Shotgun Reviews

Yo-Yos & Half Squares: Contemporary California Quilts at the Oakland Museum of California

Shotgun Reviews are an open forum where we invite the international art community to contribute timely, short-format responses to an exhibition or event. If you are interested in submitting a Shotgun Review, please click this link for more information. In this Shotgun Review, Elena Harvey Collins reviews Yo-Yos & Half Squares: Contemporary California Quilts at the Oakland Museum of California in Oakland.

Willia Ette Graham, Johnnie Alberta Wade, and Arbie Williams. Mamaloo, 1992; denim, cotton flannel; 76 x 68 in. Courtesy of the Eli Leon Collection and the Oakland Museum of California. Photo: Terry Lorant.

Willia Ette Graham, Johnnie Alberta Wade, and Arbie Williams. Mamaloo, 1992; denim, cotton flannel; 76 x 68 in. Courtesy of the Eli Leon Collection and the Oakland Museum of California. Photo: Terry Lorant.

On view at the Oakland Museum of California, Yo-Yos & Half Squares: Contemporary California Quilts presents a focused selection of quilts from the extensive collection of Bay Area quilter and collector Eli Leon. This exhibition emphasizes the playful and conceptual aspects of the form, centering on the improvisational aesthetics of the African American quilting tradition, and engages the vocabulary of the craft. Understated titles such as Four Patch Half Square Strip (1994), pieced by Rosie Lee Tompkins and quilted by Irene Bankhead, and Double Strip (n.d.), pieced by Mattie Pickett and quilted by Willia Ette Graham, draw on the quilting pattern used, yet the loose geometry and freewheeling combination of techniques listed sits in irreverent contrast to the precision and consistency often valued in conventional quilts. Unusual material choices abound, too. Pittsburgh Steelers jerseys, men’s ties, and lacy doilies are just some of the bits and pieces tethered into rhythmic schemas of pattern, texture, and color.

Many of these quilts were also produced in unconventional circumstances; they are collaborations, facilitated by Leon himself, between different quilters and piecers. Although multiple artists worked together on a single quilt, they may have worked years apart from each other, never meeting. For example, several works riff on a traditional britches quilt, a quilting technique that repurposes cast-off clothing into design elements. The central motif of Mamaloo (1992), made by Graham, Johnnie Alberta Wade, and Arbie Williams, is two pairs of flattened, deconstructed jeans. The surface undulates tightly with quilter Graham’s ranging stitch, making the quilt seem bodied—as if it might sashay off at any moment—but Graham chose to leave the pockets of the jeans open (in an instinctive understanding of Williams’s playful style). The result is casually humorous; this vestige of usefulness now winks out at the viewer. Mamaloo is indicative of a kind of meta-sensibility of the craft proposed in Yo-Yos & Half-Squares: quilting as both a sensitive and communal process. Quilts act as vehicles for near cosmic communication, in which ideas and aesthetics are held and transmitted between artists over time and space.

Unfinished (1996) by Tompkins best embodies the metaphorical power of these quilts. Glitter-edged applied decorations and jewelry crawl across the rich red velvet background, competing for space in their habitat. An exercise in both excess and patience, it was begun in 1968 and returned to often until completion in 1996. Its surface is layered, denoting the passage of time; less an object, and more of a record—of a life, of a way of being in the world—demonstrating a meditative and unhurried method, an expansive approach to materials, and the sheer delight in allowing a thing to become itself.

Yo-Yos & Half Squares: Contemporary California Quilts is on view at the Oakland Museum of California in Oakland through February 21, 2016.

Elena Harvey Collins is an artist, writer, and curator from London, England, currently in Santa Cruz, California.

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