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Review: Denise Burge/Elmhurst Art Museum

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According to the 2010 Quilting In America survey, there are now 2.1 million active quilters from coast to coast. Most of them are trying to cover beds, not gallery walls, but ever since the 1971 exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, quilting has been widely recognized as a contemporary art form, and designs echo a wide range of what can be found in contemporary painting, from geo-form to imagist.

Denise Burge, born in 1963, comes from the hills of North Carolina, where the women in her family have been quilters for several generations—her great-grandma even grew her own cotton for batting. Her brash, overstated imagery and improvisational use of materials resembles the outlandish work of that famous outsider artist from Georgia, Howard Finster. But it would be a mistake to call Burge a folk artist. For the past twenty years, she’s been an art academic at the University of Cincinnati. It would not be a mistake, however, to call her an outstanding designer. Her dynamic designs draw attention from a distance, while close-up, the voluptuous areas of detail can be intensely rewarding. As a kind of collage, quilting depends on whatever fragments of printed fabric an artist can find, so it feels like a miracle when all that diversity fits together so well and even tells a story.

If Burge would commit to this medium, she would likely make it into the Quilters Hall of Fame, but folk-styled quilting on environmental themes was just a strategy she employed about ten years ago, on view here. As she explained in a 2008 interview, her generation of artists came after the resurgence of craft in the 1970s. Cartoonish painting led her into quilting, but eventually the cartoons were replaced by doodles, the rectangular borders of quilts were replaced by the installation of fragments, and now she’s a songwriter making music videos. Quilting was just one chapter in her creative life—but what a wonderful chapter it was. (Chris Miller)

Through September 4 at the Elmurst Art Museum, 150 South Cottage Hill Avenue, Elmhurst.

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