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Lynne Heller: Nine Sisters and 115 Unused Quilts

By Gil McElroy August 4, 2003

} Lynne Heller: Nine Sisters and 115 Unused Quilts Gil McElroy Nov 30, 2002 - Jan 14, 2003 Art Gallery of Cobourg Cobourg, Ontario In an exhibition of mixed media wall hangings that has been touring Canada for the last year, Toronto artist Lynne Heller elegantly argues a fecund relationship between the traditional craft of the pieced quilt, and the pictorial strain of fine art painting. Nine Sisters and 115 Unused Quilts takes it origin in the story of the nine Merkley sisters, distant maternal relatives of Heller's whose lives, spent unmarried (save for one) and in the Canadian countryside, spanned the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. After the death of the youngest in 1975, 115 unused quilts-all sewn by the sisters in preparation for the marriages that were expected of them but which eight turned their backs upon to pursue independent life paths- were found stored away in the family attic, unused. Drusilla / Red Rose, 2001 84 x 63in silk, cotton, wool, polyblends, linen, silk/metal organza, lace, heat transfers, embroidery floss, heritage quilt pieces hand appliquéd, hand quilted, heat transferred imagery, embroidery quilted by: Jolene Antle       photography: Janusz Wrobel The lives of the sisters-Anne, Drusilla, Edith, Ella May, Estelle, Maud, Josephine, Louise, and Sarah- provided Heller with corresponding points of artistic departure. In each of their names, she created large 84" high by 63" wide wall hangings that have, at their literal and metaphoric center, antique pieced quilts. In Drusilla/Red Rose (all works are 2001), for instance, that center is established with by an antique Art Deco fan quilt pattern, set atop layers of cloth -silk, cotton, linen- that, though comprising a supportive textile backing, have other more significant aesthetically contextual functions. The only rigidly rectangular element in this work (and all the others) is a final sheet of cloth backing with which the hanging is Drusilla ( Detail ) quilted by: Jolene Antle       photography: Janusz Wrobel attached to a wall. Within its field (and encompassing the core antique quilt), the multiple layers of textile are shaped and arranged so as to representationally establish a resonant thematic echo which reverberates through the Nine Sisters sequence. On either side of (and partially beneath) the antique center, two vertical strips of material form kinds of curving arcs that roughly mirror one another. Two squares of material (each made up of two triangles of different textiles) are set on either side of the antique quilt, attached about a third of the way down. The consequence of it all are a sequence of hangings within which lurks references to perspective and dimensionality, and which exhibit a decidedly figurative bent. Anne / Arm & Hammer, 2001 84 x 63in silk, cotton, wool, polyblends, linen, silk/metal organza, lace, heat transfers, heritage quilt pieces hand appliquéd, hand quilted, heat transferred imagery quilted by: Jolene Antle       photography: Janusz Wrobel This figuration is generic and anonymous, visually specifying nothing and no one in particular. But Heller individualizes it with the addition of some visual (and, indeed, titular) reference to staple items from the realm of the domestic of which the Merkley sisters were presumably a part. In Drusilla/Red Rose, for instance, it is packets of Red Rose tea. Heller has made heat transfer images of the packaging of said dry good onto small pieces of cloth, and inserted rows of them into each work, in the form of a framing device, used as trim or edging along a side. In Anne/Arm & Hammer, it is, of course, images of boxes of baking soda arranged in like manner. And in Louise/Sweet & Lo and Josephine/Twin, even artificial sweeteners find a place. Anne ( Detail ) quilted by: Jolene Antle       photography: Janusz Wrobel Artifice is, in fact, critical to Heller's work. In Anne/Arm & Hammer, she has incorporated two heat transfer enlargements of buttons, attached at points where the antique quilt engages its textile backing, and so metaphorically anchors the old to the new. Though dimensionality is pointed at in each of the works of Nine Sisters, in the end Heller takes a pass on the reality of the thing, as if the inclusion of an actual button would push things too far away from fine art and too close to the craft end of the artistic spectrum. Instead, she cleaves closely to a path which avoids outright aesthetic commitments either way. It's an openness that pays off. This review originally appeared in Art Papers Magazine, March/April 2003. See more of Lynne Heller's work online at: www.lynneheller.com. ___________________________________________ Gil McElroy is a critic, independent curator, artist, and poet currently living in Colborne, Ontario. His latest books are Gravity & Grace: Selected Writing on Contemporary Canadian Art (Gaspereau Press), and a book of poetry, Dream Pool Essays (Talonbooks). View Gil's curriculum vitae.