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Nov/Dec 2003


Anna Von Mertens:
Suggested North Points

The Matrix Program for Contemporary Art at the Berkeley Art Museum, University of California, enjoys wide acclaim for its exhibitions of cutting-edge art. Installations, paintings, video, and photography are the usual fare, but from July 13 through September 7, the museum exhibited "Suggested North Points," five quilts and a floor drawing by Bay Area-based Anna Von Mertens; this was only the second exhibition of quilts in the program's 25 years.

At first glance--and from a distance--Von Mertens' work fittingly seemed to fall within the vernacular of minimalism. Upon closer inspection, however, each of her hand-sewn, hand-dyed quilts revealed multiple layers of dazzlingly intricate webs of stitching, which added depth and complexity to the visual and symbolic aspects of her work.

North, 2003; hand-dyed, hand-stitched cotton, mattress frame, plywood, and laminate; 17 by 60 by 80 inches. Photo: Don Tuttle Photography.

Quilts have traditionally recorded the personal or historical. Von Mertens' exhibition not only chronicled her philosophical and spiritual views but also referenced the landscape and the broader realm of physics and its impact on life.

The quilts were arranged atop double-bed-sized platforms distributed across a black floor limned with compass points and headings reminiscent of 19th-century cartography. These geographic indicators, coupled with the fact that four of the quilts stylistically represented specific locations in North America, suggested a sense of place, as well as the process of journeying. The fifth quilt, Influence, according to the exhibition brochure, explored the relationship between "the individual and the collective whole." Entirely black and with alternating directions of stitching, this fifth quilt looked topographical when viewed from above.

Influence, 2003; hand-dyed, hand-stitched cotton, concrete; 17 by 60 by 80 inches. Photo: Don Tuttle Photography.

South, the most figurative piece, resonated of the wide open spaces of the Southwest: earthen brown and tan, muted purple and lavender, and azure evoked desert, mountains, and sky (this scene was inspired by Nevada's Red Rocks Canyon National Conservation Area). North was equally expansive, and its colors as carefully chosen: a cool palette of mostly white and icy grays and blues hinted of a Nordic tableau (Von Mertens was actually thinking of a snow-covered field in New England). Circles stitched over the work's entire surface resembled molecules.

West and East (details), 2003; hand-dyed, hand-stitched cotton, mattress frames, plywood, laminate; each 17 by 60 by 80 inches. Photo: Jean-Michelle Addor.

Although more abstract, West and East bore the most elaborate surface stitching, representing, respectively, the Big Bang (extroversion) and the black hole (introversion). Unlike the previous works, which dealt with an individual's discoveries on earth, this duo of quilts pondered the greater conundrum of the universe. Von Mertens expressed the Big Bang (the dominant, yet unproven, scientific theory about the universe's origins from a cosmic explosion that hurled matter in all directions) with dozens of radiating arched lines and arrows. The black hole was depicted as swirling vortices emanating from, or collapsing in on, an enormous sphere (black holes are remnants of collapsed stars 10 to 15 times as massive as the sun).

Given her profound subject matter, one might wonder why the installation intentionally recalled something as mundane as bedspreads or the bedroom. Because Von Mertens considers the bedroom to be "the symbolic hearth of the 21st-century home," this setting is as sacred as it is ordinary--and, within this exhibition's scope, this most intimate of spaces also finds a connection to the infinite.

--Victoria Alba

Victoria Alba is a freelance arts writer in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Images courtesy of the Berkeley Art Museum.

This review first appeared in:

Nov/Dec 2003

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