Saturday, April 12, 2014

A Current Debate: Modern vs Contemporary

I have found myself amidst a debate.  Is a quilt "modern" or is it "contemporary"?  You'll understand this discussion fully in a moment, but I will start this post with just that.

The dictionary gives these definitions.

"of or relating to the present or recent times, as opposed to the remote past"
synonyms: contemporary, present, current

"belonging to or occurring in the present"
synonyms: modern, current, present day

(and for a full comparison)
" existing in or as part of a tradition, long established"
synonyms: customary, time-honored, established, classic

I grew up in a household, where my mother was college-educated with a sickening love of art.  My passions of art were rather limited to just the bronze Degas ballerina statues and Monet, but she had bookshelves of art plate books, and knowledge of many painters.  I knew and heard terms like modern and contemporary to be used interchangeably.  So recently upon hearing that something made to be "modern" was really viewed as being more "contemporary", I immediately made that scrunched face look, and pondered how this could be.

When we look at discussions and photos of modern and contemporary home (both interior and exterior), they appear quite similar.  Question: Does it need to look space-age to really appear modern?  Or are the sleek lines, (ok, no Queen-Anne's styling here!) and color-block attempts at design enough?  Here is a website I perused.  Seriously, they debate the possible differences, where they apply to interior design, and it is a fine line at best.

Again, I am not trying to rock any boats or stir trouble -- just looking for insight and understanding.

The real test of this discussion, as I am sure you are gathering, relates to quilts....this one specifically.
I went to the Modern Quilt Guild's website to gain some insight.  Now, mind you, they are not the bosses of what is modern or what is not, but they founded this so-called modern quilt movement, and should be included in the discussion.  They say:
 "Modern quilts are primarily functional and inspired by modern design.  Modern quilters work in different styles and define modern quilting in different ways, but several characteristics often appear which may help identify a modern quilt. These include, but are not limited to: the use of bold colors and prints, high contrast and graphic areas of solid color, improvisational piecing, minimalism, expansive negative space, and alternate grid work. ".  
There are many interpretations of modern quilting out there - that is what makes it such a powerful movement in current day.  It is sweeping up younger (and older) quilters constantly because I feel that they are drawn in by it's simplicity, boldness, and polar-difference to the very traditional star-type blocks that our grandmothers would have used in quilting.  Anybody that quilts knows that many star blocks are hard to piece, and not always suited for beginner quilters.  Modern is, however, on account of it's simplicity.  Hence, many new quilters start with this.
Just as this defining text which I took from the MQG's website lists some key ideas that are often included in modern quilts, they also say that they are not limited to these alone.  If you read into the literature that is available on the web, of which there is a LOT to find, you will read many other design aesthetics that can appear in modern quilting.  Here are a few:
  • solids
  • free-piecing
  • asymmetry
  • unexpected (in use of color or design)
  • graphic
  • quilting that ignores the piecing, as in an overlay style
  • use of gridwork and geometric elements
Most importantly, and opposed to traditional, modern is a definition that each and every quilter is allowed to somewhat define for themselves.  Your modern is not identical to someone else's.  It's a personal journey we can take to deviate where we see fit.

I am a self-professed traditional quilter.  It is a style I gravitate towards, and do love and appreciate.  I adore the old blocks and stars that have been used in quilts for hundreds of years.  But by the same token, I also appreciate many of the current fabric trends, and like to see them in quilts.  As a hired quilter, I get to play on client quilts of all styles.  I have had my hand in many modern undertakings.  This was my turn to make my own modern creation.

Two months ago, I showed this quilt.   I discussed much of the rationale that I used when it was made in this post.  It is free-pieced.  Mind you it is curves (not that this is excluded!), and then I trimmed them to creating blocks of a similar size.   Each block is different.  I know that if I left my blocks all different sizes and somehow got them to fit together (as in this example) there might be less discussion about if this type background is modern or not.  But I did not.  This is MY Modern.  I feel that I am free to take bits and pieces of what is interpreted as modern and make MY quilt.  Notice I didn't take a lot of white fabric either. Some things just appear out of place.  Other aspects of modern that I find appealing which I used include the asymmetric borders.  I love the depth of the darker and much wider bottom border, juxtaposed by the narrower ones on the top and sides.   The applique is graphic.  While somewhat still of a realistic shape, it is done in a colorblock method, so each leaf is of 2 colors.  Two unexpected colors.  Blue.  I know that this is not the modern quilt typically in people's minds, with 4 Kona squares of different bold colors and a white background.  It is my interpretation.  To conclude this discussion, I want to lastly mention the quilting.  As a machine quilter, this is naturally an important area to me.  I knew when I was designing this quilt that it would have a more graphic style of quilting.  It is suited to the overlay style, rather than a traditional approach.  I chose to quilt sections with graphic parallel lines and on-point grids.  It is effective, and is opposite to what anybody would expect to be on a traditional quilt.  While I could have avoided the serpentine leafy-feathers that meander through the leaves, I made this different.  They are not round-lobe feathers, as traditionalists use.  They are in keeping with the design.  While they may not be what every modern quilter might stitch, Angela Walters has stated previously that even she finds feathers to be a highly effective method to convey movement, even on modern quilts.

All of this discussion and justification doesn't change anything.  My quilt shown above "Shenandoah Falling" went to MQX, and though it did judge well enough to earn a ribbon, it was disqualified, so it comes home with nothing.  It was deemed "too contemporary".  I thought the modern movement was about pushing boundaries in quilting, making modern become "your modern", adapting the characteristics of modern quilting that fit you and designing from there.

I am not sour about this, please don't misunderstand this post.  I earned top ribbons on all of my other quilts, and Shenandoah Falling has already earned a Best Wall Quilt at another show this winter.  I know it will show well at others too.  I don't need to nor want to stir issues with the judges either.  I respect them, like them, and know some.  When you chose to enter a show, you have to accept what they will give you for comments/scores even if you disagree. And I do.  I just want others to chime in.  Modern quilt categories are new to many quilt shows, and still need some refining in what is allowed to be accepted.   The allowed design aesthetic is somewhat vague.  It is not like other categories which specifically disallow such things like dis-similar color thread or metallic thread, or obviously over-the-top custom quilting. 

I merely wish to push this discussion into other quilters.  I have the quilt entered at several shows this year, and hope not to bring home a resume of DQ's.  The machine quilting on this piece is undeniably pushed well outside of any traditional box.  Why is it that if a quilter makes a quilt without huge spans of white or battle-ship gray fabric, it isn't really making a modern quilt?  

I love your comments on this.  I don't want modern to be limited by just the small, narrow view of modern that was started by Denyse Schmidt.  It is an evolving art, as art always has been.  Somehow, quilts such as mind ought to be accepted on the modern artistic merits I chose to include.  In a show where 67% of my score is based on the quilting, it wasn't allowed.   The editor of a modern quilting magazine has already stated that she'd put this quilt in her magazine, so where should the line be?

Thoughts?  I won't be offended.  I am looking for insight.  I realize that I have pushed the modern envelope somewhat, but this is My Modern.  It doesn't have to be your's.  That is the beauty and difference in Modern.  Traditionalists are not so lucky.


Sewing Junkie said...

Interpretation by quilters, judges and the general public is like an art show. Well it is a form of art. Not everyone has the same taste. Wouldn't the World be dull if we only looked at the same thing. I try not to look or judge buy the tastes I have but by the workmanship in the project. I would not like to be a judge, because I'm afraid it would be to stressful. Your work is unique to you and to have a judge reject is hard to swallow sometimes. But as you say other shows it will do good.

Rebecca Grace said...

Ah, Margaret -- it's the Paris Salon rejecting Claude Monet all over again. :-)

First and foremost, as a member of the self-proclaimed Language and Grammar Police, I join your indignation at the misuse of the terms "modern" and "contemporary." Any quilt made in 2014 is contemporary, whether it's a reproduction Baltimore Album or an edgy abstraction.
Honestly, I think that by trying to define modern quilts, these groups are limiting and constricting creativity rather than encouraging it. It's so easy for anyone to just tick off the boxes and design a weirdly colored quilt with asymmetrical piecing, lots of negative white or gray space, etc., and end up with a quilt that meets those arbitrary "Modern Quilt" standards without actually offering anything fresh or new.
To me, your quilt is the epitome of modern quilting because of its originality and the thought that went into each design decision, from piecing on through to the last quilting stitch. When you walk through the Pompidou Centre in Paris or MOMA in NYC, you don't see a collection of art that all conforms to the same criteria. Each artist has their own vision and their own voice, even artists who were CONTEMPORARIES OF ONE ANOTHER (!) were filtering the world around them through their own creative lens in their artwork rather than trying to match one another's style. Modern art is about breaking rules in deliberate, thoughtful ways to convey an artistic message. Now, walking through the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you see a lot more uniformity of what artists were creating in different times and places, because those artists really were constrained by "rules" of what art should be, how painting or sculpting was "supposed" to be done, even by what subject matter was appropriate for art.
So, by narrowly defining "Modern Quilting" and disqualifying those who don't follow their rules, they are really making Modern Quilting more restrictive and limiting than the so-called TRADITIONAL quilting categories.

Millie said...

Margaret, true artists always push boundaries and defy categorization. You are a true artist. Your quilts are stunning. Whoever or whatever description of "modern" that caused your quilt to be disqualified was obviously missing the forest for the trees. Such narrow definitions anger me to no end. They slice and dice and make arbitrary judgements that make no sense and end up being meaningless.

What Comes Next? said...

Thank you for opening the discussion, Margaret. I have a bit of a problem with how "Modern" is interpreted at many shows, as well. In many ways, I would prefer to see a category that is called "My interpretation" rather than strictly modern or contemporary, which are by definition, synonyms. In every era you have modern work being created, as it is of that time, using fabrics and inspirations of the day. Very traditional patterns can result in a very contemporary or modern quilts, based on the fabrics used,for example. I am interested in seeing what other think.

Susan Lawson said...

I'm sure you know my position on this debate: Shenandoah Falling is a modern quilt! When you google "modern quilt" the results are far and wide. The images we frequently associate with modern quilting; the white, bold colors, easy to piece are certainly there, but there are also modern quilts that do not fit into this genre. A perfect example is the quilt made by the Dallas Modern Quilt Guild and was displayed in the Dallas library to promote modern quilting. It's New York beauties with a zig-zag border (sounds traditional), but who am I to argue with a modern quilt guild? You can view their quilt here:

Tami @ Lemon Tree Tales said...

I suspect that some of the modern quilters would look at your quilt and think it was more of an art quilt. It's so hard to pin down what the Modern Quilt Guild defines as modern because it's already changing from what it first was. Now it's starting to include more prints, not just solids. I do know that a lot of them tend not to have borders. Bottom line is that I think your quilt is definitely modern, especially the quilting on it. Keep submitting it to shows. :-)

Charlotte said...

If a quilt follows each and every criteria for "modern" doesn't that take away some of the definition in and of itself?? I love your quilt and your quilting is so inspiring. You raise great questions in your blog!

Jen said...

As someone who considers herself a modern quilter, I would classify this quilt as contemporary, not modern. The fabrics, design and style don't necessarily fall into any of the modern categories defined by most quilters. But that's not the thing that I think you should be focusing on. What style your quilt fits into shouldn't matter. It's a beautiful quilt. I'm shocked that your quilt was disqualified for being too modern. The style of the quilt shouldn't matter, it's the workmanship that matters. If they're going to disqualify a quilt for being too "something" whether it's too modern, to contemporary or too traditional, they need to specifically call themselves a traditional quilt show then. Nowhere in the show description does it say that only traditional quilts will be shown.

As a member of the Boston Modern Quilt Guild, I will say that we are welcoming of any type of quilter, whether you classify yourself as traditional, modern or somewhere in between. We would never tell someone that a quilt they made was too traditional or not our style. Someone took a lot of time to make something and we're ALWAYS going to recognize that effort. If you look at the modern quilt movement, so many of the quilts have their roots in modern quilts. We can learn from traditional quilters just as I think traditional and contemporary quilters can learn from us modern quilters. We should be a community that embraces and encourages others. Encouraging others only leads to better quilts and more quilters, which is a good thing.

I guess my biggest questions is why do we need to have a label? Can't we all just be quilters and share a that bond we have of making beautiful things? There's a reason we all have different styles. If we all made the same type of quilt, with the same techniques, the same fabrics and the same patterns, quilting would be pretty boring. We should be encouraged to push the envelope and do new things.

Amy @ Amy's FMQ Adventures said... win a ribbon and then be disqualified because it didn't 'fit' in someone's 'box' seems so backwards. Now if it were a machine applique quilt entered into the hand category or something, I could see it. But after it ribboned? Too late to take it away in my book even if someone(s) decided that it looked more contemporary/art quilty for the modern category. You rock the quilting!