Portland Opera Puccini in Concert Keller Auditorium Portland Oregon

Quilted dynamism: Niraja Lorenz at Helzer Gallery

The quilts in Lorenz's show "Strange Attractors" showcase nothing less than the vibrancy of the universe. Prudence Roberts reviews.

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Niraja Lorenz, detail from Edge of Chaos, 2020. 85 x 123 inches

Eight of Niraja Lorenz’s dynamic quilts enliven the Helzer Gallery at PCC’s Rock Creek campus. The works envelop the viewer in colorful compositions where circles, polygons, triangles, and squares are held in precarious tension as though in a state of arrested motion.  Anyone looking for the cozy serenity of a traditional quilt show will not find it here.

Late last year, I had a chance to see the work and to hear Lorenz mesmerize a crowd of students as she described her artistic path (circuitous and unconventional) and the sources and techniques she uses to arrive at pieces that contain references to mathematical theories, deep space and even, in one work, political unrest. All are testament to Lorenz’s innate instinct for color, movement, and abstraction. 

Six of the examples are from the Strange Attractor series (more on that title later); the show also includes Green Catastrophe (2018) and Edge of Chaos (2020). The wild spontaneity of all these works belies the painstaking method of their making – details ranging from intricate quilting patterns, to tiny bits of fabric meticulously seamed together.

Niraja Lorenz, Green Catastrophe, 2018. 65 x 59 inches

While technically these are quilts—a sandwich of front and back fabrics and a center layer of batting joined together with stitching—their abstract compositions and irregular shapes are a far cry from more typical symmetrical and sedate examples. In the world of fiber arts, they are defined as “fine art quilts” – distinct from more standard, follow-the-pattern creations, often stitched in groups, and, traditionally, made from old textiles such as worn-out clothing, curtains, bedding. 

Lorenz uses scraps to make her quilts but works with new cotton fabrics and prefers to do all the work by herself, from the original conception to the final assembly. She uses quilting, machine stitching patterns over the completed quilt, to add texture and dimension. Aesthetically, her quilts are closer in spirit to the bold asymmetries that characterize Gee’s Bend quilts, or to the brightly-colored vagaries of Victorian crazy quilts, embellished with minute details of embroidery and made from random scraps of various fabrics.

Lorenz began working with fibers as a teenager and was a weaver for many years. However, when faced with a choice of art or science, she pursued degrees in biology and experimental psychology, relegating her love of making to a hobby, considering herself a crafter. She abandoned a career as a research psychologist in 2018 to spend full time in her studio, located in her home in Eugene. She began making quilts in the 1990s and, in 2007, took the first in a series of workshops with Nancy Crow, a famed fiber artist whose quilts are internationally renowned. 

From Crow, Lorenz absorbed a deeper understanding of color dynamics, and adopted a looser, more expressive style, jettisoning her ruler and straight edge and dispensing with perfect measurements and alignment. Lorenz also adopted Crow’s use of strip piecing: sewing together narrow pieces of solid colored fabric. She often dyes her own and any faint patterns are a result of her various dying techniques, including shibori and tie-dye. Another design revelation came when she took a photograph of one of her quilts using a kaleidoscopic lens, which turned its surface into a series of hexagons, a form that she employs frequently.

Sponsor

Portland Playhouse Passing Strange Portland Oregon

It has only been for the past three years or so that Lorenz has considered herself an artist rather than a crafts person and has seen her work included in art museum exhibitions. She credits the change in her self-description to having received a Hallie Ford Fellowship in the Visual Arts from the Ford Family Foundation in 2019. That support, and the exposure her work has subsequently garnered, has introduced her to new audiences and new venues, though she still is very active in fiber art exhibitions, where she has won numerous awards over the years. 

Lorenz’s compositions are based on more than color relationships and shapes.  Her training and background in scientific and mathematical fields is fundamental both in the way she works and in her finished pieces. Her mother, Jane Loban, was a painter and her father, Edward Lorenz, was a famed mathematician and meteorologist. From her father’s theoretical writings comes the title Strange Attractors. She writes, “…my father’s work in Chaos Theory has influenced me to see the world as fluid and unfolding, unpredictable yet not random. I find that with a slight twist of a constructed unit, unexpected configurations appear. Like the Butterfly Effect, there is sensitive dependence to initial conditions.”  In other words, changing one element of a composition affects every other part of it, revealing unexpected new possibilities and solutions. Her process is thus akin to assembling a collage, arranging and rearranging elements, shifting colors, pinning things down until she arrives at a solution that pleases her.

Installation view at Helzer Gallery with Edge of Chaos

Occupying one full wall of the Helzer Gallery, Edge of Chaos is a massive (85 x 123-in.) composition.  Lorenz made it for a competition inviting artists to celebrate the anniversary of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, launched into space in 1990 and still providing mind-bending images of the universe. Lorenz studied hundreds of photographs of black holes, nebulae, star clusters, and galaxies and began to piece together the individual elements—spheres, polygons, spirals—that would dominate her finished quilt. Over the course of a year, she arranged and rearranged these units on the design wall in her studio, adding and subtracting, adjusting colors and shapes as the work gradually evolved. 

In its final form, a series of triangles, rectangles, and diagonal lines at the bottom of the quilt describe a city and a mountain range, grounding viewers on our planet. Above, a dazzling star-studded universe whirls and spins, as ecstatic and mysterious as Hubble’s own photographs or, perhaps, Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Lorenz considers Edge of Chaos her most important piece to date: her “masterpiece,” as she half-jokingly described it to students. (Ironically, the exhibition for which she made it was canceled because of the pandemic and has not been rescheduled.)

A more somber and unsettling work is Green Catastrophe. It grew out of a composition that Lorenz took off her wall and abandoned following what she terms the “great catastrophe” which occurred on November 8, 2016, with the election of the 45th president. When she came back to the piece, she used the medium of fiber to depict her sense of despair and discord. An ominous and destructive ball of dark energy hurdles downward, its form outlined against a ground of diagonal stripes of lurid greens and acid yellows. Those stripes are reminiscent of the force lines in an anarchic Futurist painting, intended to suggest power, dynamism, and destruction. To add a further discordant note to the piece, Lorenz quilted it with deep red thread.

Strange Attractors is a revelatory exhibition from a unique artist: one whose works synthesize her training, her passions, and her personal history. Like any good art, the works reward careful consideration and repeated contemplation. 

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Cascadia Composers May the Fourth be with you Bold new music for winds and piano Lincoln Recital Hall PSU Portland Oregon

A final note: Low enrollment and budget cuts have brutally stripped resources for community college art galleries and extracurricular programs. Yet exhibitions such as Lorenz’s are vital to the health of studio and art history courses: the gallery functions as a critical resource for instructors and students alike. Without any budget for help, gallery directors at the PCC campuses (instructors who receive release time) are responsible for all the work associated with running a gallery—from installation to interpretation and marketing. This has necessarily meant a truncated exhibition schedule. Visiting campus galleries, posting on social media, signing the guest book—these are all ways to show support for this vital part of our arts ecosystem. 

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Strange Attractors is on view at Helzer Gallery at PCC Rock Creek through January 28th. The gallery is open Monday through Friday 9 am-4 pm and Saturdays from 9:30 am-4:30 pm. 

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Prudence Roberts recently retired from Portland Community College, where she taught art history and was curator of the collections and gallery at the Rock Creek campus. Prior to that, she spent 14 years as Curator of American art at the Portland Art Museum. She continues to work as a freelance writer and curator and serves on the boards of Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts and the Multnomah County Cultural Coalition.

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