Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Yvonne Porcella: A Retrospective

Carnegie Arts Center
Turlock, California
Rebecca Phillips Abbott

January 18-March 14, 2012


 The Carnegie Arts Center is dedicated to recognizing excellence in regional artists through its Distinguished Artist program, an annual event that includes an award and retrospective exhibition for the honoree.  “We are extremely proud to honor Yvonne Porcella in this first year,” says Rebecca Phillips Abbott, Executive Director and Curator, “She is a remarkable textile artist whose works today are in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, the de Young Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Art & Design in New York, NY, the Phoenix Art Museum, and numerous others.”  The Carnegie’s retrospective exhibit will trace Porcella’s career from her earliest works up to and including the present. “In the process,” says Abbott, “we are all given the opportunity to celebrate and honor a life’s work.”

A native Californian, Porcella was born in Watsonville, CA, studied nursing at the University of San Francisco, graduated in 1958 and worked part-time as an operating room nurse until 1979, and raised four children with her husband, Bob.  All the while, she was also working as an artist.

Porcella’s gift for artistic expression began in the 1960s with observations that the same fabrics were used again and again in the garments people were wearing.  She began spinning her own thread, weaving her own fabrics, and making her own garments, and was soon involved in the Conference of Northern California Handweavers.  In these early years, Porcella was influenced by ethnic clothing, primarily from Guatemala and by pieced and embroidered textiles from Uzbekistan and Afghanistan.  In 1972 she had her first exhibition of weavings and wearable art.  In 1977 she published Five Ethnic Patterns, followed by an ethnic pattern book Plus Five then Pieced Clothing in 1980 and by Pieced Clothing Variations in 1981.  More publications would follow, including Yvonne Porcella: Art & Inspirations, published in 1998.

Her shift from weaving to quiltmaking began when she started to make garments out of patchwork. In 1979 she attended the West Coast Quilter's Conference and by the following year she had completely stopped weaving.  It was a pivotal moment, so much so that she can tell you the date and time she last wove:  28 April 1980 at 8:30 in the morning!  By 1981, she had created "Takoage," her first art quilt which was later acquired by the Smithsonian Institution for its Renwick Gallery, located across the street from the White House in Washington, DC.  It was a promising start for Porcella who rapidly emerged as a visionary force artistically and in the art quilt movement as a whole.  As founder of the Studio Art Quilts Association and President of the Board of Directors, she worked tirelessly in those early years to establish art quilting as an artistic genre in its own right.

Takoage, 1981

Yvonne Porcella’s art quilts are known for their bold originality as well as for their intricate narratives which inevitably treat the experiences of everyday life with a great deal of energy, substance, and nearly always humor.  Waiting for Pink Linoleum, 2001, laments the lack of an arts center in Modesto.  At the time this quilt was made, it appeared there would be no funding for building what later became the Gallo Center for the Arts.

Waiting for Pink Linoleum, 2001

In it two figures  can be seen running from the prospect of funding an arts center.  A vaudevillian hook at the center helps to propel their flight. There is as well a subtle poke at the absence of the visual arts, in view of the prominence of the musical clef.  The visual arts were surrendered early in the preliminary discussions involving the arts center. In this image, bold colors divide the quilt on the diagonal.  One senses that the figure to the right is moving extremely quickly out of the image frame to the right while the figure to the left is flustered and running in the opposite direction. Form and color are merged here for a sophisticated artistic statement that takes life on its own terms and finds all the joy there is to find in it.

Early Weavings, 1970s

As a retrospective exhibit, this exhibit includes works representing distinct sensibilities in Porcella’s artistic output for a rich and varied selection, including the early weavings; ethnic-inspired garments; a series focused on the kimono form; American iconography; quilts for grandchildren; quilts for an especially whimsical take on life; quilts as autobiography, and hand painted quilts. 

Asked to reflect on her career, how it began and what drives her as an artist, Porcella says:  "As a child, motherly love taught me to knit and sew, and rip mistakes and make it right. Curiosity led to self education, enhanced by a collection of books, visits to museums, and exploration of textiles from other countries. Imagination generated inspiration and freedom led to invention. I learned creativity comes from making your own rules, understanding the limits of your chosen materials, and having confidence in personal skills.”

“I do what I love with determination,” she continues, “A need to finish each action has developed into a major collection of creative work full of color, filled with events in my life, things that I have heard, emotions of the moment, exploration of American iconography, revisiting experiences as a wife, mother, nurse, weaver, mountain climber, author, teacher, world traveler, craftsman; living amidst the beauty of California’s central valley."

“Through Porcella's works we appreciate these everyday moments more clearly and perhaps enjoy them more fully as a result,” says Abbott.

As is her custom, Porcella’s wearable art works frequently have humorous titles, including  Kaleidoscopically Yours, How Old Are You Now?, Walking the Streets of Tomorrow, the latter a reference to a vest made with leftover fabric.  Many of the early garments were made from a rich mixture of ethnic textiles, re-cast by Porcella into a style that is uniquely her own. 

While the early garments were intended to be worn, Porcella made others with the intention they would not be worn.  The series was titled “Kimono as Quilt” and it was a subtle affirmation of the art quilt as an artistic genre.  These garments were made to be viewed as works of art.  Porcella experimented with strip piecing and black and white checkerboard blocks in the early kimonos.  The interiors quickly became as important as the exteriors.  Pasha On The 10:04, for example, features a dynamic exterior of black, white, and red with small accents of rainbow colors.  Its interior reveals a printed fabric with a hand painted figure.  In other works, hand painting would become a counter to bold colors.

Pasha on the 10:04, 1984

Mickey Mouse, McDonald’s, a cheeseburger, a pink flamingo, spinach, even 99¢ become the stuff of American iconography in Porcella’s hands.

I (Heart) American, 1988

All can be found in a series of quilts she made in the 1980s that explore and celebrate what a foreign visitor, in particular, might consider quintessentially American.  Youthful, energetic, unstoppable—these quilts suggest all this and more. 

Of the autobiographical quilts, In Loving Memory serves as an early example of its type. It is rich in detail and poignant.  Porcella writes, “Memories are part of the family experience.  When I was young, memories were not something to dwell on…. Only later in my life, now that I am old enough to remember the losses, does memory play an integral part in my creative life.”  Family photographs transferred to fabric are surrounded by fabrics intended to convey time as a continuum here.  Other quilts such as Memories of Childhood, 1988, reflect memories that are uniquely hers.

In Loving Memory, 1987

Quilt for a Grandchild, Vittoria Lee, 1990

In this same spirit are the quilts Porcella made for each of her grandchildren and now great grandchildren.  Stylistically they trace the progression of her techniques and are filled with references to family and the passage of time.  In Quilt for Vittoria Lee, Porcella selected some of the fabric she used to make curtains for her own children.  Filled with symbols, this quilt includes roses that serve as a reference to her own grandmother, whose name was Rose.  The color pink honors a female child while the heart signifies love.  The black and white checkerboard found in this quilt echoes her early works in still another reference to time.     

Wisteria le deuxieme, 1995

The bold colors that are the hallmark of Porcella’s work were often countered by a softer, pastel palette achieved through hand painting silk.  Porcella believes the inspiration for this may have come from living among the almond trees of the Central Valley.  Suggestive of watercolor, these subtle colors introduce nuances.  There is a stillness to them and with that a timelessness.

There may be nothing more joyous than a purple dog leaping over a lady with green hair.  Much of Porcella’s work is about living life fully, joyously, and imaginatively and Purple Dog and Green Hair, 2003, is no exception. Words, symbols, and musings have been seamlessly incorporated into the overall design.  One can find “P&B” at the top right.  The word “Textiles” appears at the bottom right-- below the heart for “I (Heart) Textiles”—all a reference to a line of fabric Porcella developed for P&B Textiles in 2003.  The question mark is more pronounced.  It is self-referential and has its origins in a defining exchange with a store clerk. “What is your last name?” he asked.  "Porcella," she replied.  “First initial?” he asked.  “Y,” she responded.  “Because we need it," he explained.  There was surely a moment’s pause on her part as she absorbed what had just happened, but from that time on “Y” and “?” became interchangeable in any number of her works.   

Purple Dog and Green Hair, 2003

The series Four on the Square, begun in 2000, was an experiment in bringing different themes together: rain, olive, iris, holidays.  Pictured here are several of each including months of the year expressed in color or mood. This series featured silk fabrics and fusible web, allowing for free hand cutting and leading to a more painterly abstract effect in the process.

Four on the Square, 2000

Series of Faces were made between 1998 and 2002.  Many were for hospital installations.  The faces began as self portraits but soon took on a life of their own.  For Porcella, the series pictured here harkens back to thoughts of Mariah from Paint Your Wagon, or Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, or simply frightening faces from childhood.  The Mariah of Paint Your Wagon “throws the stars around, and sends the clouds a’flyin’!” 

Series of Faces, 1998-2002

                  Yvonne Porcella: A Retrospective
            Carnegie Arts Center Distinguished Artist, 2012

                  On view January 18 through March 14, 2012

                  Carnegie Arts Center
                  250 North Broadway
                  Turlock, CA  95380

                  Telephone:  209-632-5761

                  Open:   Wednesday - Sunday, 10 am – 5 pm

                  $5 admission (member discounts apply)
                  Children under 12 are free

[1] It can take more than several moments to find the second figure in this, at the left center and top. It is part of the fun of encountering a work by Porcella!

PRESS RELEASE                                                                                       
December 9, 2011 
Rebecca Phillips Abbott