Sanford Biggers Cracks the Code of Quilts


LOUISVILLE, KY — Billed as a “survey of quilt-based functions,” Sanford Biggers: Codeswitch at the Velocity Art Museum feels less like an overview of a person distinct section of the multidisciplinary artist’s oeuvre and extra like a record of his artistic approach general — tactile proof of the evolution of inventive thoughts fields of curiosity that have held his fascination visible motifs that have appeared, in different guises and permutations, all over his job. The demonstrate features 33 quilt performs dating from 2012 to 2020 (the catalogue paperwork an impressive total of 100 these types of parts), alongside with two video works from 2000 and 2014.

Biggers, who is recognized for sculpture, video, installation, songs, and general performance, commenced the Codex collection in 2009, after he was gifted about 50 19th-century American quilts in varying levels of disrepair. People acquainted with his creative output will realize some of his other artworks in their quilted counterparts: “Blossom Study” (2014), a square quilt of little, hexagonal patchwork onto which he has painted the define of a grand piano bursting with bouquets, is a sketch of his 2007 sculptural and audio set up “Blossom,” in which he fused an 18-foot-tall replica of a tree with the belly of a grand piano, its unattended keys taking part in his recording of “Strange Fruit.”

Sanford Biggers, “Blossom Study” (2014), antique quilt, assorted textiles, acrylic, spray paint, 86 1/2  x 84 1/2 inches (picture © Sanford Biggers and Baldwin Gallery, courtesy the artist and Baldwin Gallery, Aspen)

Equivalent surrogates are present, this kind of as “Floral Seated Warrior” (2017), a portrait-oriented quilt of chunky gray and beige blocks with a blue, floral-print silhouette of Biggers’s “BAM (Seated Warrior)” sculpture (2017). Representations of “Lotus” (2007) — his flower fashioned from repetitions of a slave ship diagram — and the wide, legendary pink lips of “Cheshire” (2008) look usually. “Incognito” (2014), for instance, is a sq. piece composed of bow-tie sections of two different quilts, a cacophony of pattern and color on to which Biggers has additional the smudged define of a Cheshire grin, its sly smile a little hidden beneath improvised dashes of gold, blue, orange, crimson, and lavender paint. The prospers are, potentially, vestiges of the artist’s graffiti times (Biggers grew up in Los Angeles, exactly where he participated in the avenue artwork scene). As with all his embellishments, they impart a new and distinct layer of that means to the antique quilts.

That Biggers is operating with quilts is significant, as they are, by definition, layered objects — most typically, a piece of batting sandwiched amongst two pieces of cloth and stitched with each other. When he to start with commenced the Codex collection, he was intrigued by the contested legend that quilts had been made use of as coded objects to guideline individuals escaping slavery in the southern United States via the Underground Railroad. In the artist’s fingers, the quilts turn out to be palimpsests: historic messages reanimated by the addition of present-day signifiers, symbols, and codes, these types of as graffiti.

Sanford Biggers, “Floral Seated Warrior” (2017), antique quilt, assorted textiles, burnt cork, 71 x 39 inches (photograph © Sanford Biggers and Marianne Boesky Gallery, courtesy the artist andMarianne Boesky Gallery, Aspen and New York)

A codex, the earliest form of the modern day ebook, was also held jointly by stitching, and enabled a quantum leap forward, knowledge-smart, by letting random entry to reference materials, compared to the sequential accessibility essential by a scroll. In many techniques, Codeswitch seems to rejoice and revel in awareness, its references revealing a voracious, eclectic, and frequently mischievous intellect. Motifs have double meanings (a Cheshire grin recollects each a 19th-century English novel and an American blackface minstrel display a tree signifies both of those enlightenment and lynchings) titles have clever puns (“Big Dada”), witty wordplay (“Kubrick’s Rube”), and other shibboleths of a very discovered and cultured mind (“Quo Vadis” “Chorus for Paul Mooney”) visual influences include these kinds of a motley crew as Hiroshige, Sigmar Polke, and Robert Rauschenberg.

Within a subset of operates, Biggers trades his familiar visible lexicon for a a lot more demanding exploration of abstraction and a further engagement with the quilt patterns. In “Tyranny of Mirrors” (2017), he pieces together segments of a few different quilts, each and every featuring a similar hexagonal pattern, with a silver-leaf pattern that would seem to recede into area, as if the viewer is on the lookout into a hall of mirrors. The outcome, not as opposed to op-artwork, is mesmerizing. In “Transition” (2018) and the onomatopoeically named “Ooo Oui” (2017), he incorporates sequins into equivalent summary constructions with even extra bedazzling effects.

Sanford Biggers, “Tyranny of Mirrors” (2017), antique quilt, assorted textiles, silver leaf, 73 x 75 inches (photograph © Sanford Biggers and Marianne Boesky Gallery, courtesy the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery, Aspen and New York)

In a further subseries, Biggers honors the trompe-l’oeil aspirations held by some quilt makers by adhering sections of material to geometric shapes created of plywood, which he joins to compose wall-mounted sculptures that resemble huge origami constructions. “Reconstruction” (2019), with its triangular panels of cloth that integrate the United States flag, calls to mind the rhythmic layering of triangles involved in folding a flag when seen from a length, it also evokes that aged Cheshire smile, a visible wink as wry as the double entendre of the piece’s title.

Two movie performs round out the exhibition: the single-channel “Mandala of the B-Bodhisattva II” (2000) is projected onto a sq. screen a little elevated from the flooring, replicating the overhead view of a breakdance competition. The dancers are competing on a floor that Biggers made from minimize linoleum segments in a round pattern, prefiguring his quilting undertaking. In viewing the breakdancers from higher than, the aim moves from unique tricks to the broader motion throughout the patterned floor, significantly like the sewn lines that traverse a quilt’s pieced material. Appears of the cheering crowd mingle with the new music, as if to affirm that what is sacred can also be celebratory. 

Sanford Biggers, “Moonrising,” detail (2014), film transferred to online video, run time: 7:35 min. (photo © Sanford Biggers and Marianne Boesky Gallery, courtesy the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery, Aspen and New York)

“Moonrising” (2014) is a 7-and-a-half minute online video established to songs by Biggers’s band, Moon Medicin, and options two Black adult men in a wooded space. They are variously naked robed in quilts, hoodies, or mantles of feathers (the artist’s 2006 “Ghettobird Tunic,” probably?) or shirtless, sporting jeans, golden masks, and baseball caps as they roam the woods. Sung lyrics allude to the legend of coded quilts foremost enslaved individuals to liberty. 

Although QR codes on the museum walls provide a glossary of themes, terms, and historical figures to assist the interpretation of the quilted functions, no supplemental created materials is supplied for “Moonrising.” This follows the encounter in the United States, in which anti-literacy legislation prohibited the written transmission of understanding among enslaved individuals, but they could turn to the oral traditions of West African griots to express information.

In reconnecting quilts with the system and their primal function of bestowing warmth and security, “Moonrising” seems to eschew intellectual awareness for that which can only be recognized through practical experience. As viewers, we may perhaps not have all the codes to interpret the various conceptual levels of the quilted is effective, but we can view males managing by way of the woods, hidden in quilts, just before unfurling them in an open up area, and come closer to comprehending the great worry and threat of escape, as nicely as its possible for magnificent flexibility.

Sanford Biggers, “Incognito” (2014), antique quilt, assorted textiles, acrylic, spray paint, oil adhere, glitter, 45 x  45 inches (photo © Sanford Biggers and David Castillo Gallery, courtesy the artist and David Castillo Gallery, Miami)

Sanford Biggers: Codeswitch carries on at the Speed Art Museum (2035 South 3rd Road, Louisville, Kentucky) through June 26. The exhibition was co-structured by the Bronx Museum of the Arts and Rivers Institute for Modern Artwork & Assumed, and co-curated by Dr. Andrea Andersson and Antonio Sergio Bessa.


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