The Improvisational Quilts of Susana Allen Hunter

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by Tamara Fox

The Improvisational Quilts of Susana Allen Hunter, features twenty-two of the thirty-two quilts by Hunter, that are part of the permanent collection of the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.  Over the course of her life, Hunter produced quilts from salvaged fabric, but having limited supplies and minimal access to patterns or even conventional examples, improvisation was inherent to her working technique.  While these conditions were by no means unique to Hunter, the results are exceptional.

The exhibition is noteworthy for several reasons. First of all, Hunter’s compositions are wonderful. They’re balanced, but include an element of tension. Secondly, the manner in which the quilts are displayed allows the viewer to see them at very close range.  Several examples are suspended, which affords a fuller appreciation of how the pieces were constructed.  Finally, the didactic information and supplementary artifacts resist constructing an image of Hunter as some kind of provincial anomaly, a tempting prospect when the artist has a background regarded as unconventional due to geographic isolation, or lack of formal training.

One aspect of Hunter’s work that can only be appreciated first-hand is the exceptional richness of surface. The couching stitches (best discerned from the back of suspended examples), form surprising concentric patterns. Traces of the material’s history are evident in the dark silhouette of an absent denim pocket, the inclusion of a shirt placket with buttonholes, or printed flour sacs. One quilt is even backed with an older quilt. There is also an awareness of the body and movement, expressed not just in Hunter’s animated stitching, but through fragments of fabric that are worn thin from their use as clothing.

Hunter’s quilts are improvised, but they are not crazy quilts.  The latter were hobby quilts that typically included sumptuous fabrics and could even be purchased as kits. It is difficult to conceive of quilting as spontaneously improvisational, since it requires many hours of labor. The element of improvisation employed by Hunter is analogous to Jazz music, or techniques employed by artists associated with Dada, Surrealism or Abstract Expressionism. Similar to brainstorming, surrendering an element of control through improvisation can serve to generate ideas, and release inhibition. It is interesting to note that certain aspects of quilting like improvisation, reclamation, use of found materials, proximation of life and art, and communal production, resonate with the working techniques of many contemporary artists.

The didactic information accompanying the exhibition indicated both formal and conceptual parallels with Hunter’s work to modernism. Admittedly, it is difficult not to compare her quilts to compositions by modern artists (Hans Hoffmann, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert MotherwellRichard DiebenkornJosef Albers, etc.). However in spite of apparent similarities, I felt some ambivalence about allying Hunter’s work to modernism, as if to do so was somehow necessary to lend credibility to her work.  But then I reconsidered. There is after all, no shortage of artists who have beengenuinely inspired by vernacular traditions/folk art:  Wassily Kandinsky explored icon painting, Brücke Expressionists revived medieval woodblock printing, George Rouault looked to stained glass windows, and Miriam Schapiro certainly appreciated quilts.  It has not been unusual for artist’s inspiration to result in the reconsideration of marginalized genres or techniques (like Jasper Johns and encaustic painting).  Given the level of sophistication evident in her compositions, and the unconventional nature of her quilting process, it makes sense to situate Hunter’s improvised quilts within the context of modern art.

The Improvisational Quilts of Susana Allen Hunter, is at the Grand Rapids Art Museum through August 25, 2013.

Grand Rapids Art Museum, 101 Monroe Center NW
Museum hours:  Tuesday through Saturday 10AM – 5PM, Fridays 10AM – 9PM, Sundays noon– 5PM

Admission:  $8 adults, $7 seniors and students (w/ID), $5 17 years & under, Free Tuesday 1PM-5PM