Beyond Aesthetics: The Conceptual Quilts of Cherry Partee

This article was first published in the Spring 1996 issue of Surface Design Journal.

For many involved in the contemporary quilt movement a primary focus has been establishing the aesthetics of quilts as fine art.  For Cherry Partee, however, quilts are a culturally loaded object whose subversive power she turns to social concerns. As a conceptual artist, Partee’s legacy includes both Dada and the various movements of the 1960s and 70s which rejected Kant’s disinterested aesthetics and Modernism’s autonomous art object and empowered the artist as a culturally active agent.  Contemporary artists have extended  critical practice by exposing the ways in which art both reflects and transmits political and social ideology. They have removed the veil of universal truth that has surrounded  art history and contextualized its foundations within the Enlightenment, a discourse which naturalized the dichotomies of reason/emotion, mind/body, culture/nature,  art/craft, male/female 1 and isolated art  within a separate, higher sphere. It is the interrogation of such assumptions that Partee pursues.                     

  Partee’s interest in quilt making grew out of the domestic tradition, a tradition which she feels offers women a chance to celebrate and validate their lives.2 Traditional quilt patterns establish a lexicon and innovations express the concerns of an individual grounded in her own culture and time. Partee’s most striking innovations are installations and performances that use quilts to question cultural assumptions. In The Gift a cut up quilt lies next to a white box wrapped with pink ribbon and smudged with hand prints. The work is exhibited in an inconspicuous location without lighting. In its quiet, insistent way, The Gift questions preconceptions of quilt making and of the nature and presentation of art. Quilts epitomize the crafts – labor intensive, hand made, material, female. The hundreds of  pieces and thousands of stitches focus attention on the maker and the process of making, a focus that is antithetical to Modernism’s self contained artwork.3 The hand prints on the box remind us that indeed all art is a product of the hand and that the opposition of art as mind work and craft as hand work is false. The cut and heaped quilt refers to the original piecing  of the fabric at the same time as it violates notions of the sanctity and integrity of art. If the quilt is a work of art, how are we to understand its presentation in fragments? If an art object is not carefully lit and hung, how is our perception of that art influenced?4  Indeed, the appropriateness of Partee’s questions was exquisitely demonstrated when a member of the maintenance staff  swept  up The Gift and threw it away. Although the exhibition staff was horrified,  Partee was delighted. In response she replaced the discarded quilt with cleaning rags borrowed from the maintenance crew which she stamped with “THIS IS NOT ART – THIS IS TRASH”. With the help of an unknowing accomplicePartee’s installation became performance.

Issues of art’s presentation and reception surface again in The Rain Falls on the Just and the Unjust, a work which Partee describes as “a combination of object and performance”.5   The performance involves the offering of quilts to five individuals according to the terms of  a contract Partee designed. The quilts are folded inside boxes that are wrapped and labeled for shipping. At numerically determined random times Partee visits the gallery and offers a quilt to the next person that crosses a predetermined line. That person, after being shown the quilts, may accept or reject the gift. If a quilt is taken Partee makes another to replace it.

Work that involves the participation of non artist collaborators and emphasizes chance has an historical grounding in Happenings and  Fluxus, two movements which emphasized the interconnection of art and life and spawned the performance genre. Performance work sites the area of artistic interest on the artist,  rejecting the limitation of art to aesthetic objects. For many women it has been a tool for exposing cultural stereotypes and demanding social equality.6  For Partee it is both a way to explore the role of chance in gifting and a commentary on art’s role as a commodity in an exclusive market, a role underscored by the quilts presentation in packing boxes. The complexity of these issues increases when one realizes that The Rain Falls on the Just and the Unjust is for sale. The sale of the work involves the purchase of the boxes and the quilts, and the responsibility of executing the work – giving the quilts away according to the contract that Partee has written. This tactic is reminiscent of the Minimalist, Don Judd, who sold not his  sculptures, but the right to have them built. Both artists call into question paradigms of authenticity, uniqueness and authorial power.

            In its positioning of opposites – giving and selling, aesthetics and performance- The Rain Falls on the Just and the Unjust questions the nature of dichotomy and asks us to look more carefully at our preconceptions concerning the nature of art and art making. This emphasis on ambiguity and opposition reflects Roland Barthes’ idea of text- as an agent that cuts across media, fosters the coexistence of difference, ambiguity and multiplicity and implicates both the author and viewer in establishing meaning.7 These features of Partee’s work are tuned to their finest in The Difficulty of Touching. In this piece the artist presents four figures (two men and two women) in several versions- as outlines on a black backdrop,  as subtly modelled figures on a series of movable squares and as stitching that binds a plastic covering to the  squares. 

The curator (not the artist) is responsible for attaching the squares  to the background but the squares are constructed in two slightly different sizes so that the image on the squares never quite matches the image on the black cloth. Consequently there is no correct way to assemble the piece.This indeterminacy reflects current linguistic theory’s insistence on contingency and the mediated nature of language and knowledge. It also confronts the idea of art as a unified and irreducible whole.The pivotal role of the curator questions the position of the artist as the creator of meaning. The three presentations of the figures (outline, modelled drawing and stitching) flow in and out of each other, thwarting our attempts to fix their identity and interpret their interaction.  Although the figures seem similar, yet they are different and  can never match perfectly, a human condition whose ramifications divide many social movements today.8   This tension between human similarity and difference, Partee feels, governs much human interaction.9 Text on the squares reflects both directly and metaphorically on touching and communication.The duplication of the image suggests allegory and indeed the work can be read on many levels – as a reflection on human interaction, on language and on knowledge.10

The ambiguity created by the physical disjunction, fragmentation and overlapping of the image provides a superb formal extension of  Partee’s conceptual concerns. Multiplicity and indeterminacy is also reflected in the quilt’s layers and in the juxtaposition of classically rendered figures within the modernist abstract grid of flat squares.The difficulty of touching serves as a metaphor for cultural phenomena and at the same time is literally embodied in the materiality of the piece  and its formal relations. It is this synthesis of aesthetic and conceptual concerns that lends a power to The Difficulty of Touching that Partee’s other works only approximate.  We experience through both concept and form the fusion of emotion and intellect,  body and mind as a shifting, multivalent symphony of meaning that defies notions of objective, verifiable truth.

End Notes

1  For a discussion of how the role of women in art has been mediated historically by cultural and political ideology, see Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock, Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology (Pantheon, 1981). For a concise outline of  the legacy of the Enlightenment, see Jane Flax, “Postmodernism and Gender Relations in Feminist Theory,” Feminism/Postmodernism (Routledge, 1990).
2 Personal conversation with the artist, June 1995.
3 For the foundations of Art History and the current debates within the field, see Donald Preziosi, Rethinking Art History: Meditations on a Coy Science,  (Yale, 1989). For an amusing explication of how the perception of an art work changes depending on whether it is spoken of in transpersonal terms or as an autobiography of the artist, see Rosalind E Krauss,  “ In the Name of Picasso,” The Originality of the Avant Garde and Other Modernist Myths,  (MIT Press, 1985).
4 See Michael Baxandall “Exhibiting Intention: Some Preconditions of the Visual Display of Culturally Purposeful Objects” and Stephen Greenblatt “Resonance and Wonder,” Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display  (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991).
5 Artist’s Statement.
6 See Rosalee Goldberg “Performance: The Golden Years,” The Art of Performance  (Abrams, 1984).
7 See Roland Barthes “From Work to Text,” Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation,  (The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984).
8 For a discussion of the conflict inherent in seeking human community while recognizing human difference, see Iris Marion Young, “The Ideal of Community and The Politics of Difference,” Feminism/Postmodernism  (Routledge, 1990).
9 Artist’s Statement.
10 For a discussion of allegory in Postmodern art, see Craig Owens, “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism,” Beyond Recognition:Representation, Power and Culture, (University of California Press, 1992).