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The Gee’s Bend quilts are better when they’re art for warmth’s sake.

Blanket Statements

The slow season makes for good conversation

January 13, 2010, 12:00 am

One of my favorite Santa Fe galleries is 222 Shelby Street.

The smallish house, converted to a three-room gallery, is handsome, right down to the rug that sits at the foot of the desk. But don’t be fooled by the cozy atmosphere—Tom Tavelli, the gallery director, is every bit as intellectual as a museum curator and, if you’re not careful, you could end up in a lengthy debate with him.

Tavelli loves art, and he seems more interested in discussing it than selling it. Each time I visit, Tavelli talks my ear off like an excited child who can’t wait to show you everything he owns. In Tavelli’s case, these things are mostly books and exhibition catalogs, but really it’s his ideas he’s trying to express.

One gets the sense Tavelli spends a lot of time alone in the gallery reading about history and theory, and finding ways in which they are inadequate. It can be a little overwhelming at first but, the longer he talks, the more sense he makes. By the end, I generally find myself in agreement, or at least with thoughts provoked.

The current show, Milestone, is a rerun—a mixture of several of the artists the gallery has exhibited since it opened in August 2008. It is a testament to Tavelli’s conversation, then, that I stayed at the gallery for almost an hour.

The topic of the dialogue circled around the quilts made by the artists of Gee’s Bend, the now-famous collective of women in Alabama who have lived a literal rags-to-riches story. Their quilts have traveled all over the country, including a 2008 exhibition at the Museum of International Folk Art. The quilts are masterpieces and ought to be looked at while the opportunity is there.

In speaking about the quilts, Tavelli mentioned African influence, the collective unconscious and grand larceny. In any case, the similarity of the quilts to the work of any number of major abstractionists is unmistakable. He showed me side-by-sides with Piet Mondrian. He talked about Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg and Willem de Kooning. That the women of Gee’s Bend were somehow able to give rise to a high style of color and composition, independent of the academic rigors of the New York School, is astounding; that these women received no formal training as artists makes them all the more remarkable.

Since gaining recognition for their quilts, the women have been provided studio time to produce intaglio prints in which the fabric is pressed into the ground and then etched. The etchings, also on display in Milestone, lose something in their intent to be art.

The women, having grown up in rural Alabama, had been engaged in labors of love and otherwise. They quilted out of necessity, but also because they enjoyed quilting as a means of personal expression. It’s hard to see how an edition of prints can feed this urge. It is an obvious attempt to commodify the works by making them more affordable and more familiar in terms of media. The product is much closer to hotel art.

I don’t fault the women for cashing in. I cannot begin to fathom what their lives must have been like before their stars aligned. I hope they’re all just rich beyond their dreams. But I left with the feeling that there were a lot of other people getting rich, too. I guess part of being discovered is being branded.

Still, the story is warming. Out of abject poverty and discrimination sprang a visual style as vibrant and unique as anything America has ever produced. That it occurred organically, as a means to keep family members warm, is the definition of pure.

If you haven’t seen the quilts, you must. And if you haven’t met Tavelli, I recommend that, too. He is eager without seeming pretentious or like he’s trying to impress. It’s as though any given visitor has arrived while he’s in mid-thought.

Luckily, he’s happy to share.

Through Jan. 31

222 Shelby Street Gallery
222 Shelby St.


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