Amber Robles-Gordon’s Controversial Quilts Balance Form and Content | visual art

“Political Guam”, Amber Robles-Gordon

TrFollowing trends in the art world often simply means noting the changing balance between form and content over time. Mid-century American painting was formalistic and elemental art for art. He was interested in line, form, space, form, tone, texture, pattern, color and composition. An important work of art has been something, but nowadays an important work of art is often on something: politics, social causes, various expressions of identity.

Mid-century art favored abstraction over figuration, but contemporary art is full of figures with the narrative content they inevitably inspire. Fortunately, no matter how trends change, we can always look back to the Greeks and remember that there is beauty in balance. And it’s no surprise that some of today’s best art manages to convey messages, signal and tell after first capturing the eye, grabbing the attention and igniting the imagination of the viewer.

Even the title of Amber Robles-Gordon’s Tinney Contemporary exhibition — Sovereignty: acts, forms and measures of protest and resistance — expresses a militant message. And it’s emblematic of a large-scale multimedia quilt exhibit brimming with signals and symbols questioning American policy toward — and governance of — its populous territories and the District of Columbia.

Robles-Gordon’s work shows how overemphasized content has become in contemporary art. It’s also a good example of how unique abstract compositions – featuring compelling combinations of materials – can really catch the eye and capture viewers’ curiosity before sparking a conversation about sovereignty and statehood.

At Tinney’s, Robles-Gordon’s large quilts hang from the ceiling, allowing viewers to see both sides of the different works while traversing the space as if sailing through an archipelago. The design of the exhibit is both geographical and cartographic, reminding viewers of visiting each location, but also reminding them of the often dubious authorities who draw lines on maps where they plant flags in the earth. The designs evoke national flags and banners, conveying the show’s narrative of colonial exploitation. But this show also reads like an exhibition of abstract painting, full of lines and shapes and vivid colors, arranged in the house textures of fabric and yarn.

In the 1940s and 1950s, American Abstract Expressionists, as well as art critic Clement Greenberg, all but discarded map content in favor of pure formalism. Greenberg’s 1939 essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” drew a formalist line in the sand, delineating the boundaries that came to define mid-century American painting: Modernism is introverted and self-critical – art on art; the best painting is single, two-dimensional and flat; abstraction is more advanced than figuration.

But that was before identity, politics and social justice crushed the contemporary art world at the Whitney Biennial in 1993. The exhibition was the watershed for an emerging generation of artists- activists like Daniel Joseph Martinez, Robert Gober, and Byron Kim, who sparked conversations about race, sexual orientation, and AIDS in galleries and museums, paving the way for much of early American art of the 21st century. Now, 80 years after the publication of Greenberg’s essay, content rules.

One of the unique aspects of Robles-Gordon’s works is how she divides her designs between “political” and “spiritual” iterations on either side of her quilts. “Guam Political” features a palm tree design inside concentric rings of turquoise, orange, green and yellow. The “political” sides of Robles-Gordon’s designs all look like state flags or even quaint license plate designs – idealized and bureaucratic. The “spiritual” designs on the other sides of his works all look more like native craft compositions.


“Guam Spiritual”, Amber Robles-Gordon

Robles-Gordon achieves these looks by mixing and matching elements of national flags, Doppler radar imagery, indigenous art, domestic rituals, and references to the Abstract Expressionist art movement in Washington, D.C. of the 1950s to 1970s, known as the Washington Color School.

The Washington Color School was also championed by Clement Greenberg. The movement rejected the subject in favor of a purely formal inquiry into color. Artists like Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis and Anne Truitt blazed a trail beyond Abstract Expressionism while simultaneously indicating the rise of Minimalism. But at the same time, the group’s ideas were criticized as a dead end, unable to engage with the political and cultural tumult of the sexual revolution, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War.

Robles-Gordon’s creations speak of sovereignty and social justice, environmentalism and colonial exploitation. These are displays of traditionally female handicrafts and artistic activist amulets loaded with symbolism and history. They are full of identity messages and political critiques, but they are also colorful compositions full of movement and energy, balanced in symmetrical and circular compositions – a little meditative and a little iconic. Robles-Gordon wants to convey ideas and even ideologies, and she’s smart and talented enough to catch the eye first.

Briana R. Cross