Sanford Biggers Cracks the Code of Quilts


LOUISVILLE, KY — Billed as a “survey of quilt-dependent works,” Sanford Biggers: Codeswitch at the Velocity Artwork Museum feels less like an overview of just one distinct portion of the multidisciplinary artist’s oeuvre and additional like a document of his creative system total — tactile evidence of the evolution of creative ideas fields of curiosity that have held his fascination visual motifs that have appeared, in a variety of guises and permutations, in the course of his occupation. The display features 33 quilt functions dating from 2012 to 2020 (the catalogue documents an amazing overall of 100 this sort of items), together with two video is effective from 2000 and 2014.

Biggers, who is recognised for sculpture, movie, set up, songs, and functionality, began the Codex sequence in 2009, just after he was gifted about 50 19th-century American quilts in different levels of disrepair. Those familiar with his artistic output will identify some of his other artworks in their quilted counterparts: “Blossom Study” (2014), a square quilt of little, hexagonal patchwork onto which he has painted the outline of a grand piano bursting with flowers, is a sketch of his 2007 sculptural and seem installation “Blossom,” in which he fused an 18-foot-tall replica of a tree with the stomach of a grand piano, its unattended keys playing his recording of “Strange Fruit.”

Sanford Biggers, “Blossom Study” (2014), antique quilt, assorted textiles, acrylic, spray paint, 86 1/2  x 84 1/2 inches (picture © Sanford Biggers and Baldwin Gallery, courtesy the artist and Baldwin Gallery, Aspen)

Comparable surrogates are existing, this sort of as “Floral Seated Warrior” (2017), a portrait-oriented quilt of chunky grey and beige blocks with a blue, floral-print silhouette of Biggers’s “BAM (Seated Warrior)” sculpture (2017). Representations of “Lotus” (2007) — his flower fashioned from repetitions of a slave ship diagram — and the broad, legendary pink lips of “Cheshire” (2008) seem usually. “Incognito” (2014), for instance, is a sq. piece composed of bow-tie sections of two diverse quilts, a cacophony of sample and colour on to which Biggers has added the smudged define of a Cheshire grin, its sly smile marginally concealed under improvised dashes of gold, blue, orange, crimson, and lavender paint. The flourishes are, maybe, vestiges of the artist’s graffiti times (Biggers grew up in Los Angeles, where by he participated in the street artwork scene). As with all his elaborations, they impart a new and distinctive layer of indicating to the antique quilts.

That Biggers is functioning with quilts is major, as they are, by definition, layered objects — most typically, a piece of batting sandwiched amongst two pieces of cloth and stitched with each other. When he 1st began the Codex collection, he was intrigued by the contested legend that quilts experienced been applied as coded objects to manual all those escaping slavery in the southern United States by means of the Underground Railroad. In the artist’s fingers, the quilts grow to be palimpsests: historical messages reanimated through the addition of modern day signifiers, symbols, and codes, these kinds of as graffiti.

Sanford Biggers, “Floral Seated Warrior” (2017), antique quilt, assorted textiles, burnt cork, 71 x 39 inches (picture © Sanford Biggers and Marianne Boesky Gallery, courtesy the artist andMarianne Boesky Gallery, Aspen and New York)

A codex, the earliest variety of the fashionable ebook, was also held together by stitching, and enabled a quantum leap ahead, knowledge-smart, by allowing random entry to reference content, as opposed to the sequential obtain needed by a scroll. In a lot of strategies, Codeswitch seems to celebrate and revel in understanding, its references revealing a voracious, eclectic, and typically mischievous intellect. Motifs have double meanings (a Cheshire grin recollects both a 19th-century English novel and an American blackface minstrel present a tree signifies both enlightenment and lynchings) titles incorporate clever puns (“Big Dada”), witty wordplay (“Kubrick’s Rube”), and other shibboleths of a hugely figured out and cultured head (“Quo Vadis” “Chorus for Paul Mooney”) visible influences include these types of a motley crew as Hiroshige, Sigmar Polke, and Robert Rauschenberg.

In just a subset of is effective, Biggers trades his acquainted visible lexicon for a more arduous exploration of abstraction and a deeper engagement with the quilt styles. In “Tyranny of Mirrors” (2017), he pieces alongside one another segments of a few different quilts, each and every showcasing a very similar hexagonal sample, with a silver-leaf sample that appears to recede into house, as if the viewer is hunting into a hall of mirrors. The effect, not not like op-art, is mesmerizing. In “Transition” (2018) and the onomatopoeically named “Ooo Oui” (2017), he incorporates sequins into identical abstract constructions with even additional bedazzling results.

Sanford Biggers, “Tyranny of Mirrors” (2017), antique quilt, assorted textiles, silver leaf, 73 x 75 inches (photo © Sanford Biggers and Marianne Boesky Gallery, courtesy the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery, Aspen and New York)

In one more subseries, Biggers honors the trompe-l’oeil aspirations held by some quilt makers by adhering sections of material to geometric shapes built of plywood, which he joins to compose wall-mounted sculptures that resemble big origami constructions. “Reconstruction” (2019), with its triangular panels of fabric that integrate the United States flag, calls to mind the rhythmic layering of triangles concerned in folding a flag when seen from a length, it also evokes that outdated Cheshire smile, a visual wink as wry as the double entendre of the piece’s title.

Two video clip performs spherical out the exhibition: the single-channel “Mandala of the B-Bodhisattva II” (2000) is projected on to a square display screen marginally elevated from the ground, replicating the overhead check out of a breakdance competition. The dancers are competing on a ground that Biggers developed from lower linoleum segments in a round pattern, prefiguring his quilting challenge. In viewing the breakdancers from over, the aim moves from person tips to the broader movement throughout the patterned floor, a lot like the sewn strains that traverse a quilt’s pieced material. Appears of the cheering crowd mingle with the songs, as if to affirm that what is sacred can also be celebratory. 

Sanford Biggers, “Moonrising,” element (2014), film transferred to movie, run time: 7:35 min. (picture © Sanford Biggers and Marianne Boesky Gallery, courtesy the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery, Aspen and New York)

“Moonrising” (2014) is a 7-and-a-half minute video clip set to audio by Biggers’s band, Moon Medicin, and options two Black males in a wooded location. They are variously bare robed in quilts, hoodies, or mantles of feathers (the artist’s 2006 “Ghettobird Tunic,” perhaps?) or shirtless, donning denims, golden masks, and baseball caps as they roam the woods. Sung lyrics allude to the legend of coded quilts major enslaved people to flexibility. 

While QR codes on the museum walls offer a glossary of themes, terms, and historic figures to aid the interpretation of the quilted is effective, no supplemental composed content is delivered for “Moonrising.” This follows the knowledge in the United States, the place anti-literacy legislation prohibited the created transmission of understanding amid enslaved individuals, but they could flip to the oral traditions of West African griots to convey details.

In reconnecting quilts with the physique and their primal goal of bestowing heat and defense, “Moonrising” looks to eschew intellectual information for that which can only be recognised via knowledge. As viewers, we might not have all the codes to interpret the several conceptual layers of the quilted will work, but we can watch adult men running through the woods, concealed in quilts, just before unfurling them in an open up industry, and come closer to being familiar with the incredible fear and risk of escape, as well as its potential for wonderful independence.

Sanford Biggers, “Incognito” (2014), antique quilt, assorted textiles, acrylic, spray paint, oil adhere, glitter, 45 x  45 inches (image © Sanford Biggers and David Castillo Gallery, courtesy the artist and David Castillo Gallery, Miami)

Sanford Biggers: Codeswitch continues at the Velocity Artwork Museum (2035 South Third Avenue, Louisville, Kentucky) via June 26. The exhibition was co-structured by the Bronx Museum of the Arts and Rivers Institute for Contemporary Artwork & Imagined, and co-curated by Dr. Andrea Andersson and Antonio Sergio Bessa.


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