BY HAPPY happenstance, two major quilt shows open in Washington this Saturday. The Textile Museum presents winners from a worldwide competition, while the Decatur Carriage House opens its fifth annual national juried exhibition of "Tactile Architecture."
The coincidental pairing gives quilters and collectors a chance to see nearly 100 outstanding examples of the once-humble craft, which in recent years has become recognized as a major art form.
If you still think of quilts as bedspreads like Granny made in her spare time, you're in for a culture shock. Only one of the works in the two shows was intended to be used on a bed. The others are destined for the walls of art museums, corporate offices or the homes of collectors who can afford the going rate, which runs from thousands to many thousands of dollars.
While quiltmakers are so given to experiment and exuberance that trends are hard to identify, there does seem to be a fairly universal return to the traditional rectangular format after some years of sometimes bizarrely asymmetrical borders. And the wave of embellishment may have peaked: While a majority of last year's winners featured everything from buttons to military medals, this year's entrants tend to be all-fabric -- which still leaves a lot of room for wild and crazy quilting.
The Carriage House show's architectural theme, mandated by the sponsoring National Trust for Historic Preservation, hardly cramps the entrants' styles. "My Idea of Heaven: A Quilt Show," by Carole Carter of Connecticut, is a fool-the-eye frolic through the intricacies of perspective, in which a stroll down the stairs takes you into the sky. It also contains within itself a half-dozen tiny separate quilts, building a bridge to a companion Carriage House exhibit of traditional miniature quilts. That exhibit, in turn, leads you to a hands-on quilting-frame demonstration where visitors can explore the techniques of quilting and contribute their own handiwork.
"Welcome to the Friendly Confines," by Barbara Dannenfelser of New Jersey is another masterpiece of perspective, a wide-angle aerial view commemorating Chicago's soon-to-be-demolished Wrigley Field. The work is not for sale, and no baseball fan will wonder why.
While at first glance the majority of the Carriage House quilts seem fairly traditional, the impression is misleading, says assistant director Sarah Saville Shaffer.
"A lot of these people are pushing the envelope, particularly with the use of paints and photography," she says.
Although often regularly arrayed, the designs tend to be fragmented, she points out, suggesting that they may reflect "a feeling of uncertainty about our society and our lives."
The Textile Museum show was selected from the winners of the sixth biennial Quilt Nationals. While most of the entrants were Americans, Great Britain, West Germany, Scandinavia and Japan were also heavily represented.
Nearly all of the selections are irresistible, but male patrons probably will be particularly arrested by "Putting the Guise to Bed" by Darcy Usilton of Wisconsin. It's both a wonderful artwork and a punful, funful, fearsome feminist statement. She says her nude self-portrait in bed with a horny demon grew out of a fantasy she had while painting her living room. Speaking as just one of the guys, I was daunted, not to say demeaned.
Curator Rebecca Stevens says there's nothing odd about the fact that the rising popularity of quilting has paralleled the rise of the women's movement.
"There was a time when quilting was dismissed as women's work," she says. "Now it's proudly recognized as women's work."
And work it is indeed. These quilts are so lush and lyrical it's easy to forget that each is the product not only of artistic imagination but of the most meticulous and demanding needlework. Non-sewers can only dimly appreciate the craft underlying this art.