Unlike anything in the Stickley exhibition, the quilts astonish. You leave your head, so to speak, because you become happy hostage to the form-finding impulses of the artist’s hand, and you can see the hand at work, modeling then revising patterns, building as it goes along, allowing for surfaces pinched, pursed, or pulled to create an energy of abundance. It reminds us of one pursuit of modern artists of other kinds: to find the little that suffices. The quilts of more recent times carry a self-consciousness that older exemplars do not. The random, “crazy” part of Controlled Crazy Quilt from the 1970s is in fact carefully determined: the creator wants us to embrace the wit of how tradition allows precisely cut swatches to look crazier than crazy.
The variety killed me. Though they share motifs, each quilt is a surprise package. One of my favorites contains hundreds of pieces ferociously packed into four triangles whose apexes converge at the center. It has the most congested, choked-up piecing of any quilt in the exhibition, but the congestion has such centripetal energy that it made me giddy. The juicy yellows, jammy reds, and other jumpy colors create a delectable speed and wildness. This is the kind of exhibition that makes me want to clap my hands and shout something happily incoherent. The most endearing and history-tweaking work (given the peculiar institution where the quilts originated) features an American flag, but the stripes are misaligned and the stars look like fatigued, misshapen flowers. ■
Gustav Stickley and the American Arts & Crafts Movement is on view at the San Diego Museum of Art until September 11. 1450 El Prado, Balboa Park. 619-232-7931.
Bold Expressions: African American Quilts from the Collection of Corrine Riley is on view at the Minghei International Museum until November 6. 1439 El Prado, Balboa Park. 619-239-0003.