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Jan/Feb 2004


The Idea of a City:
The Art Quilts of Elizabeth Barton

Red Shift 7, 2002; dyed, pieced, machine quilted; 44 by 64 inches. Photos by the artist.

Felicitously hung, allowing each a luminous presence, Elizabeth Barton's art quilts animate with vibrant color the sleek modernist space of the Jacqueline Casey Hudgens Center for the Arts in Duluth, Georgia. Representing the artist's major series - cityscapes, abstract formats, and her Red Shift quilts, a meditation on time - the 31 works juxtapose imagery from Barton's native England in counterpoint with that of her adopted country, the United States. The exhibition continues through January 3.

Calling herself a "failed watercolorist," Barton labors to achieve hues that "glow from within." Finding commercial fabric "lifeless," she colors cloth herself, either painting it, using immersion dyes with a resist, or screen painting with dye rather than with pigment. Dyes, she contends, produce a softer "hand" than pigments, with "looser, less predictable" results. Beginning each composition with a small, gridded drawing, Barton pins fabric pieces onto a larger quilt-sized grid, layering them over the batting. She then machine stitches the layers, sometimes using metallic thread to spill even more light. Her stitches blossom on occasion into fanciful, floral designs, enlivening the surface.

The artist's painstaking technique serves her ruminative sensibility. Having grown up in York, England, with its many layered civilizations - Celtic, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Norman, followed by all the English periods - Barton is acutely cognizant of time. Born of that awareness, the Red Shift series is based on the theory in contemporary physics that light crossing galaxies turns red as it "ages." Her Red Shift quilts join patches of crimson to highlights of other colors, achieving a jeweled intensity.

More specifically reminiscent of England, Barton's city scenes equivocate between abstraction and recognizable imagery. Hearkening back to a street in York, Lendal Bridge shows a curving lavender span over a river of the same hue. Peach- and green-roofed houses define the middle ground against a teal sky. More abstract, City of Garlic and Sapphires pays homage to Oxford, a town of striking divergences: university dons on the one hand and factory workers on the other. Borrowing a phrase from T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets for the title, Barton explores these contrasts in a composition of five vertical registers. Yellow-golds, representing garlic, are juxtaposed to greens and blues, reminders of the gem. The colors marry beautifully, nonetheless, resembling those of a tapestry.

City of Garlic and Sapphires, 2002; MX dyes painted onto screens and printed, pieced, appliquéd, machine quilted; 57 by 58 inches.

The most stunning of the cityscapes, Where the Bong Trees Grow, owes its title to Edward Lear's The Owl and the Pussycat. Just as Lear's animals sail away to an idyllic land, Barton whisks the viewer into a mythical, though real, space. Myriad greens, from verdant lime to forest, underscore nature's diurnal renewal. Burgeoning, three-dimensional dwellings punctuate the greenery, and in the distance flattened, shimmering skyscrapers reach toward the heavens. Suffused with luminescence, the scene partakes of the archetype of the ideal city, ranging from the biblical New Jerusalem to the planned communities of Le Corbusier.

Joining a quilting group almost 20 years ago to meet people, Barton was immediately "hooked" and has worked tirelessly ever since, not only to hone her skills as a quiltmaker but also to extend the medium beyond its conventional limits. The quilt, for her, has become a vehicle for meditation, speculation, and whimsy.

--Dorothy Joiner

Dorothy Joiner is Lovick P. Corn Professor of Art History at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia.

This review first appeared in:

Jan/Feb 2004


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