Anna Von Mertens:
Suggested North Points
The Matrix Program for Contemporary Art at the
Berkeley Art Museum, University of California, enjoys wide
acclaim for its exhibitions of cutting-edge art. Installations,
paintings, video, and photography are the usual fare, but
from July 13 through September 7, the museum exhibited "Suggested
North Points," five quilts and a floor drawing by Bay Area-based
Anna Von Mertens; this was only the second exhibition of quilts
in the program's 25 years.
At first glance--and from a distance--Von Mertens'
work fittingly seemed to fall within the vernacular of minimalism.
Upon closer inspection, however, each of her hand-sewn, hand-dyed
quilts revealed multiple layers of dazzlingly intricate webs
of stitching, which added depth and complexity to the visual
and symbolic aspects of her work.
|North, 2003; hand-dyed, hand-stitched cotton, mattress
frame, plywood, and laminate; 17 by 60 by 80 inches. Photo:
Don Tuttle Photography.
Quilts have traditionally recorded the personal
or historical. Von Mertens' exhibition not only chronicled
her philosophical and spiritual views but also referenced
the landscape and the broader realm of physics and its impact
The quilts were arranged atop double-bed-sized
platforms distributed across a black floor limned with compass
points and headings reminiscent of 19th-century cartography.
These geographic indicators, coupled with the fact that four
of the quilts stylistically represented specific locations
in North America, suggested a sense of place, as well as the
process of journeying. The fifth quilt, Influence,
according to the exhibition brochure, explored the relationship
between "the individual and the collective whole." Entirely
black and with alternating directions of stitching, this fifth
quilt looked topographical when viewed from above.
|Influence, 2003; hand-dyed, hand-stitched cotton,
concrete; 17 by 60 by 80 inches. Photo: Don Tuttle Photography.
South, the most figurative piece, resonated
of the wide open spaces of the Southwest: earthen brown and
tan, muted purple and lavender, and azure evoked desert, mountains,
and sky (this scene was inspired by Nevada's Red Rocks Canyon
National Conservation Area). North was equally expansive,
and its colors as carefully chosen: a cool palette of mostly
white and icy grays and blues hinted of a Nordic tableau (Von
Mertens was actually thinking of a snow-covered field in New
England). Circles stitched over the work's entire surface
|West and East (details), 2003; hand-dyed, hand-stitched
cotton, mattress frames, plywood, laminate; each 17 by
60 by 80 inches. Photo: Jean-Michelle Addor.
Although more abstract, West and East
bore the most elaborate surface stitching, representing, respectively,
the Big Bang (extroversion) and the black hole (introversion).
Unlike the previous works, which dealt with an individual's
discoveries on earth, this duo of quilts pondered the greater
conundrum of the universe. Von Mertens expressed the Big Bang
(the dominant, yet unproven, scientific theory about the universe's
origins from a cosmic explosion that hurled matter in all
directions) with dozens of radiating arched lines and arrows.
The black hole was depicted as swirling vortices emanating
from, or collapsing in on, an enormous sphere (black holes
are remnants of collapsed stars 10 to 15 times as massive
as the sun).
Given her profound subject matter, one might wonder
why the installation intentionally recalled something as mundane
as bedspreads or the bedroom. Because Von Mertens considers
the bedroom to be "the symbolic hearth of the 21st-century
home," this setting is as sacred as it is ordinary--and, within
this exhibition's scope, this most intimate of spaces also
finds a connection to the infinite.
Victoria Alba is a freelance arts writer in
the San Francisco Bay Area.
Images courtesy of the Berkeley Art Museum.