Thursday, May 03, 2007

If it's an art quilt, does the back matter?

I'm a regular lurker on the Quilt Art discussion list and find a lot of interesting ideas and information there.

Recently, someone complained that a judge had given her quilt a negative comment because the back of her art quilt wasn't as neat as it could be. This led to a discussion of why quilt show judges even look at the backs of art quilts. One guy disagreed with the analogy between art quilts and paintings, suggesting that quilts are 3 dimensional objects while most paintings are meant to be 2D. Then a number of people replied to disagree with him, supporting the position that the backs of art quilts shouldn't be the subject of judges' comments.

I couldn't help jumping into the discussion, and because it's one of those interesting art quilt "controversies" (or storms in a teapot, really) I thought I'd post what I said here. What do you all think on the subject?

I'm probably expressing an unpopular view by saying this, but I'm going to anyway: I think that by making art in the "art quilt arena," you have to at least acknowledge long standing QUILT traditions. You may not buy into them, you may want to change them, you may disagree with them. But many people's (and judges') perceptions about what a QUILT should be aren't going to vanish just because some artists think they're not important. If an artist wants his or her work to be judged by traditional "art" standards, totally divorced from quilt-related standards, then I think submitting them to judged "quilt" shows doesn't make a lot of sense. Yes, I know that putting avant-garde fiber work in quilt shows educates and surprises and pleases a lot of viewers. And that's a great thing, I think. But to complain that the judges aren't judging them fairly because they're looking at both sides of the work seems simply silly to me under those circumstances.

And I agree with Scott that the quilt tradition (from which art quilting has evolved) is different than the traditions of painting or drawing. Quilts ARE generally viewed as 3-d objects, and all of their dimensions have been viewed as aspects of their beauty. We've probably all seen art quilts hanging in shows or galleries to display both the front and back, and where the beauty of the back (even beyond a fantastic front) has drawn crowds of admirers. Even though many of us don't want to do that sort of work or don't have the technical skill to do that sort of work, it's nevertheless impressive.

Now, I know that some artists don't want to worry about that. And I understand that there are artists who want the work to be judged ONLY on the front. Some artists want their work judged only on color/composition/design and not on the technique and competent use of the media. Again, I think that's ignoring a long piece of quilt tradition (and quilt ART tradition) and I think it's potentially selling yourself and your work short. Quilt artists work in a medium that has benefits beyond painting and collage. I think quilt art would be advanced, not diminished, if artists acknowledged that the dual-sided aspect of it is one to enjoy and exploit. And, just as traditional art elements such as color, design, composition, etc. are significant, so are how the media is manipulated in conveying the subject of the work. Does the back always need to be stunning? No, I don't think so. But does it need to be passably neat? If you're entering a "quilt" show where you're submitting your work to be judged, then I think that yes, it should.

And, I'll confess, when people protest loudly that only the front of the quilt should matter, I can't help wonder why they're protesting so much? Is it the inability to improve their technique so the back is passable? Is it that they just don't want to bother with the detail aspect? They're not open to learning how to improve their technique? They don't think technique matters?

I really do see all sides of this issue. But to me, CONTEXT matters. Call your work "fiber art" and enter it in a art show, and the back will be ignored. Fine. But call your work "QUILT art" and enter it in a quilt show to be judged? The resulting suggestion that aspects of technique or the back could be improved don't seem inappropriate to me.


  1. Very valid points Diane. While I would say that the back should not matter the truth is that it does when put into the 'quilt' context as you have stated. I did notice that at every opportunity to do so,quilters all want to look at the back what does that say!

  2. Anonymous3:24 PM

    I'm with you Diane. One of teh reasons I have chosen quilting as an artistic medium is because of it's history and connotations. To deny these by treating the work as a fabric collage is to deny the powerful messages inherent in the quilt itself. It has crossed my mind, however, to forego binding ona quilt and wrap it aound canvas stretcher bars. One could concievably have a very messy back that way, and cover it with a "dust cover" on the back of the frame. Call it quilted textile art.

  3. I agree with you. An artist is one who produces quality work regardless of wheither or not a piece of it will be shown. I think it is shoddy craftsmanship when a potter doesn't finish the bottom of a piece, or a wood worker doesn't pay attention to the drawer slides - they don't show, but it will influence wheither I buy the piece or not. Why should art quilts be exempt from quality of workmanship! Putting soap box away now. Thanks!

  4. I agree with you. To me a quilt is a quilt -- for a wall or for a bed -- it has two sides. The "Art Quilt" is finding its place in the quilt world, but it is the QUILT world, not the art world.
    I think fiber artists have to find their own way in the art world where backs don't matter.
    Almost every quilter I know wants to see the back of a quilt.

  5. I love looking at the back of quilts. If the quilt is an Art Quilt the backing does not have to be finished or have binding. Overall neatness still should count.

  6. Great discussion points here.

  7. Diane, Coming late to the discussion since I have been traveling and teaching so much, I have come to the same conclusions as you. We are working in a completely different style and tradition than painting and yet the visual imagery is what is important. Not to be strident but I don't suffer fools gladly. How can the front of the quilt be so stunning if the quilt is not constructed well enough for the back to be see. I think they work hand in hand.