Rosie Lee Tompkins / MATRIX 173
June 1, 1997 - August 15, 1997
Download the exhibition brochure (PDF).
Rosie Lee Tompkins's work is usually understood within the context of her African-American heritage. The various aspects of her style and technique-stylistic diversity and experimentation, brilliant and contrasted color, sensuous handling of diverse materials, and daringly irregular compositions-have been identified as typifying an important tradition in African-American quilt making. Some scholars have argued convincingly that the patchwork aspect of such work derives from the deprived economic condition of the makers, while Tompkins's particular treatment of composition has been traced by quilt scholar Eli Leon to aesthetic models handed down from a pre-diasporic African cultural experience.1 Conversely, others have pointed to potential influences from non-African sources and noted that, while the characteristics that one finds in Tompkins's work may be pervasive in African-American quilt traditions, they cannot be isolated as exemplifying a quintessentially African style.2
The visceral impact of Tompkins's art recalls the claims for expressiveness made by, and on behalf of, many twentieth-century abstract painters. While Modernism's transcendentalist claims, particularly the notion of the autonomy of the work of art, have succumbed to a view of art as lodged firmly in the socio-historical fabric, in front of Tompkins's work I feel that certain Modernist ambitions may in fact be achievable. Here are feelings of awe, elation, and sublimity; here is an absolute mastery of color, texture, and composition; here is inventiveness and originality so palpable and intense that each work seems like a new and total risk, a risk so extreme that only utter faith in the power of the creative spirit could have engendered it. Neverthe- less, Tompkins's affinities to Modernist ideals, while compelling, are no less speculative than her affinities to African aesthetics. No matter in which context we choose to place her work, Tompkins's art asserts its extraordinary uniqueness, beauty, and emotional power.
Visually, these works cohere by the slimmest of margins; they jumble and burst and seem to try to twist from our grasp. Yet, finally, they do cohere; as in fractal geometry, small bits of her compositions echo and sustain the intensity of the overall design. To be sure, Tompkins utilizes a variety of traditional quilter's compositional devices: the repeated pattern, the medallion, the strip, the half-square. Yet, in her work, these components do not simply remain aggregate parts in overall design. Tompkins teases and adjusts the elements of her works until every patch is alive with intention and "self-awareness."
Tompkins seems to delight in reminding us of long-forgotten hues, in fashioning bold and unexpected harmonies, and in keenly sensing the emotional nuances of various registers of color. In some of Tompkins's quilts, color appears as a material fact, emotionless as a numeral in a mathematical equation, yet exquisite in its abstract precision. In some cases, the quilts suggest an irrepressible exuberance; in others, a feeling of loneliness and sorrow.
Color in Tompkins's art is inseparable from texture. The varied qualities of her magnificent blues, reds, whites, and greens depend entirely on the type of fabric used. She is particularly drawn to velvet, a material that can simultaneously sharpen and soften the impression of a hue. Other fabrics common in her work are cotton, polyester and a special kind of glittery material that she calls "Christmas fabric." In some works Tompkins incorporates, whole or in part, various found elements. In the largest of these, a tour de force of compositional agility and complexity, she has assembled, among many other elements, a devotional piece depicting Jesus Christ, sections of the American flag, an old fabric calendar, and a batik wall-hanging.
In the creation of Tompkins's works, the artist typically arranges and sews together only the various patches that comprise the top, visible layer of the quilt. Another person-in the case of these works, either Willia Ette Graham, Irene Bankhead, or Johnnie Wade-then attaches this top layer to the underlayers of batting and backing. Technically speaking, the role that Tompkins typically performs is called "piecing" and the attaching of the secondary layers is called "quilting."
Rosie Lee Tompkins lives and works in Richmond, California, barely ten miles from this museum. Yet, until recently, I knew nothing of her extraordinary work. Tompkins's quilts make an eloquent case for a more inclusive view of contemporary art, one which transcends the boundaries between art and craft and between European and African traditions. As we continue the enjoyable task of expanding globally our view of contemporary art practice, it is important not to overlook the greatness near at hand.
1 See Eli Leon, Models in the Mind: African Prototypes in American Patchwork (Winston-Salem: The Diggs Gallery and Winston-Salem University, 1992).
2 See Cuesta Benberry, "African American Quilts: Paradigms of Black Diversity," in The International Review of African American Art (Vol. 12, No. 3, 1995), pp. 30-37.
MATRIX is supported in part by Mrs. Paul L. Wattis, the California Arts Council, Ann Hatch, the University Art Museum Council MATRIX Endowment, and an anonymous donor. This exhibition received additional generous support from the LEF Foundation, Jan Boyce, Tecoah Bruce, Topher Delaney, and Roma Peletz.
Permanent Collection Exhibitions, Films, and Public Programs in the Art and Film Collection Access Project at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive are made possible through the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund Museum Collections Accessibility Initiative.