A few years ago, Luke Haynes visited The Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, and encountered Donald Judd’s “100 untitled works in mill aluminum,” an installation Judd created three decades ago of 100 41-by-51-by-72-inch metal boxes in two former artillery sheds.
“Coming from architecture myself, I got fascinated in the slight change, but maintaining the same understanding,” Haynes said. “Those, in that case, were all about maintaining a certain volume. They had all eight corners, you knew it was the same rectangular volume, but each piece was different. … It really gave viewers the understanding of what Donald was trying to present. He was making objects that were made of a material that held a certain space. Period. That was it.”
Inspired by the minimalist master’s installation, Haynes set to work on a project to bring that sense of an object holding space to quilts, crafting 50 of them made within specific parameters that, when viewed together, turn the quilt into sculpture -- as minimal and repetitive as quilts can be.
Those quilts are now on view at the International Quilt Study Center & Museum in an exhibition simply titled “Log Cabins by Luke Haynes.”
In making the quilts, Haynes worked with the following restrictions -- each of the quilts would be made using a log cabin pattern -- the first, oldest and simplest traditional quilting design. Each would by 90-by-90 inches. Each block on every quilt would have a red center with the remainder black or white.
The only change between them would be the size and orientation of blocks and the unavoidable variety of the used clothing that was utilized to create the quilts.
“What I was trying to battle, for a lack of a better term, in the world of quilting is this sculptural painting thing,” Haynes said. “From the outside, quilts are either received as paintings or as utility objects. They’re either something you keep in your trunk and is valueless or you put them on a wall and pretend it’s a painting and then you ascribe a value to it, likening it to a painting. I think that loses some of the three dimensionalness.”
That three-dimensional aspect of the quilts cannot be missed in the IQSCM installation of Haynes’ quilts.
Hung on large, two-level, cubic metal and wire frameworks, the quilts are draped over the poles that make up the structures or hang loosely off the walls. Only a single quilt in each of the towers is hung traditionally, but it still flies in the interior space rather than being on a wall.
That seemingly haphazard, disrespectful display destroys the preciousness of the quilts as either fine art or historic examples of the form, forcing them to be viewed as what they are -- objects.
“I like that breaking of the preciousness,” Haynes said as he walked through the exhibition March 3 before a First Friday lecture. “Then you’re not just pretending it’s a painting. You’re not having a paintings conversation about an object. ... What you get is the objectness of the quilt. You still get to see some of the preciousness. There’s a lot of work that went into each of the pieces. You can get the textures and the tones and all of the work. But you still get that objectness, that push/pull of the scale which I think is great.”
Haynes, who is based in Los Angeles and Kansas City, was trained in art and architecture at Cooper Union in New York, moving toward quilting after a chance encounter with a box of fabric remnants -- seemingly a long journey from architecture to quilts.
“The long answer is it’s taken my career to get me here,” he said. “The short answer is I think they’re the same. It’s human scaled utility. It’s a designated environment for function. So you use a quilt to keep you warm like you inhabit a room to keep you out of rain. It’s layering, it’s materiality, it’s a lot of geometry. It’s a layering of craft skills to create a shelter, in its simplest form.”
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Hayne’s first quilts reflected his art background -- figurative pop art pieces that placed an Andy Warhol “Double Elvis,” Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World” and portraits of Abraham Lincoln on the quilts, creating conversations about the imagery intended to be placed on a bed, a clash between art and utility.
With the “Log Cabins of Donald Judd,” as he calls the project on his website, Haynes dug into the nature of the quilt as a crafted object -- the material, the pattern and its construction.
“It took me probably four years to make all 50 in total,” Haynes said. “There’s over two tons of clothing, fabric and used material that’s gone into these. There’s a Goodwill by the pound. You go buy hundreds of pounds of clothing and deconstruct it. I use that as the material.”
That use of discarded everyday material has a double impact. First, the quilts have a depth and texture derived from the material -- wool, cotton, linen or whatever -- that isn’t typically seen in quilts made with uniform cotton backing.
More importantly, the used cloth introduces the concept of the material in which the quilt -- as sculpture -- is made of.
“Now this is made out of the conversation of the community that clothing has come from," Haynes said. "Often you’ll find people coming up and saying ‘Oh, I had that shirt’ or ‘Those sheets were on my childhood bed.’ That process is really important.”
While Haynes has succeeded in creating an exhibition of quilts as objects, of holding space made of material, he readily admits “Log Cabins” and the quilts aren’t purely minimal, a la a Judd steel cube or a John McCracken plank leaning against a wall.
“The thing about quilts is there is no way to uncontextualize the object,” Haynes said. “You can’t say ‘That wouldn’t keep me warm.’ If I were to make in such a way that you couldn’t read it as a quilt, then it wouldn’t be a quilt and I’d be making soft sculpture. To say these are simple minimalist in that they don’t allude to the object that they are is not wholly true. You can say they are quilts.”
But they come as close as quilts will get to minimalism and, critically, move the focus away from surface and utility.
“What happens so often is that people lose the sculptural quality of the quilt because they talk about quilt history and what this block means and this is from this year and here’s how it was made,” he said. “Or the other side of that is I’m an art quilter and it’s like a painting, let me talk about painting. You don’t ever get to say, this holds a space.”
Haynes’ quilts hold a space in the most challenging IQSCM exhibition yet, a show that forces the audience to look at the pieces far differently than the typical quilt show and injects the ideas of art and objectness into the discussion.
“They like it a lot,” Haynes said of the reaction to the show, wherever it has been exhibited. “I wasn’t sure. I’ve only heard one dissenting opinion so far. I don’t mind dissenting opinions at all. It lets me know I’m knocking on people’s doors.”