Poetic License: A Joan Schulze Retrospective: February 16—May 9 at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles. Click here for PDF of author’s longer piece “Joan Schulze-A Life in Collage” which appeared in Surface Design (Fall 2010).
By LIZ HAGER
Since 1970, Joan Schulze has produced a huge body of work, through which she has consistently pushed the boundaries of contemporary textile art. Schulze is an inveterate experimenter, whose longstanding penchant for unconventional materials is abundantly on view in the retrospective show, “Poetic License,” at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles.
Containing a generous selection of Schulze’s work from the past four decades, “Poetic License” is a tribute to her artistic range. The show presents the visual twists and turns of her career, but it does not editorialize. This strategy has advantages and drawbacks.
Some viewers will find pure delight in discovering various historical treasures on their own. The moments of innovation are here—the lace doilies in Many Moons (1976); the abstraction of quilted landscapes represented by The Flying Chifforobe (1984); the addition of photo transfers to works like Perennial Border in 1989; glue-based transfers (Three Weeks in a Museum, 1991); the ironic use of real (shredded) dollars in Reserves; the digital printing on fabric first displayed in Object of Desire (1997) ; thread as drawing equivalent (Dancing Lessons); the scattered bits of Velcro, plastic, paint.
Nonetheless, the true historical import of her innovations might elude a portion of the audience. Over the years, subsequent textile artists have oft copied her techniques, so that by now Schulze’s once-radical vocabulary might appear as common vernacular to the uninitiated.
The show seems to be organized more or less chronologically. The artist’s passion for the visual possibilities inherent in fabric, needle and thread is overwhelmingly clear. Recurring themes in the artist’s work are sprinkled throughout, not grouped. The passing of time (with the resulting decay) and the nature of female identity are readily identifiable themes in the show. Without explanation, however, many of the important personal references in the pieces may be lost.
On balance much more could have been made by the curator of the arc of Schulze’s career, her place in the world of art. In this respect, maybe a few dreaded plaques might have been a good thing.
Schulze’s limited formal education in the fine arts clearly has not inhibited her aesthetic sensibility. A high school class in sewing set her in motion, for it gave her fundamental training in pattern shapes and scrap usage. (Perhaps, more important, it provided her with an introduction the equation Clothes = Power.) Schulze learned embroidery in her 30s and quickly took to it, by 1970 making and selling enough work to leave teaching and work full-time as an artist.
It’s understandable that Schulze would not feel bound by any particular tradition (either textile- or fine art-based); being untethered has had a positive effect on her, freeing her to “bring everything into the mix.” Interestingly, many of her techniques are echo those in the fine arts—photomontage clearly but also abstraction, the gestural use of thread, and the layering of diaphanous fabrics, which mimics painted glazes.
For some this retrospective will stimulate serious thought about the boundaries of fine art and craft. When Schulze first began quilting, the two were resolutely separate in the mind of the market. In the 1970s, she struggled to have her work seen as “art.”
I went to this one gallery. . . many times and (the owner) said “I don’t even know how to talk about your work.” And I said “Just use what you use when you look at a painting: composition, ideas, color.” Oh, it was like the penny dropped. . . he became one of my best supporters.
Robert Rauschenberg, Bed, 1955
Oil and pencil on pillow, quilt, and sheet on wood supports, 75 1/4 x 31 1/2 x 8 inches
Today the distinctions are considerably blurrier, thanks in part to artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Judy Chicago, Miriam Schapiro, arguably even Julian Schnabel, who have legitimized a “whole world of materials” for use in “fine art.” “Textile art” is a tricky category—the materials often derive from craft traditions, but the end products are usually conceived as art, not as utilitarian objects. In the end, qualifying Joan Schulze as a “textile” artist may limit the way people should think about her art. Does it really matter whether a substrate is quilted fabric or canvas?
In the final analysis, any work of art must be judged on the merit of the ideas it conveys, the dialog it creates with the viewer. “Poetic License” offers textile and fine arts enthusiasts alike an unparalleled opportunity to decide for themselves where Joan Schulze’s work lives in the House of Art.
Joan Schulze website
More on the artist—Fiber Scene; Mercury News
The Art of Joan Schulze
The Blogosphere on Art vs. Craft—Raggity Cloth Cafe, Definition of Art (skip down to Art vs. Craft section), Objectivism Online