Looking at the Jess Jones work TopoQuilt: Inman Park (2017) is like a cool glass of water in a desert. Sitting on the bench in Plough Gallery, I drink in all of its jewel tone color and imagine lying on it as if on a bed of lush green moss. But hung like a painting, it is intended, instead, for the eyes. Jones, who teaches in the textiles program at Georgia State University, uses the tradition of quilting to explore notions of place and memory. Her exhibition “Multiple Routes: Jess Jones” features selections from three different series: Graffiti Quilts, TopoQuilts, and The Urban Fabric.
Bright curving lines snake across the geometric structure of the diamond pattern used in TopoQuilt: Inman Park. The lines are the brightest part of the composition because everything else has been covered in an organza veil. But the organza layer ends when it meets a line. Some areas are covered in solid jewel tones while others feature print fabrics—tropical floral or leaf patterns, neon florals that feel beachy and psychedelic. The colors of the lines vary with the prints, creating a dynamic tonal shift. In a sense, the fabrics were not chosen by the artist—the quilt was. Jones works with found quilt tops that she sources at secondhand stores. Jones has said: “My hope is that this work calls back to my fellow makers and addresses them in a familiar language.”
The decision to use found fabrics recalls Miriam Schapiro’s feminist work and the Pattern & Decoration movement, founded by Schapiro and Robert Zakanitch in 1975. About her use of quilts as artistic material, Schapiro said, “I wanted to validate the traditional activities of women, to connect myself to the unknown women artists who had made quilts, who had done the invisible ‘women’s work’ of civilization. I wanted to acknowledge them, to honor them.” Schapiro also coined the term femmage to bring together the avant-garde technique of collage with traditional craft techniques. Writing with Melissa Meyer, Schapiro defined the term as including “activities as they were practiced by women using traditional women’s techniques to achieve their art—sewing, piecing, hooking, cutting, appliquéing, cooking and the like—activities also engaged in by men but assigned in history to women.”
It’s the feminist spirit of wanting to elevate craft techniques to a high art position that also inspired the exhibition of Gee’s Bend quilts in 2003. Plough Gallery approaches the connection in a different way. The mission of Plough Gallery is to show art that resonates with the region’s traditions. Art, here, is brought down to earth to encourage viewers to make the connection between aesthetic experience in the home—appreciating a grandmother’s quilt or an afghan on the living room sofa, perhaps—and that experience in a gallery.
Similarly, maps offer functional design ideas and another form of abstraction. In the TopoQuilts series, Jones applies topographic map lines to found quilts by machine stitching them across the surface. In fact, the name of the series is a pun on quilt tops and topos, the ancient Greek word for place. Topographic lines demarcate changes in elevation, to create an image of place. Both quilts and maps are images that we usually encounter horizontally, whether laid out on a bed or unfolded on a table.
The title of TopoQuilt: Inman Park reveals the source of the topographic lines: Inman Park, a neighborhood in Atlanta. Jones explains, “My choice of topographic locations sometimes refers to where in the city I have been reminded of the quilter’s design, drawing from my own visual recollections and guessing at their inspiration.” Her process entails drawing connections between place and pattern, and it also allows viewers to bring their own associations. My memory of Inman Park comes from a beautiful fall day in the late 1990s and a street market where I found a vintage chenille bedspread. When I think about Inman Park, I remember the hilly streets, the old Victorian homes, that bedspread, and my younger self.
Opposed to the lushness of the Inman Park piece, TopoQuilt: Atlanta Prison Farm (2015) feels radically different. The curving topographic lines pop in white and red against a gray and maroon checkerboard pattern quilt. Gone is the complexity of the Inman Park quilt—no prints here, and fewer colors. TopoQuilt: Oakland Cemetery (2015) is also more restrained, with a color palette of maroon, gray, and blue. The topographic lines here are more evenly spaced, and they march vertically across a background of circles broken up into four segments by the grid of the quilt. Here plaid and gingham patterns dominate, contrasted with small floral and dot patterns.
Two selections from her Graffiti Quilts also reference Jones’s movement through the city. Both are made from digital prints of photographs of graffiti, mixed media, and machine stitching. Rather than hanging from the wall like the other works, they are presented as framed square panels. Street Calligraphy (Memorial), 2014, comes across as an abstract painting, a black area bleeding into a white background. The black has the dullness of raw silk, but the texture of the whole painting is very hard, resisting our associations between fabric and softness. The stitching here is expressive, with some lines wandering on their own and others packed densely together. In Street Calligraphy 3 (2014), a black fragment of graffiti line loops against a pale gray ground, netting that looks like lace, and solid areas that have the texture of concrete. Pale lavender, turquoise, and rusty red punctuate the predominantly pale composition.
Navigating a new place is an experience that many can identify with—having moved 13 times, I certainly can. Thinking about maps and finding your way through the real space represented by that abstract image is also clearly allegorical. It would be nice to have a map to guide one’s way in life. Imagine the comfort and assurance that would be possible if your route through major milestones was mapped out, known in advance, possible to predict. But Jones would disagree: “for me, feeling lost or knowing exactly where I am can be equally valuable.”
“Multiple Routes: Jess Jones” is on view at Plough Gallery in Tifton, Georgia, through May 12. A closing reception will be held on May 12 with an artist talk by Jones at 5:30pm.
Rebecca Lee Reynolds is a lecturer in the department of art & design at Valdosta State University, where she teaches art history.