Review: Rosie Lee Tomkins’s Quilts at BAMPFA

One of the few silver linings about this pandemic is in how galleries and museums are increasingly posting virtual versions and tours of their exhibitions.

One highly anticipated show in the quilting and so-called “Outsider Art” worlds is the Rosie Lee Tomkins exhibit at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA). Go to the hour-long, truly excellent virtual tour with Chief Curator Larry Rinder here.

Rosie Lee Tompkins was born Effie Mae Howard in rural Arkansas in 1936. She learned to quilt from her mother and took it up in a very serious way in the 1980s. She would continue to quilt until the end of her life in 2006, producing hundreds of quilts.

I love these quilts for two reasons: their improvisational quality and her use of found objects in her work. The exhibition even includes some sculptural pieces, vessels encrusted with a variety of elements, applied in fairly quirky combinations, like these two:

One of her most mysterious quilts imitates the experience of staring into a pool of mirror-like water at night at reflected stars. The effect is achieved by her inclusion of a found fabric fish, rhinestones and many other little elements that “float” against a deep black background. See the tiny orange fish in the second picture?

Many people see quilt-making as a rigid, geometric practice. However, for hundreds of years, quiltmakers have engaged in the practice of “crazy quilts,” mainly to use up odd scraps of fabric. As such, the scraps often have odd shapes, so assembling a crazy quilt can produce very unusual results. It’s also where the improvisational practices of quiltmaking come into play.

Maybe it’s a stretch, but Rosie Lee Tomkin’s style makes more sense when you think about the kinds of quilts her mother may have made in the Depression-era South. This show and the virtual tour actually highlight this connection.

Below are two quilts, one made by Tomkins on the left and one by her mother on the right. Tomkin’s quilt is like a reverse reflection of the older quilt, in dark blues and blacks, whereas her mother’s is all in light colors. Both quilts seem haphazard and as if they were composed of whatever scraps were on hand in whatever size.

But this is where this kind of quilt making can be deceptive. Curator Larry Rinder explains that Tomkin’s quilts have a sort of controlled chaos that produce a dynamic vitality. And while they may appear completely haphazard, there is always an internal logic or set of rules at play in each quilt.

These rules may consist of a certain palette or shape that is repeated and then disrupted in very unexpected ways, such as in this quilt with its rich greens and yellows. The inconsistent sizes and placement of the squares give it a feeling that everything is moving.

Or this quilt with its many half squares in contrasting colors and arrangements:

When I got interested in quilt-making, it was not the rigid, symmetrical, perfect quilts that attracted me. The Navajo believe that every rug should have some kind of disruption or flaw in it to let the spirit of the artwork breathe. I think that view is very wise. When something is too perfect it is dead on arrival, in my opinion.

What’s really fun is when someone takes a conventional pattern, like the pinwheels and medallions in this last quilt, and makes something completely crazy and spontaneous-feeling. That’s virtuosity.

Tomkins rose to prominence partly in the tail winds of interest in “Outsider Art.” I’ve never liked that term because it feels condescending and it puts gifted artists into a category that’s limiting. At the same time, it was probably a necessary step in correcting a problem of racism and classism in the mainstream art world. We need to find ways to push beyond that and to break down those categories so that art is simply art. Otherwise, these categories, which were originally meant to uplift unknown artists, becomes a way to reinforce their status as second class.

Quiltmaking is doubly punished by its association with craft and what was historically considered women’s domestic work. If Tomkin’s complex, disruptive compositions had been painted on canvas by a well-connected male artist, how would they have been received? I actually think about that whenever I look at a masterful, visually provocative quilt.

What I admire most about artists like Tomkins – Effie Mae Howard – was that she did not wait for anyone to give her permission or tell her she had powerful things to say through her art. It’s unfortunate this show is currently closed to the public. I imagine her work is all the more powerful in person. But, with museums taking extra steps to bring shows like this to the public virtually, I hope she reaches a wider audience than ever.

Rosie Lee Tomkins: A Retrospective will be on view at BAMFA until December 20, 2020.

Sources and further reading:

The Radical Quiltmaking of Rosie Lee Tomkins, New York Times, June 26, 2020.

Rosie Lee Tomkins: A Retrospective, BAMPFA

One thought on “Review: Rosie Lee Tomkins’s Quilts at BAMPFA

  1. Heather, thanks for sending this out. Just today I allowed myself the time to sit and observe the virtual tour. Not being an artist OR a quilter, I learned a lot and enjoyed many of her works. (not all… the quilt made of ties was not for me) I kept being “cut out” and had to keep starting over many, many times. Almost gave up but I stayed in there. Again, I appreciate your sending this.
    Chris (yoga)

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