1.3 / Review

Merch Art and African American Quilts

By Christian L. Frock November 18, 2009

The simultaneous exhibitions on view at the Nelson Gallery provoke unexpected observations about the emotional and monetary value attributed to creative output. In the main gallery the simply titled “African American Quilts” highlights the value of function when met with form. The exhibition presents elaborate quilts dating from the mid-19th century, selected from the collections of Avis C. Robinson, a renowned quilt maker whose work is collected by museums and institutions, and the poet Sandra McPherson, a former UC Davis professor whose poetry draws from quilting traditions. “Merch Art,” in the project space, displays a wide variety of mass produced artist-designed ‘novelty’ items, or rather “merchandise art” as director and curator Renny Pritikin refers to it in the catalogue, selected from the private collection of Lawrence Banka, a board member of the Achenbach Graphic Arts Council for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and Judith Gordon, a writer who specializes in “plain language.” The exhibition features record albums, jigsaw puzzles, various kitchen accoutrements, among other quotidian items designed by artists, often readily available for sale in museum gift shops and popular retail outlets. Each collection reflects the unique sensibilities of their owners, informed by their relative backgrounds. Parallel to this, both exhibitions present privately accumulated collections of purpose-driven objects, removed from service and presented in the untouchable fashion of an institution.

African American Quilts, 2009; installation view, Richard L. Nelson Gallery, University of California, Davis. Courtesy of the Gallery.

Whereas the names of the slaves that made the oldest of the quilts are largely lost to history, the collected objects in “Merch Art” places a premium on name recognition. This juxtaposition interrogates the relationship between contemporary art and craft as well as the characteristics of celebrity and anonymity, luxury and necessity, technique and production.1 These revelatory, and somewhat damning, paradigms are a curatorial hallmark of Pritikin’s, who has consistently been known to skewer the values of the art world. Though my focus here will be on the contemporary work in “Merch Art,” the tandem placement of the two exhibitions breathes new life into the formerly prescribed experience of quilts-as-art-exhibition. The works in “African American Quilts,” particularly the oldest ones, can be appreciated as examples of fastidious craft—by tradition, quilting must be done by hand—and ingenuity born from scarcity of materials. More interesting though are observations about “Merch Art” that arise from first viewing “African American Quilts.” The rapid evolution of creative values within the last century and a half from directly crafted methods to globalized mass-production is starkly evident in the experience of these shows side-by-side. The quilts reveal how objects such as the ones in “Merch Art” have come to have a significant place in contemporary art.

In spite of its smaller scale, “Merch Art” upstages the main exhibition for anyone with a focused interest in contemporary art. It is pure pleasure to discover the broad scope of multiples undertaken by such a wide range of important artists from the last 50 years, including the likes of Picasso, Warhol, Beuys, and Bourgeois. In direct opposition with the quilts, Banka and Gorgon stipulated name recognition as a parameter for building the collection. Whereas the craftwork and sheer history of the quilts diminish the anonymity of their creators, the artists’ names alone foreground the value of the objects in “Merch Art.” Without this significant attachment, each object loses its novelty and is like any number of mass produced objects with similar purpose.

From a museological perspective, historic objects, like the quilts, attain value from rarity, whereas in the contemporary art market value derives from the brand recognition of the artist more than its scarcity or uniqueness. To enforce the value of collectability within “Merch Art”, the collectors determined that their artists must be known entities whose larger body of work has circulated in the major auction market. By and large, they don’t purchase objects from dealers and they work with an accessible budget, specifically, no more than $200 per item. Freebies, in other words, fall outside of their collecting interests. The role of this collection within the rhetoric of a contemporary art collection, assembled outside of the "real" art market but still commercial on a small scale, satisfies the collectors’ longing to participate in the "serious art world," while also offering a vague critique of its self-seriousness. By trading, so to speak, on the names of famous artists, the collection taps into an ideology illuminated by Piero Manzoni when he canned his own shit (Merda da’ artista, 1961): Everything that a valuable artist ‘produces’ has monetary value, whether or not it is their best, most thoughtful and serious, or most time-consuming work.

While most are functional objects, Banka and Gordon have removed few from the original packaging so as to maintain their currency and potential resale value as a collection of contemporary art within a rigorously traded market. “The value of a collectible,” Pritikin explained to me, “is associated with pristine packaging.” The objects in “Merch Art” are considered more collectible—read: valuable—because they have never been used. Despite this perverse logic, these multiples remain conceptually or historically significant. The collection in its current state—and as it continues to grow—provides a composite of significant artists in the international contemporary art discourse.

Pablo Picasso.
 Dove of Peace 
Jigsaw Puzzle, 1966; ink on cardboard
; 14.5 x 14.5 in. Photo courtesy of Lloyd Hryciw.

It is also a point of reference for how creativity has evolved up to this point. Perhaps 150 years from now, these objects will be regarded with the same stoic severity, exuded by the low lighting and spacious installation, as the historic quilts exhibited in the main gallery. As selected objects, perhaps bundled within the larger oeuvre of the artists whose “brand value” outlasts fad and fashion, the multiples might warrant a more privileged consideration—an artwork as serious as any other—rather than the secondary status of “novelty.” To that end, perhaps they will also be a stellar sampling of archival objects remaining from a number of practices that rely heavily on temporary, site-specific or conceptual execution. In the same way that the 19th century quilter working steadfastly with scraps of fabric might have been confounded to think of their efforts hanging in a museum, surely some of the objects in “Merch Art” will attain unforeseen status as cultural objects 150 years from now.

Of course form meets function in the more than 70 items on display. In this regard, some objects are elevated within the natural spectrum of interest within the collection and are just, like, way cool. The metallic finish of an exquisite demitasse cup designed for Illy Coffee by William Kentridge reflects a drawing reproduction on the saucer, mimicking the artist’s anthropomorphic drawings. The Illy cup and saucer solidly convey a relationship to Kentridge’s broader ideas and, with this in mind, are simply more interesting than some of the other items. The descriptive tag for a charm designed by Takashi Murakami for Louis Vuitton, for example, is less substantial than the absent charms might have been, although undoubtedly it has monetary value. Its inclusion seems paltry and somewhat dilutes the merit of the collection, as if the packaging alone is enough to satisfy the collecting habit.

Cindy Sherman. Untitled, 2006; beach towel, 60 x 70 inches. Courtesy of the Richard L. Nelson Gallery, University of California, Davis.

Enjoyable as they are to view, there is something remiss in an archive of pristinely maintained functional objects, which makes me wonder if there wouldn't be more pleasure in their daily use than their presentation in a gallery. An untitled beach towel designed by Cindy Sherman for the 2006 Basel Miami Art Fair depicts an image of a woman in a pool. What better item to tout in Miami than a beach towel? Here the manner of its display, hung flat against the wall, alongside others by Ed Ruscha and Alex Katz, seems jarringly incongruent with its purpose. Shouldn’t it hang from a hook, slightly damp with wet sand? Contemporary art, with all of the twists and turns of its evolved logic, allows that we can appreciate a beach towel as artwork, absent of salt water, in the same way that we can appreciate a quilt hung in a gallery rather than laid across a bed.

This logic might be convoluted by the fact that some of the quilts took more than 100 years to achieve their privileged status, whereas some of the objects in “Merch Art” are just a few years old. Each is an artifact of its milieu and conveys a set of innovative ideas from its period about production, technique, and materials. Does it level the playing field to think in terms of distributed labor? If a quilt took scores of hours and several sets of hands to assemble, perhaps there is relative human labor involved in the production and distribution of a beach towel that requires handling by hundreds of people from the artist to the manufacturer, assembly line workers, truckers, stocking clerks, and cashiers, equating an untold number of hours from inception to purchase. While this may rationalize the comparative production effort and human investment, the truth is that value/significance in today’s art market is rarely quantifiable in these terms. Intriguingly, “African American Quilts” inadvertently imparts a quiet wisdom for visitors to the Nelson Gallery: The resonating worth of the works in “Merch Art” won’t be functional necessity, or surprisingly even monetary value, but the cultural insights they provide about today’s values for the future.

“Merch Art” 
and “African American Quilts” are on view at the Richard L. Nelson Gallery & Fine Art Collection at UC Davis  through December 13, 2009. 

Merch Art is on view at Richard L. Nelson Gallery, UC Davis, in


, through December 14, 2009.


  1. Also salient, but too large to investigate within the space of this review, are the parallels within 19th century slave labor and 20/21st century cheap foreign labor.

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