Born Detroit, 1943 / BFA, Wayne State University / Lives in Detroit
Carole Harris modestly describes her art practice as “that of a fiber artist working primarily in the art quilt tradition.” Yet very few of her quilts are “traditional,” four-cornered, or intended to swaddle, wrap, or warm one on a cold winter’s night. Rather, they are wall hangings, even “constructions” or assemblages—albeit crafted of soft, supple materials—often of a strikingly eccentric outline far from the standard rectilinear form.
Think, for example, of Frank Stella or any of a number of aesthetic shape shifters of the 1960s who introduced such innovative pictorial formats as the shaped canvas. Likewise, Harris’s artful, asymmetrically contoured quilts often subvert the hidebound designs and prevailing expectations that linger in the firmament of quilts and quilting.
Yet pieced quilts they are, Harris employing that discipline’s cutting, piecing, stitching, and improvisatory abutting of triangles, polygons, and squares of cloth in an overall design, often calling to mind the crazy quilt motifs of the late 19th century. Her use of old and new fabrics, off-the-bolt cottons and fancy silks, painted, hand-dyed or commercially printed textiles, and contrasting or harmonizing textures, yield dazzling, revved-up compositions. Nor are her subjects rural or folkish, but draw their inspiration from urban environs, often the hustle and jostle of Detroit, its temperament, rhythms, and bluesy, cacophonous sounds. A quilt maker since 1966, Harris studied at Wayne State University before founding the interior design firm that she headed from 1976 until 2009. Since then, she has focused on her studio practice, earning a Kresge artist fellowship in 2015.
An eye-catching, relatively early, large-scale example of her oeuvre, City Rhythms, commissioned for Detroit Receiving Hospital in 2001, highlights many of the elements that figure in Harris’s wall hangings. In this elongated, classical frieze-like urbanscape, hundreds of pieced, faceted forms and bold, clashing colors gambol edge to edge across its six-foot width, its joie de vivre palpable and contagious. Before the Freeway, a design of 2008, sounds a different note, both in content and pictorial impact. The colorful riot of hues and densely packed forms on the left side of this idiosyncratically shaped “quilt” implies an animated urban grid counterpointed by the blank, weighty, rust and black boxes on the right. This somber, abstract image invokes the bustling Paradise Valley district of Detroit infamously bulldozed for the I75 expressway—or, more resonantly, the demolition of neighborhoods that grow organically, if haphazardly, over the years, and inevitably run counter to someone else’s “master plan.”
In Harris’s own categorization of her several bodies of work, City Rhythms and Before the Freeway are identified as examples of her “Cityscapes.” Another group, dubbed “Singing and Dancing and all that Jazz,” includes such active, vivacious titles as “Dancing in the Streets,” “Something like a Jitterbug,” and “Fire Music.” Blues in the Night (2010), however, with its haunting, velvety hues of black and blue, angled shapes, and hard edged diagonals defining the bottom of the composition, embodies something of the sadness and harshness of the blues. Ominously, a sizable, looming black patch of fabric at upper left seems to be gliding inexorably, like a lunar eclipse, over the darkling scene. One of Harris’s last pieced designs from the series, an exhilarating encounter between equally matched conceits, is the striking black and white Blues and the Abstract Truth of 2014.
Of late, Harris’s imagery and technique reveal a decided swerve down a road not heretofore taken. Gathered under the rubric “Mapping in Time and Place,” evocative titles—“Wall Series: Amalfi” and “Yesterdays,” for example—reference such sources as ancient, eroding walls, weathered objects, tactile, textured strata, and etudes (i.e., studies, as opposed to perfected, completed works). Ice Music (2013) and Winter Etude (2015) manifest Harris’s fresh, less-is-more aesthetic. Instead of looking out, she looks within: jewel tones are replaced by intimate, muted hues; execution by scissors and thread is replaced by draping; single unitary compositions banish commingling fragments; and the elemental replaces the topical. Soft, frayed edges, and vintage, torn (or even burned) fabrics form palpable, multi-layered compositions. Visible lengths of material, rather than sewn flat and edge-to-edge, become loose, informally arrayed elements. A viewer might even be sorely tempted to lift and separate the panels of fabric—gently, of course—to see what lurks underneath. No wonder then that about this new tack, Harris quietly notes: “Fabric has memory. It holds onto time.” And indeed it does.
Dennis Alan Nawrocki, February 2016
Copyright Essay’d 2016