Atlanta

Mixed Use by Jess Jones and Gaudi-Juju by Lillian Blades at Swan Coach House Gallery

Dual presentations of artists can often result in hasty hierarchies of “better vs. worse” or “master vs. apprentice.” However, the recent exhibition of Jess Jones’ and Lillian Blades’ work at Atlanta’s Swan Coach House Gallery tosses all that patriarchal competitive comparison out the door by presenting the strength of their individual practices, as well as their shared interest in the history and procedures of craft.[1] With deep investments in the art of quilting, Jones and Blades each find distinctive ways to bring the historical into dialogue with the personal, and the built environment into dialogue with the natural.

Jess Jones. Topoquilt: Peoplestown, 2016; found quilt top (by unknown artist) hand-dyed silk organza; 77 x 64 inches. Image courtesy of the artist and Swan Coach House Gallery (Atlanta, GA).

Jess Jones. Topoquilt: Peoplestown, 2016; found quilt top (by unknown artist), hand-dyed silk organza; 77 x 64 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Swan Coach House Gallery.

Hung on the walls of the galleries like paintings, Jess Jones’ quilts honor the piecemeal nature of the quilting practice as a way to engage with her own personal circumstances as an artist living in a city in flux. Jones scavenges for worn quilt tops—either abandoned or forgotten by their original makers—from thrift shops across the Atlanta metro area, and then operates upon these lost materials, granting them new life when they enter her studio. Fragile, unfinished documents of the original quilter’s intentions, style, and technique, these handmade textiles hold within them a partial history. Embroidered upon the original piecing, Jones’ careful additions expand the possibilities of the quilt’s life while opening up our traditional understanding of the ethics of collaboration across spatio-temporal divides and authorship between individual makers. Working on (and with) these quilts, Jones mines a gap between the initial maker and herself, and between the beginning and the end of an object’s life.

In addition, Jones collapses different kinds of marks and methods culled from the history of craft alongside emerging digital technologies and turns these quilts into handmade landscapes of historical, personal, and geographical data. Her “topo-quilts,” named for the inclusion of digital drawings and stitch-work of the topographical terrain of the metro Atlanta area, point to the dynamic population growth and socioeconomic shifts that are impacting the city in profound ways—gentrification and social segregation of races and classes being the most pressing concerns. For Jones, these quilts represent an indexical account of the changing social landscape, both within and outside the bounds of the object, revealing the circumstances of the maker, the inheritor, and the messy connective tissue that lies between one part and another, or one community and another.

Jess Jones. Topoquilt: Mechanicsville, 2017; found quilt top (by unknown artist), hand-dyed silk organza; 77 x 56 inches. Image courtesy of the artist and Swan Coach House Gallery (Atlanta, GA).

Jess Jones. Topoquilt: Mechanicsville, 2017; found quilt top (by unknown artist), hand-dyed silk organza; 77 x 56 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Swan Coach House Gallery.

In Peoplestown (2016), square fragments of striped and floral fabrics in a kaleidoscope of bright tones press and squeeze in tension with one another at the center of the quilt, while the entire surface of the space remains covered with an aerial view of undulating cartographic lines. Reminiscent of terrain maps used by archeologists and geologists for the study of the aging land, the quilt forms a response to the layers, networks, and systems that intersect all metropolitan communities—from highways, to neighborhoods, to natural environments. Mechanicsville (2017) shares the bird’s-eye-view perspective of Peoplestown, but the patterns created by the fabrics and topographical overlay suggest a calmly controlled chaos and vibrancy—a reflection of the multicultural dynamics, exchanges, and rapid gentrification at work in the popular downtown neighborhood.

Lillian Blades. Juju-Veil, 2017; mixed media. Image courtesy of the artist and Swan Coach House Gallery (Atlanta, GA).

Lillian Blades. Juju-Veil, 2017; mixed media. Courtesy of the Artist and Swan Coach House Gallery.

The poetic reverberations of Jones’ quilts engage in an exciting dialogue with the glittering assemblages installed just across the small, intimate rooms of the gallery. Entitled Gaudi-Juju—a multivalent historical reference to the organic ornamental surfaces of the 20th-century Catalan modernist and architect Antoni Gaudí, as well as the hybrid spiritual practices of American slave descendants from West Africa and Maroon tribes, and the Central African concept of nkisi, which states that spirits can inhabit objects—Lillian Blades’ works testify to the significance of personal and collective histories lying at the heart of all craft traditions. Made of found objects collected from the north Georgia landscape, but inspired by African diaspora aesthetics, this diachronic collapse of different times, geographies, and traditions can be seen most astonishingly in the beaded hanging work Juju-Veil (2017). A shimmering curtain of objects collected in Georgia, but arranged with the symbolic practice of the Yoruba tribes in mind, Blades’ jangling installation gathers together disparate items to form a diverse constellation of material effects informed by craftwork.

Originally from Nassau in the Bahamas, Blades’ manner of collecting objects and setting them into new mosaics and networks of meaning recalls her own journey across borders and oceans and into new communities. In Otito (2016), Blades’ collecting merges into a rectangular configuration of the picture plane. Reminiscent of pieces of driftwood floating aimlessly together across a sea, through time and space from origins to destination, Otito is a reminder of the traumatic history of those who crossed oceans during the Middle Passage as slaves, as well as the floating sense of home and origin that those who cross boundaries and borders embody.

Lillian Blades. Otito, 2016; mixed media on wood panel; 48 x 24 inches. Image courtesy of the artist and Swan Coach House Gallery.

Lillian Blades. Otito, 2016; mixed media on wood panel; 48 x 24 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Swan Coach House Gallery.

Ideas about “otherness” and “assimilation” find avenues of expression in Blades’ practice and writing. Preferring to maintain the integrity of the items as she encounters them by leaving them “as is,” Blades sees these shimmering accumulations as acts of preservation.[2] Similar to Jones, Blades is not interested in interrupting the material specificity—she embraces the inheritance of the objects she uses. She too embroiders upon them, thus adding and expanding their material life, and draws out an unstable narrative of relations, juxtapositions, and contexts—the swarm that resonates deeply within the cosmopolitan subject.

Whether in Nassau or north Georgia, both Jones and Blades find ways to harness the complexity at work in representing “the origin” of an artwork, and “a self” as shaped by others. In a moment in which ideas of national origins, autonomy, and purity have seized American politics, Jones’ and Blades’ practices remind us of the beauty and power of the hybrid.

Mixed-Use and Gaudi-Juju will be on view at Swan Coach House Gallery through February 17, 2017.

[1] My thanks must go to the Creative Director and Curator of Swan Coach House Gallery, Karen Tauches, and to Assistant Gallery Manager Jordan Stubbs for all their help and support in the writing and researching of this article.

[2] A brief discussion of Jones’ and Blades’ work can be found in the press release for Mixed-Use and Gaudi-Juju, written by Karen Tauches, n.p. After the terrifying wildfires that swept the Southeast, specifically north Georgia, in the winter of 2016, Blades’ incorporation of burned materials indicates the artist’s deep engagement with the fluctuating cycles of the natural and human worlds, and the collisions between them.

 

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