Above: All That’s Left to Hold On To, 80”x152”
Fabric and paint continuously appear to work in tandem with one another. Whether it is juxtaposition, confrontation, interrogation, or conversation, it seems that artists have an infallible will to pair these two materials in some conceptual capacity. Often this appears as a way to confront or introduce feminist discourse, issues around materiality, or a dismantling of consumerist, often sexist, habits prevalent within Modernism and contemporary abstraction.
Heather Jones's solo exhibition Convergence, currently installed at Moremen Gallery, explores all of the connections mentioned above. Jones lives on a small farm with her husband and children outside of Dayton, Ohio, and is "steeped in the history of quilt making and a vast group of unknown female makers. [The] subject of [her] work is unequivocally feminist; Jones chose to work with fabric rather than paint, in reference and reverence to the fact that the fiber arts were often the only type of art that a woman was encouraged to practice for many years.”1 In the statement joined with this body of work, textiles are consistently contrasted with painting instead of, say, other traditional art forms such as ceramics or sculpture.
Jones' work fits into a feminist tradition that discusses domestic labor and the sexist devaluing of domestic labor (systemically established during the Industrial Revolution through Post-War American culture). While navigating this hefty topic, she also explores the power of color variance and formal concerns. Subtle shifts of cool to warm whites, shifts from mars black to carbon black, and oscillations between vermillion and cadmium reds all sway and breath in this exhibition. This calls for an attention to detail, both conceptual and formal, that is rewarding and pleasurable. These subtle shifts are the audience's first formal indicator that the artist has a skilled understanding of painting and capital-P Paintings’ rules and functions. Here, color and its subtlety give us a clue as to how Jones plans on using Painting’s languages as a way to discuss the oppression of women.
Imperfect hems, found in pieces such as In the Maze of Her Imagination (2021) or It Took A Thousand Years to Get (2020), manifest painterly error and material accidentalism that knocks the object down a notch or two from what appears to be meticulous, even, applications of color. This effect is made by stretching the patchwork quilt over the hardboard panel. This 'flaw' is acknowledged and utilized by the artist to deploy a serendipitous path towards wabi sabi. Where these textile works could be interpreted within the tradition of Helen Frankenthaler or Hilma af Klimt, this misalignment of hems, caused by pulling the quilted fabric taut over wood panels, emphasizes the body of the artist. Hems that subtly curve and sway over the frame document the direction of stretched force by the artist's hand. This documentation of the artists' body resembles the documentation of family lineage that is often present in Pennsylvanian quilt making, where quilted patterns often use hand-me-down and reused family garments in lieu of new materials. Here the artist and lineage evolve to display the connection between textiles, care-taking, and the body. Where there is value in these details for the viewer, I find the intriguing guts of Jones' work to be its use of material symbolism as inversion or critique of Abstract Expressionist hegemony.
Her confrontation of abstract painting and its relationship to white, cis-gendered, Euro-Centric pedagogy applies textiles and domestic "craft" goods (i.e., the quilt) to the contextual object identified as a painting (i.e., a geometric form on a wall with a short depth and broad surface area with various materials / colors applied to the surface). Jones aims to convince the viewer that the creative objects historically tied to American Euro-centric women2 maintain an equal value to the fetish objects3 created during the United States' Abstract Expressionist heyday by stealing one of their defining qualities: their physicality and lack of utility.
In addition to all of this play with symbolism referencing quilt making and abstract painting, we return to the very beginning of the exhibition, to Jones' All That's Left to Hold On To (2020). In All That’s Left, Jones has left the quilt off of the stretcher, choosing instead to use grommets to drape the quilted work upon the wall and allowing for folds and a graceful suspension of the material. This isn’t an attempt at ingenuity, rather, Jones is again looking to the history of painting, and the critique of ‘master painter’ narratives that center cis-white men. Here, she looks at abstract painting and the tool that artists have in choosing shapes of canvases as a symbol, and she pulls from another painter who was combating the white-male perspectives heavy in painting and abstraction: Sam Gilliam. Gilliam famously ended up stripping his paintings from their support structure to make an expansive object that responded to its own surface, surroundings, and gravity itself. Here, by choosing to not only associate the texitile wall works to patchwork quilting, she also places herself within a tradition of artists working to counter the white, male, cis-gendered hegemony within Abstract Expressionism.
All this being said, the most successful works are far more aggressive than their counterparts. Pieces like Don’t Let it Go Out (2021) whose color choices, a pungent chartreuse and varying hot pinks, hold a tension between toxicity and utter joy that destabilizes the exhibition. Jones has chosen to adhere to a very Bauhausian4, modernist palette of blacks, whites, and reds in her other works, and this switch to fluorescents feels contemporary, playful, and angsty. Jones’ use of drama is the solution if her goal is to destabilize, or at least discuss, sexist practices in the arts both contemporary and historical.
- Artist Statement, http://www.heatherjonesstudio.com/about
- I'm applying this specifically to American White Euro-centric women because, though Indigenous and African American women that were victims of slavery participated cultivating 'domestic' goods, they either participated in, or were forced, into performing many other activities outside the home (such as farming and mercantile work).
- an object believed to have supernatural powers, or in particular, a human-made object that has power over others. This term has evolved throughout history with new variations being coined by philosophers, Hegel and Freud, to name a few. Here, we refer to paintings such as those made by Mark Rothko or Jackson Pollock that have unnecessarily been endowed with a mystic that was later deemed a quality that also gave it commercial value.
- The Bauhaus was a German art school operational from 1919 to 1933 that combined crafts and the fine arts.The school became famous for its approach to design, which attempted to unify the principles of mass production with individual artistic vision and strove to combine aesthetics with everyday function.
Megan Bickel (MFA 2021) is a multi-disciplinary artist and writer working at the intersections of painting, new media, and data visualization. She is the founder and organizer of houseguest gallery based in Louisville, Kentucky, and is currently pursuing her M.A. in Digital Studies of Language, Culture, and History at the University of Chicago.
When The Stars Fall From The Sky, 36”x36”
No Spoken Words, 36”x36”
Hanging On, 36”x48”
You Don’t Get It, Do You?, 80” x 120”