Art Review: 'Cloth Culture' like an Asian open-air market

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-111765380714108.jpg’, ‘Image from Rockford Art Museum website’, ”);

When you walk into the new exhibition, “Cloth Culture,” at the Rockford Art Museum you feel like you are walking into an Asian open-air market. You are surrounded by figures, well, ghost-figures, wearing the glorious clothing that we came to view and admire. The clothing, suspended from simple, human-sized display devices, look like clusters of people. Occasionally, one wears a hat and stares back at you.

To complete this market-place feel, are displays of hats, headdresses, purses and baby carriers. You feel like you could barter and buy these—but Suzanne Dryer Kaufman beat you to them. We are in debt to her exquisite taste and her generosity for sharing her collection and her passion with us.

Some of the clothing and headdresses look a bit familiar. Have we seen them in the movies, or was it in The King and I? This familiarity gives you the vague impression that you might have stumbled onto a marvelous movie set. Maybe you’ll get hired as an extra! This mix of sensations comes from the museum staff’s wonderful, creative job in displaying these works. I can’t praise them enough.

As an artist, I always ask myself three things when looking at artwork. What problem did the artist create for him- or herself? Did he or she solve that problem? And how can I use that solution in my own work? In this day and age of assemblage art, this exhibit takes unique materials and uses them in profoundly different ways. Can our American souls touch on this creativity? My list of art materials from the show motivates me. Beading, shells, bells, coins, buttons, tusks, mirrors and a large bird beak are just the start of my list.

The hats alone can inspire a series of paintings. There is an asymmetrical, contoured child’s hat with patterns in red and a conical rain hat with 16 stylized, beaded suns on it. Then there are the ceremonial headdresses made out of undreamed-of materials and constructed like the sculptures that they are. Artists need to see this exhibition. They will come away feeling the connection that they have with artists and artisans around the globe.

As you move through this village of bright and inventive “figures,” you make your way to the back of the museum and turn a corner. You are now in another world. This room-within-a-room is quiet and comforting. It displays quilts from the isolated Gee’s Bend region of the American South. The Hagar Collection contains one “strip quilt” characteristic of the region. Made from long strips of blue jeans, including a back pocket, it is an example of quilting unhindered by conventional styles. The video accompanying these quilts shows more of these very abstract quilts. Some of these were created during the Abstract Expressionists heyday of the mid-20th century and mirror those familiar paintings. But the quilts were done by very independent women, doing their own thing, at a time when women were ignored by art history books.

One quilt’s motif was the letter “H.” Repeated over and over, the artist chose different fabrics for each letter. Whose initial was “H”? Were the fabrics cut from that person’s worn-out clothing? Did this quilt mean a great deal to the family? Was it difficult for the artist to part with? Unanswered questions make this particular quilt mysterious and precious.

“Cloth Culture” continues at the Rockford Art Museum, 711 N. Main St., through July 31. Museum hours are Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Thursday 10 a.m.-7 p.m., and Sunday, noon-5 p.m. Admission is $3, children and students are free. Thursdays are free for everyone. Thursday, June 16, Suzanne Dryer Kaufman will be presenting a lecture on her collection at 6 p.m. Call 815 968-2787 for details.

Susan Webb Tregay, artist and author, is currently working on her own book, Master Disaster.

From the June 1-7, 2005, issue

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