Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square, a geometric touchstone in the center of an old, well-crafted American city, is a fitting location for the first exhibition of Sabrina Gschwandtner’s film quilts in Pennsylvania. About eighty miles west of Philadelphia, the Lancaster Quilt and Textile Museum holds a renowned collection of nineteenth- and twentieth-century quilts made by the German and Swiss settlers whose culture, food, clothing, and decorative arts are now instantly recognizable as “Pennsylvania Dutch.” Amish and Mennonite women have made extraordinary quilts in this region for over two centuries, balancing a religious mandate to live simply and separately with a bold, distinctive sense of geometry, pattern, and color, plainly evident in their work. Though in certain contexts their creations could stand toe-to-toe with paintings by Frank Stella, the quilters’ gendered and religious anonymity means we will likely never know their identities.
For several reasons, an Amish quilter transported through time and space from nineteenth-century Lancaster County to twenty-first-century Philadelphia would probably find one of Gschwandtner’s film quilts unintelligible, not least because the technology of film (obsolete though it may be, from our point of view) would be a foreign concept. More importantly, they are “nonfunctional” in the purely domestic understanding of the word. Made from acetate or polyester, materials that could not be less cozy, they lack the raison d’être of most quilts: comfort. Gschwandtner’s creations offer a subtle rebuke to the notion that in order to be valid, women’s labor must be of use to someone, or, more specifically, should serve the well-being of their families. Gschwandtner’s quilts decouple the relationship between the personal, tactile pleasure of creation and the domestic utility of a quilt, as bedclothes or even decor. Looking at Amish quilts today, I wonder if quilters “got away with” spending so much time and effort on their quilts because their ultimate use was the perfect embodiment of maternal duty. Perhaps they did, and perhaps the very act of quilting was consciously subversive. Alas, we will never know.
“Quilts in Women’s Lives,” Copyright 1981 by Ferrero Films
In the 1960s and 1970s, a growing awareness of the vast reservoirs of unattributed female labor (the products of which are evident all around us) inspired feminist filmmakers, artists, and craftspeople to capture, record, and interpret activities such as quilting. This visual legacy forms yet another distinct layer in Gschwandtner’s work. Pat Ferrero’s 1981 documentary Quilts in Women’s Lives, which features prominently in Gschwandtner’s piece of the same name, is a bit like a film quilt flipped inside out: the women Ferrero interviewed tell their quilting stories on camera one by one, and these narratives are stitched together to form a larger whole. The stories represent individual lines of technique and creative passion, in some cases passed down from grandmother to mother to daughter. In other cases, quilting is lauded, in pitch-perfect second-wave feminist style, as a physical demarcation of feminine space and place.
Detail, “Arts and Crafts,” 2012, 16 mm film, polyamide thread.
Julia Bryan-Wilson points out in her interview with Gschwandtner that the artist’s film quilts cause the physical artifacts of the filmstrips to straddle two worlds: they exist simultaneously as translucent representations of another place and time and as physical objects in their own right. In that sense, they wryly nod to Gschwandtner’s own history as a semiotics student at Brown University in the late 1990s. Even as the quilts are present before us, they signify another physical reality altogether. They also reward close inspection and physical proximity. Though they glow radiantly in photographs, only by peering at them a few inches from the surface can a viewer behold the tiny narratives that form the quilts’ patterns. An astonishing array of “scenes” becomes visible in each quilt: lines of text, washes of color, and glimpses of the people featured in the various films modeling clothes or telling stories, disembodied, but still present, even highlighted.
Standing in the galleries at the Philadelphia Art Alliance, visitors may also be aware that they are inside a former domestic space, the Wetherill Mansion. What is now public was once private, which provides a very particular cultural and architectural subtext to every exhibition presented here. In so many ways, Gschwandtner’s film quilts embody dualities and invite viewers to revel in their complexities: light and dark, present and past, physical and ephemeral, soft cotton and tough polyester, traditional and conceptual, here and there.
“Sunshine and Shadow” is on view at PAA through August 18th. Later this summer, PAA will publish a catalog from the exhibition featuring an interview with the artist by Julia Bryan-Wilson, and an introduction by Glenn Adamson, photography by Matt Suib, Greenhouse Media, and designed by Will Work For Good. This catalog is made possible in part by LMAK Projects, New York.
Sarah Archer is Senior Curator at the PAA.