The Idea of a City:
The Art Quilts of Elizabeth Barton
|Red Shift 7, 2002; dyed, pieced, machine quilted;
44 by 64 inches. Photos by the artist.
Felicitously hung, allowing each a luminous presence,
Elizabeth Barton's art quilts animate with vibrant color the
sleek modernist space of the Jacqueline Casey Hudgens Center
for the Arts in Duluth, Georgia. Representing the artist's
major series - cityscapes, abstract formats, and her Red
Shift quilts, a meditation on time - the 31 works juxtapose
imagery from Barton's native England in counterpoint with
that of her adopted country, the United States. The exhibition
continues through January 3.
Calling herself a "failed watercolorist," Barton
labors to achieve hues that "glow from within." Finding commercial
fabric "lifeless," she colors cloth herself, either painting
it, using immersion dyes with a resist, or screen painting
with dye rather than with pigment. Dyes, she contends, produce
a softer "hand" than pigments, with "looser, less predictable"
results. Beginning each composition with a small, gridded
drawing, Barton pins fabric pieces onto a larger quilt-sized
grid, layering them over the batting. She then machine stitches
the layers, sometimes using metallic thread to spill even
more light. Her stitches blossom on occasion into fanciful,
floral designs, enlivening the surface.
The artist's painstaking technique serves her
ruminative sensibility. Having grown up in York, England,
with its many layered civilizations - Celtic, Roman, Anglo-Saxon,
Norman, followed by all the English periods - Barton is acutely
cognizant of time. Born of that awareness, the Red Shift
series is based on the theory in contemporary physics that
light crossing galaxies turns red as it "ages." Her Red
Shift quilts join patches of crimson to highlights of
other colors, achieving a jeweled intensity.
More specifically reminiscent of England, Barton's
city scenes equivocate between abstraction and recognizable
imagery. Hearkening back to a street in York, Lendal Bridge
shows a curving lavender span over a river of the same hue.
Peach- and green-roofed houses define the middle ground against
a teal sky. More abstract, City of Garlic and Sapphires
pays homage to Oxford, a town of striking divergences: university
dons on the one hand and factory workers on the other. Borrowing
a phrase from T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets for the title,
Barton explores these contrasts in a composition of five vertical
registers. Yellow-golds, representing garlic, are juxtaposed
to greens and blues, reminders of the gem. The colors marry
beautifully, nonetheless, resembling those of a tapestry.
|City of Garlic and Sapphires, 2002; MX dyes painted
onto screens and printed, pieced, appliquéd, machine quilted;
57 by 58 inches.
The most stunning of the cityscapes, Where
the Bong Trees Grow, owes its title to Edward Lear's The
Owl and the Pussycat. Just as Lear's animals sail away
to an idyllic land, Barton whisks the viewer into a mythical,
though real, space. Myriad greens, from verdant lime to forest,
underscore nature's diurnal renewal. Burgeoning, three-dimensional
dwellings punctuate the greenery, and in the distance flattened,
shimmering skyscrapers reach toward the heavens. Suffused
with luminescence, the scene partakes of the archetype of
the ideal city, ranging from the biblical New Jerusalem to
the planned communities of Le Corbusier.
Joining a quilting group almost 20 years ago to
meet people, Barton was immediately "hooked" and has worked
tirelessly ever since, not only to hone her skills as a quiltmaker
but also to extend the medium beyond its conventional limits.
The quilt, for her, has become a vehicle for meditation, speculation,
Dorothy Joiner is Lovick P. Corn Professor
of Art History at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia.