Jessica Helfand | Essays

Blanket Statements

Psalm 23 Quilt, Lena Moore

An exhibit currently on view in New York at the American Folk Art Museum explores the visual texture of language through a selection of approximately twenty quilts made by women over the last 150 years. Here, words become fabric and fabric becomes narrative through textiles that command our attention through poetry and personality. Syntax is as varied as form, style, structure and perhaps most of all, content. Throughout, the typography is giddy: primitive and playful, untethered by copyfitting or editorial logic. Instead the work is whimsical and rich, lyrical and loopy, occasionally sobering, frequently exultant: it's a celebration of identity, intention and the flexibility of the imagination. I was reminded of a wonderful passage in a book I recently came across, by the late Czech writer, Bohumil Hrabal, who described the sentient beauty of language: "Because when I read," he wrote, "I don't really read; I pop a beautiful sentence in my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or I sip it like a liqueur until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing on through veins to the root of each blood vessel." To envelop oneself in such magical textiles is to imagine a similar experience. (Through September 5.)

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Typography

Comments [4]

As a musician caught up in a bit of a folk revival myself, I'm fascinated by the way disenchantment with the easy sheen of computer-originated work has brought us to a new appreciation of the loopy whimsies of this 'amateur' work. I'd love to know if there are folk-influenced graphic designers at work today, and whether they bandy about ideologies of authenticity or delight in their own fakeness.

If these people are out there, how are they seen by other designers who haven't chosen to follow this looser, more willfully eccentric style? Can 'folk' be faked? What happens when 'amateur' designers get jobs? Are there any graphic designers with the genuine eccentricity of songwriter Daniel Johnston?


These are great questions. They are big questions, and I like that they span even more than music, art, and design. During the 80's and 90's some critics asked if there is such a thing as "outsider art" at a time when folk museums were beginning to take off and "outsider" artists working in folk and craft traditions could pull the same prices that any modern or postmodern artist could. I don't know any specific designers that draw from the folk tradition on a regular basis, but I've known plenty of painters who work from a naïve position. Jean Michael Basquiat is probably the most well known of the American painters who worked from this approach. There was a lot of critical debate as to whether his marks were authentic, or an example of "postmodern" sampling.

This image Jessica has posted doesn't have the same challenges as the work produced during the 80's and 90's. I love looking at quilts from the past, because it touches on one of the issues that captures my imagination. They seem to express a kind of individuality we don't often see today's market driven world.

Another exhibition well worth checking out is The Quilts of Gee's Bend which is currently on view at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington DC. Isolated by rivers on three sides, Gee's Bend, Alabama, has been the home of a community of black women who for generations have been designing extraordinary quilts.

When I saw the exhibition a year ago at the Whitney here in New York, I thought it was a staggering design experience. The quilts are basically abstract compositions, largely free of images or lettering. They combine the meticulous planning and craftsmanship of, say, the Amish quiltmaking tradition with the emotional power and formal daring we associate with abstract expressionism.

After Washington, where the show closes on May 17, it travels to Cleveland, Norfolk, Memphis, Boston and finally Atlanta. See it if you can, or check out the beautiful exhibition catalogue.
Michael Bierut

Is this available as a poster?
Cathy McKinnis

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