“If women can be the CEOs of companies or do construction and pour cement, why can’t guys make lace or quilts, and take on those traditional feminine things?” asks Joel Otterson.
Otterson is among the eight artists who are part of the Craft and Folk Art Museum’s new exhibit, " Man-Made: Contemporary Male Quilters," running through May 3. The group show, which also includes Joe Cunningham, Luke Haynes, Jimmy McBride, Aaron McIntosh, Dan Olfe, Shawn Quinlan and Ben Venom, aims to not only add a male point of view to a traditionally female-dominated hobby, but turn function into art.
"Masculine identity was on the minds of many of the quilters as they were quilting," says exhibit curator Suzanne Isken. "They were thinking of themselves as men in a world that was really constructed by women, so they were entering in as tourists. That’s made the show interesting, this idea of an outsider coming in and making something different. Many men make quilts. Not a lot of men make quilts with this originality.”
Quilts evoke warmth and security, and male quilters date back to the 19th century. But the more than two dozen works here are far from staid and old-timey, with the imagery running the gamut from sci-fi and politics to gay erotica and heavy metal. “It’s quilt as art versus quilt as craft,” says Isken.
San Francisco’s Venom, 36, incorporates his love of heavy metal into his quilts, which he calls a “collision of contradiction." And what’s more gender-bending than guys with long hair and make-up? Living on the Razor’s Edge is made up entirely of denim squares and Iron Maiden lyrics, while I Go Where Eagles Dare consists of more than 60 friend-donated new and vintage T-shirts of bands like Metallica, Motley Crue, KISS, Judas Priest, Megadeth and Slayer. (Try counting sheep underneath a of canvas of fire, skulls, eyeballs and W.A.S.P. frontman Blackie Lawless’ tongue.) Venom also includes Harley-Davidson T-shirts in another quilt, Killed by Death, which wouldn't look out of place at biker rally in Sturgis.
“Quilting has a strong tradition of women coming together,” says Venom. “This is my community, the people who give me their fabric that means something to them, and then I turn it into a second life, a second function.”
Maryland’s McIntosh, 31, says his quilts represent the “sexual self-discovery” of his youth. In Little Big Man and Bedroom Buddies, he places vintage applique on top of scanned covers of a gay porn magazine — one with the words “eager virgin” displayed across. For another quilt, Forest Frolic, McIntosh uses fragmented pieces to create the outline of two naked men.
“The idea is of wrapping up oneself in desire in a teenage fan-dream kind of way, that what’s underneath the mattress is now elevated onto the surface of the bed,” says McIntosh. “The aesthetic is very much country quilt, but it all connects to this idea of desire and sexuality.”
Like other art forms, quilts can be political, especially in the case of Pennsylvania’s Quinlan, 52, who also explores religion. His wall hanging, Falwell Quilt #2, pops with all-American symbols: guns, bullets, burgers, the American flag. It’s a statement against the time Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson blamed gays and all of liberal America for the 9/11 attacks. (In 2009, Quinlan’s quilt Jesus Get Your Gun was featured in an issue of Quilter’s Home magazine and banned from the retail chain Jo-Anne Fabrics.)
Haynes, too, is inspired by American iconography. In his series, called The American Context, Haynes, 32, uses his friends to re-imagine classic paintings by John Singer Sargent, Edward Hopper and James Abbott McNeil Whistler.
Haynes and Otterson are the exhibit’s only two L.A. artists. Haynes has an architecture degree, and has created nearly 200 quilts, some that have sold for as much $20,000. His Lincoln Heights studio is stacked with finished and unfinished bed-size quilts of self-portraits and portraits – and ones of RuPaul and dinosaurs that are part of another series he calls Divas and Dinosaurs.
"I’m not coming from it from any sexual proclivities or gender bias," says Haynes. "I’m just using a medium that makes sense for what I’m interested in. You have these disparate objects, then you combine them to make this functional human scale object. When you’re looking at a painting, you’re looking at an illusion to something else. In the quilt world, you can do all of that, but at the end of the day, you’ve got this object that keeps you warm.”
Otterson, 55, was drawn to quilting because of his mother. “By the time I was four or five I would watch her sew,” Otterson says. “Finally, one day she said, ‘Here, do it yourself.’ I call and consult with her all the time.”
Otterson, whose studio also is in Lincoln Heights overlooking the L.A. River, has been visiting lecturer and Otis College of Art and Design and UCLA, and had one of his pieces included at the Hammer Museum’s "Made in L.A." exhibit in 2012.
For the CAFM show, he created The Garden Floor (Concrete Crazy Quilt) using scraps of glazed ceramic, porcelain, stone and marble, as well as a more traditional quilt, Rags to Riches, which he started in 1993. Hanging in the center of the gallery, its nearly 2,000 pieces — dish rags, bed sheets, curtains — were salvaged from the belongings of a deceased neighbor in Kentucky. “It’s telling the story of the lady,” Otterson says. “It’s a metaphor for a new life.”
Like McIntosh, Otterson also flirts with “queer aesthetics” in his work. On the back of his show piece, he says, he sewed a naked cowboy — “so you never have to sleep alone.”
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