Memphis Brooks Museum of Art's current exhibition, "Pieced and Patterned: Southern Quilts 1840-1940," covers a pivotal century in American history. The materials and designs on display as well as the texts and placards that accompany them are full of rich asides and insights into the political, economic, and social upheavals and the dramatic changes in attitudes regarding race, class, and gender that occurred during those 100 years. But what makes "Pieced and Patterned" a must-see show is associate curator Stanton Thomas' assemblage of quilts created with skill, passion, and originality.
In Eva Lena Harrington's Quilt - Hatchet, nearly seven square feet of row after row of small, white "hatchets" pieced on top of an ebony background look more like a huge work of Op Art (stark, crisp, geometric, pulsating) than a soft, hand-sewn quilt.
Hundreds of diamond-shaped pieces of silk, needle-pointed and pieced with consummate skill, suggest facets of light in Quilt - Touching Stars. Gaze for a while at the complex palette and kaleidoscopic shape of nine stars radiating across 83 square inches of pale blue silk, and the work begins to look like fabric art's answer to the Big Bang. The maker of the quilt is unknown. She was perhaps someone's wife, someone's mother but not an artist in her own right. Her anonymity speaks volumes about gender in the early 1800s.
The embroidered and pieced surface of Quilt - Snakes accentuates the rise and fall of serpents slithering across a blue-green background. Their complex bands of color suggest poisonous vipers. The quilt's vibrant colors and associations with warmth, deep sleep, and dreams mesmerize even as we squirm and try to look away.
Through May 17th
Closing reception, Thursday, May 14th, 6-9 p.m.
In her L Ross Gallery exhibition "Footprint of the Ancients," Lisa Jennings gessoes fine handmade papers onto canvas, paints them with acrylics, then scumbles and scrapes back through layers of paper and paint to suggest Ireland's limestone cliffs, cobalt waves churned by Atlantic squalls, and curraghs, the ancient boats used to carry the Irish between islands and along the coast.
With each successive exhibition, Jennings further masters nuances of color, texture, and subtle figuration. Her gradation from cadmium yellow to palest lemon in Green Days in a Forest registers as luminous, nearly seamless light. We can almost feel the biting cold in the frozen white-gold mists that fade to blue-gray in Winter Moon. Light shining off what could be a slanted shoulder and shin suggest the lift and turn of a body about to step out of crumbling limestone.
The artist's strikingly original motifs are complex enough to suggest lines of narrative as well as psychological and physical terrain. In Vessel, a blue-gray figure elongates, refracts, and dissolves into a thalo sea. Complex patterns of drips and washes take us down to pitch-black waters. Diagonal shafts of energy thrust us back up to the surface where sunlight filters through Ireland's ever-present coastal mists, turning the oars and prow of an empty curragh into gold.
Through May 31st
Artist, activist, and social satirist Niki Johnson has gathered together works by 13 noted painters, sculptors, photographers, and videographers for "Baker's Dozen: An Unorthodox Benefit for UrbanArt," being held Friday, May 15th, in three Broad Avenue venues: Material, UrbanArt, and Odessa. If you like your art layered with complex ideas and irony, this is your kind of auction.
Liz Daggett's recipe for art calls for equal parts passion, skill, and originality as she projects her four-minute, multi-screen video James Baker's Dozen into the rounded cups of a six-muffin baking tin. One of the round screens shows environmentalist James Baker's passionate, intelligent face as he shares 12 tips for saving energy and the world. Some of the muffin-cup screens are portholes into the lives of animals struggling to live in increasingly compromised environments. Others serve as wormholes in time as Daggett splices in an early television commercial asserting that particularly caustic cleansers are safe as well as effective.
In Christian Westphal's Nightlife, a man in silhouette strides across cracked pavement backdropped by trash and glaring streetlights. Westphal pulls off this noir scene of crumbling American infrastructure with a can of industrial-grade spray paint.
In Richard Gamble's unsettling and sardonic People Are Generally Trustworthy, dark-red crime-scene tape is painted across the urine-yellow bodies of two rabbits dressed in outfits that bring to mind clowns and vaudeville performers. As we decimate rabbits' warrens in the name of urban sprawl, we defile these creatures in ways that bring plenty of adjectives to mind (none of them synonymous with "trustworthy").
With humor and style, the exhibition's 13 artists have also designed limited-edition T-shirts. At 10 bucks per T, they're the best art bargains in town.
"The Baker's Dozen" opening reception at UrbanArt, Material, and Odessa, is Friday, May 15th, 6-8 p.m., $5. The silent auction is at Odessa from 6 to 8 p.m. To preview auction items, go to nikijohnson.net.