Now online: A quilt show takes on ecocide, consumerism, and capitalism

Fiber artists explore the toll plastics and the "invisible hand" are taking on the oceans in an exhibit in Newberg's Chehalem Cultural Center

Update: With the coronavirus shutdown, the Chehalem Cultural Center has made its exhibits available online. To see the “Shifting Tides” show, go here.

One does not instinctively think of politics and protest when a quilt show appears in a local gallery, which is why the latest exhibit at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg may catch you off guard. Perhaps the stereotype ignores the versatility to be found in the textile arts, but I suspect that for most people, a quilt conjures up feelings of comfort, warmth, and security —  exactly the opposite of what Shifting Tides: Convergence in Cloth by Studio Art Quilt Associates has to offer.

Shifting Tides, which fills three of the Chehalem Center’s galleries and runs through April 27, is a penetrating look at the planet’s ecological predicament, particularly as manifested in the oceans. It could not come at a more appropriate moment. My visit last week coincided with the publication of a horrifying 7,163-word piece in Rolling Stone: Tim Dickinson’s Planet Plastic: How Big Oil and Big Soda kept a global environmental calamity a secret for decades. It landed in my Facebook news feed just hours before I visited the exhibit, and the introduction highlights the show’s relevance. “Every human on Earth,” Dickinson declares in the opening sentence, “is ingesting nearly 2,000 particles of plastic a week.” It gets worse from there.

“Rings of Eternity,” by Lisa Jenni (33 by 41 inches), incorporates plastic rings from bottles and jugs into its design. Photo by: David Bates

It’s appropriate — no, necessary — then, that many of the more than 40 pieces featured in Shifting Tides actually incorporate plastic. Juried by Ann Johnson of West Linn and overseen by a national panel, the show is an official regional exhibit by Studio Art Quilt Associates based in Hebron, Conn. The program notes make clear what many of the associated textile artists are thinking about:

“As residents of the greater North Pacific region, fiber artists share personal narratives and statements regarding the Pacific Ocean ecosystem, its marvelous natural diversity, and the human activities that both sustain and threaten it. The exhibit is an artistic convergence, where quilting and surface design techniques come together into stunning works of contemporary textile art. The wide variety of viewpoints and artistic styles will delight and challenge viewers to assess their own perceptions regarding the interplay of oceanic and human communities.”

“Whither the Waterfront,” by Cathy Miranker, 57 by 41 inches
“Whither the Waterfront?,” by Cathy Miranker, 57 by 41 inches. Photo by: David Bates

They do delight and challenge — and, given the subject matter, depress. With some of the pieces, such as Lisa Jenni’s dazzling Rings of Eternity, one finds the alarming dissonance of ugliness and beauty inseparable from each other. The Redmond, Wash., artist uses plastic rings that seal the lids and caps to bottles and jugs, incorporating them (along with netting) in such a way that they almost seem to dance with the bubbles, sprawling across various hues of oceanic blue. Cathy Miranker of San Francisco, meanwhile, depicts an altogether different type of ecological horror, a cityscape submerged in a rising sea, appropriately titled Whither the Waterfront?

I spent about half an hour wandering through Shifting Tides, but I confess that possibly a third of my time was spent examining one piece: Surging Tides of Consequence, by Clare Attwell of Victoria, B.C. According to her bio, she is “especially interested in what makes complex systems functional, and in particular, how they relate to organizations and social systems.” More than any other piece, Surging Tides examines the ecological nightmare described in the Rolling Stone piece within the context of the system that produces it: capitalism. She does so with both imagery and text.

At first glance, the vertical piece appears to depict a couple of fish swimming behind what appears to be a yellow scaffolding or fence that runs from top to bottom. To the right are images of pencils, which more or less bleed into the gate imagery. On the left side, wraith-like ribbons twist in the water, resembling seaweed as much as they do plastic.

What to make of this?

“Surging Tides of Consequence,” by Clare Attwell. 56 by 40 inches
“Surging Tides of Consequence,” by Clare Attwell. 56 by 40 inches. Photo by: David Bates

The answer, it seems to me, is to be found in the text, which incorporates numerals (clearly dollar amounts) and chunks of prose from two sources: Leonard E. Read’s essay I, Pencil, and the intro to the essay penned by the late economist Milton Friedman.

Read, born in 1898, was a key figure in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in the first half of the 20th century and the founder in 1946 of the Foundation for Economic Education, a libertarian think tank still in operation. It is dedicated, according to its website, to the principles of “individual liberty, free-market economics, entrepreneurship, private property, high moral character and limited government.” Friedman, the free-market intellectual guru who advised both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, probably needs no introduction.

The essay I, Pencil, perhaps does. It was first published in a libertarian magazine in 1958, written by Read in the first person from the point of view of a pencil, describing in great detail the galaxy of entrepreneurial forces involved in its creation, even including the lighthouse keeper who guided the cargo ship carrying it into port. Friedman and other economists loved the story because it illustrated what they regarded as the free market’s “invisible hand.”

Detail of “Surging Tides of Consequence.” The essay, "I, Pencil," figures prominently in the piece. Photo by David Bates
Detail of “Surging Tides of Consequence.” The essay, “I, Pencil,” figures prominently in the piece. Photo by David Bates

The moral of the pencil’s life, in the end, is to: “Leave all creative energies uninhibited. Merely organize society to act in harmony with this lesson. Let society’s legal apparatus remove all obstacles the best it can. Permit these creative know-hows freely to flow. Have faith that free men and women will respond to the Invisible Hand.”

Neoliberalism has in recent decades successfully removed or eviscerated much of the “legal apparatus” preventing capitalism’s invisible hands from wrecking the planet, so much so that, according to the Rolling Stone article, more than half the plastic strewn about the planet was created in the last 18 years. It’s on pace to double in the next decade.

The legacy of the “invisible hand” — ultimately, the subject of this show — is now visible to all, including the fish. Thanks to a widely seen and lamented photograph of a plastic bag in the sand published last May, we know that it’s visible even at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. But it has perhaps always been more visible to artists, who by nature are better able and willing to see the world as it is and confront it in their work. Shifting Tides does that. Perhaps it will inspire some to respond, in ways Friedman and Read surely didn’t intend or desire, to the invisible hand.

ARTS JOURNAL:  I’ve been living these past four months inside Michael Frayn’s crazy stage comedy Noises Off, playing a part in a Gallery Theater production that closed March 1. The next day I collapsed in my favorite chair and watched Swiss filmmaker Alexandre O. Philippe’s fascinating Memory: The Origins of Alien. More cerebral than the typical making-of documentary, the film explores the mythological, intellectual and artistic processes that came together in Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi thriller Alien. Highly recommended for film buffs.

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Yamhill County Cultural Coalition, Oregon Cultural Trust, and Oregon Community Foundation.

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