Nine Quilts from Gee’s Bend: Inventive, Intricate, Abstract

New Yorkers who missed The Quilts of Gee’s Bend, an exhibition seen at the Whitney Museum of American Art during the winter of 2002-3, should have their collective knuckles soundly rapped. There can’t have been an excuse good enough to merit by passing a show that documented not only the triumph of American vernacular culture, but the resilience of the human spirit.

Gee’s Bend is a rural community located in Wilcox, Ala., an all but inaccessible patch of land created by a loop in the Alabama River. Prior to the Civil War, two families, the Gees and the Pettways, took advantage of the area’s rich soil to grow cotton, using slave labor in the harvesting of crops.

After the war, and with emancipation, the Pettway slaves remained in Gee’s Bend as tenant farmers. Though touched by world events-Gee’s Bend was a beneficiary of the New Deal and a stop on Martin Luther King’s 1965 march to Selma-the residents lived in relative isolation for five generations, developing their own patois, religion and music. It is with their quilt-making that the inhabitants of Gee’s Bend-the women, really-have made an incomparable contribution to our common culture.

The nine quilts on display at Ameringer Yohe Fine Art, some of them created within the last few years, are typical of Gee’s Bend-which is to say, not typical at all. Knowledge of established quilt traditions won’t prepare you for the work’s audacity. The Alabama artisans hew to no established pattern; idiosyncrasy is the standard. Maxwell Anderson, former director of the Whitney, lauds the Gee’s Bend quilters for their “unexpected informality in a genre associated with prim formulas.”

Loose-limbed improvisation is an integral component of the Gee’s Bend quilts, as is material necessity: Poverty, in this case, is the mother of invention. The fabrics employed (corduroy, paisley, textile remnants from the 40’s onwards and, most memorably, blue jeans) are determined as much by availability as by sensibility. Do we romanticize the women of Gee’s Bend-and, by fiat, the notion of the inspired, untutored outsider-in claiming them as de facto aesthetes? Probably, but that’s not to say romance can’t be predicated on fact.

And beautiful fact it is, too. Little wonder that Ameringer Yohe, a venue dedicated largely to modernist abstraction, chose to feature the quilters of Gee’s Bend. Their expansive geometric patterning, startling and subtle colors, and sophisticated sense of design are reminiscent of the work of any number of renowned abstract painters-none of whom shall be mentioned here. The reputations of those men and women would only be diminished by the comparison.

Pettway-now there’s a name to take note of, particularly as it applies to quilters like Loretta (subtle, resilient), Katie Mae (talismanic, intense) and Allie (quirky, vulnerable). As for Bars variation (c. 1940-50), a magisterial parade of alternating blue and tan stripes: Who would have dared to predict that the back pocket of a pair of pants could achieve the density and emphasis of a slurred dab of oil paint? Amelia Bennett, that’s who; you’ll remember her as well. As for the names Ameringer and Yohe-they should be commended for a public service splendidly performed.

Gee’s Bend Quilts is at Ameringer Yohe Fine Art, 20 West 57th Street, until July 22.

Huge in Tribeca

How would the paintings of Ron Gorchov, on display at a rough, raw and temporary Tribeca space operated by Julian Schnabel’s son Vito, play outside of New York City? Not too well, I think. Though the “gee whiz” factor is high-Mr. Gorchov’s stacked accumulations of shaped canvases can aspire to Guggenheimian proportions-the work is indicative of nothing so much as a New York subculture for whom the minutiae of painting is the governing impetus for pursuing the art form. Mr. Gorchov is, in that regard, a big-city provincial.

It’s not that the pictorial issues Mr. Gorchov glances upon (surface and support, image and object-stuff like that) aren’t important; they are, absolutely. The problem is that he excessively limits himself to them. Drawing inspiration from the mythos surrounding Action painting-you know: The canvas is an (urgh!) arena in which the painter wages existential battle-Mr. Gorchov then combines it with Minimalism’s brutish physicality and Conceptual Art’s brainy self-consciousness. The resulting artworks intimate primal truths, but deliver only arty tics writ humongous. They’re molehills trying to bluster their way through as mountains.

Mr. Gorchov’s signature shield-like canvases are nice to look at (particularly when you can walk around them and take note of their intricate construction), but the pictorial rationale for them is unaccounted for. A plain old rectangular canvas-what the hell’s wrong with that?-would better suit Mr. Gorchov’s hasty pictographs. The bowed supports do prove themselves more amenable to sculpture; the more the artist stops pretending that his canvases are paintings, the more honest the works become. Even then, the Stonehenge-like scale of something like Entrance (1975/2005) feels arbitrary, even larkish. Mr. Gorchov’s loft must be huge, you think; otherwise, why would he bother? Why we should bother is a question as well.

Ron Gorchov is at Vito Schnabel, 250 Hudson Street, until June 25.