Weekly Update – Outsider art at the PMA, Gees Bend quilts and James Castle
Roberta reports on two amazing exhibits of work by outsider artists. Both are at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and both are must-sees.

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Self-taught artists take over prime real estate at the Philadelphia Museum of Art this month. The Gee’s Bend quilters and the mute artist James Castle broke all kinds of art rules to make their powerful work. Amazing things happen when you don’t even know the rules exist.

Quilters sing and talk about how the discovery of their quilts changed their lives

Sarah Benning in front of one of her courderoy quilts.
Sarah Benning in front of one of her courderoy quilts.

I spoke to Sarah Benning before the press tour of the Gees Bend quilt show and asked her what her favorite quilting fabric was and she said “courderoy.” She’s was wearing a red courderoy jacket. When we got to the room with her quilts I asked her if I could take her picture in front of one of them. She posed for me pointing to her quilt. The gesture surprised me but was completely natural.

Two Gees Bend quilters sit in front of their quilts at the PMA's press preview.
Two Gees Bend quilters sit in front of their quilts at the PMA’s press preview.

Since the Gee’s Bend quilts were exhibited and anthologized in 2002, the art world has embraced them. It’s no wonder. The bold, abstract bed coverings made to keep the quilters’ families warm tower over the gallery spaces like sensual and wild interpretations of abstract paintings by Piet Mondrian and Joseph Albers.

One of the founders of Tinwood Alliance, a father-son duo. This is the son--I'm sorry I do not know his name.
One of the founders of Tinwood Alliance, which helped the quilters establish the Gees Bend Quilters Collective, to help promote their works.

When the stripes, arrows, nested squares and other repeat patterns in these wall pieces merge with homespun recycled materials like corduroy and denim, the clash of old and new, functional and fantasy, breathes new life into abstract art and new meaning to the word quilt.

This 75-quilt exhibition has been traveling the U.S. since 2006—this is its last stop—and includes never-before-seen quilts, including some from the 1930s that were recently discovered.

Mary Lee Bendolph in front of Linda Day Clark photo of one of the quilters.
Mary Lee Bendolph in front of Linda Day Clark photo of one of the quilters.

Ten of the quilters were in town for the exhibit’s opening and they looked like a group of church ladies. Churches in rural Gee’s Bend, Ala., are a big part of the town’s life, according to Linda Day Clark, who’s been photographing the townspeople since 2002. (Clark’s photo exhibition leads the way into the exhibit.)Linda Day Clark’s photos accompany the show. Clark has been photographing Gees Bend for six years. The woman portrayed in the photo suffered a stroke recently and is in ill health and in my photo, Mary Lee Bendolph is speaking about the absent quilter.

For their part, the quilters—as they’ve done at other public events—broke into hymns of praise at the preview, chanting, “Thank you, Lord” in mournful three-part rounds.

Gees Bend quilters singing at the PMA Press Preview
Gees Bend quilters singing at the PMA Press Preview
Louisiana P. Bendolph, speaking in front of her quilt
Louisiana P. Bendolph, speaking in front of her quilt

The quilters’ lives have changed since their explosion on the art scene. They now have a Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective to market and sell their works, and the money from sales has allowed them to have things they didn’t have before, like cars. (History of the Collective is here) But as fully committed members of their community, they see the money as a way to do good. “I can help poor people,” is what one quilter reportedly said when asked what she would do with her money. Louisiana P. Bendolph, spoke in front of her quilt, about how her life has changed since the 2002 exhibition at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. Her words were of her empowerment as a person and her thanks to the Tinwood Alliance which helped bring the quilts to the world. More photos of the quilts and quilters at Flickr.

James Castle retrospective – 300 amazing works at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

 

Sculpture by James Castle. Photo courtesy of PMA
Sculpture by James Castle. Photo courtesy of PMA

Meanwhile, opening Oct. 14 in a gallery immediately next to the quilts, is the first major retrospective of James Castle, who was born profoundly deaf and unable or unwilling to communicate through sign language or other traditional means.

James Castle. Photo courtesy of PMA.
James Castle. Photo courtesy of PMA.

The James Castle retrospective, a huge show of almost 300 works, comes on the heels of a documentary about the artist, funded by the local Foundation for Self-Taught Artists. The film debuted last year at the Philadelphia International Film Festival. The 53-minute movie will run as part of the exhibition and will be available as a DVD insert in the show’s catalog.

Castle is hardly unknown to those who follow outsider art. His drawings, assemblages, sculptures and handmade books show a playful artist fascinated with words and a renegade talent who delights in making his own art materials. Fleisher-Ollman Gallery, which has shown Castle’s art for many years, is mounting a companion show with works by Castle and other art world masters like Philip Guston, Jasper Johns and Jim Nutt.

Drawing by James Castle. Photo courtesy of PMA.
Drawing by James Castle. Photo courtesy of PMA.

The days when self-taught artists and their art were considered a curiosity are long over. James Castle and the Gee’s Bend quilters are some of the best out there.

Gee’s Bend artists: “The Architecture of the Quilt.” 
Through Dec. 14, 2008
James Castle: “A Retrospective.”
Oct. 14, 2018 through Jan. 4, 2009.
Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th St. and the Benjamin Franklin Pkwy.

Tags

gees bend quilts, gees bend: the architecture of the quilt, james castle, linda day clark, pma

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