EVERYBODY HAS recollections of fabric patterns from their past. Red wooden soldiers that marched across a nursery window curtain. Soft bursts of color that decorated an evening gown. Animal - sometimes upside down, sometimes floating sideways in space - who lost their heads to the demands of the bedspread's seam.
"Printed, Painted and Dyed: The New Fabric Surface," is an exhibit that opened last week at the Renwick Gallery of the National Collection of Fine Arts. It continues through Oct. 15 with 42 works by 33 crafts artists. The artists are all concerned with applying color and design to the surface of existing fabric. The show was selected and installed by Michael Monroe, Renwick curator, from area artists and three larger exhibitions shown at Purdue University during the 1978 conference of the Surface Design Association.
Not many of the Renwick objects are what you'd call useful objects, though it depends upon what your needs are.(It might be a desperate need for a 26-by-32-by-20-inch black and white moose, silkscreened, stuffed and quilted, the work of Michelled Lipson of Wheaton. She's the one who does all those dinosaur, airplane and other kits for the Smithsonian shops.)
Those objects in the show that do even faintly work for a living seem also to be the most successful artistically. Thom Feild, a Washington artist, has silkscreened silk and made a kimono of subtle beauty. If you had it, you'd have to give a posh party as an occasion to wear it. The rest of the time it would surely be displayed on a rack in the living room.
The wax resist (batik) chess set - rows of strange creatures stuffed to a thumb's shape - are among the more eerily interesting works in the show. The gambit is by Stephen Blumrich of Halsey, Ore.
Most anyone could see herself draped in the handsome, brilliantly colored and geometric silk crepe designs of Gerhardt Knodel of Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. "Somewhere Over the Rainbow is a Land Down Under," is not a song but a sleeping bag with pleasant, vaguely said kangeroos hopping across it. Robert Nelson of Santa Monica, Calif., was the maker. Katherine Westphal of Berkeley, Calif., must have seen the King Tut treasures once too often. She has made two panne velvet blouses as well as a large spread using Tut motifs. She uses heat transfer to pattern the fabrics. One one, she also decorated plastic bangles to hang like a necklace.
Blueprinting (a photo process usually for reproducing architectural designs) is used by Anne Schneider of Bloomington, Ind., for a quilt, named "Night Maneuver." If you had a generous definition of useful, you could include the fabric music box patterned like a house. Its carrying case is a soft stuffed cylinder, printed outside with a street scene and embelished inside with stuffed trees. Joan Lintault of Carbonate, Ill., made it.
Some of the purely ornamental objects are not bad. Lenore Davis's direct dye (dye painted on with a brush) cotton velvetee trapunto (stuffed to produce a design) and quilted "Two Sleeping Women With Shawls and Blankets" are very handsome. Davis is from Newport, Ky. A series of interior spaces, photo-silkscreened onto varying materials, are fascinating pictures. Cindy Miracle of Los Gatos, Calif., did them.
As art, Cornelia Breitenbach's vivid geometric designs, sildscreened and airbrushed onto cotton velveteen and backed with fiberglass (some flat, some corrugated), are very successful. You could follow the geometric contortions for hours. Breitenbach is from Los Angeles.
For a long time, the comforts of the printed pattern were denied those who thought of themselves as With It. High speed technology turned out printed fabrics commercially with every sort of design and color you could imagine. Sheets, clothing, wallcoverings, bookcovers, even shoes and pocketbooks suddenly were covered with pattern and color. So much so that thousands of unreconstructed modernists took to buying white sheets again.
Anything that's easy seems suspect, and so design arbiters began to say "chintzy," "garish," "gauche" and shake their heads at mass-produced patterned fabrics.
Their own homes, of course, used only natural-colored material. The only relief from these austerities came from the renewed interest in new and exuberant forms of weaving and other textile arts, where the emphasis was on texture and exotic fabrications.
Marimekko, the magnificent supergraphic patterns first handscreened in the early '60s in Finland, were probably the first to show that you could have your pattern and good design too. People, starved for color and pattern, adore Marimekko - even those who could only afford a yard framed that yard as though it were the Mona Lisa.
Others began to look for ways to bring handwork to mass-produced fabrics. They made quilts, cutting and stitching sections to produce and handmade object. Some went further and produced textile sculpture, material plumped and puffed to make anthropomorphic shapes.
About four years ago, the first Surface Design conference was held. Since then, several schools have enticed students into exploring the possibilities of handmade textile embellishment. The Renwick show is only the beginning.
Ironically, after looking at the Renwick show, you can't help but conclude that for all the new technology used by the artists, not a piece in the show is half so marvelous as the work of the artists who started the whole thing - people of India, using their handcarved wooden blocks to print (far too cheaply) intricate patterns of rare beauty.