Sanitary Tortilla Factory, Albuquerque
Nov 8, 2018 – Jan 4, 2019
“Thread and blood have long been understood as analogous or metaphors for each other,” Julia Bryan-Wilson, the author of Fray: Art and Textile Politics, once said in an interview. The affinity of blood and thread is a powerful one that underlies a new show of modern textiles in Albuquerque. At Sanitary Tortilla Factory, a collection of eight quilts by Darby Photos, some longer than seven feet, spreads across the white walls of the gallery. In them, violence is implied but not explicit. Each depicts a school where a mass shooting took place. The title of the collected work, 207, refers to the number of people injured across all eight sites.
The most expansive work is a quilt of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Stretched black fabric, covering two thirds of the scape, creates a gulf between the viewer and the school’s front doors. It offers the long view.
If only we all dedicated such care and attention to contemplating the complexities that created crime scenes out of schoolyards
In a world of fast-paced information, the growing list of schools where such tragedies have occurred surfaces in the news cycle and then disappears again. It is troubling how the particular horror of each fades from our collective and individual memories. The long view is perhaps what we need. In 207, we are offered the particular stories, as well as—in a glance, even—a suggestion of the cumulative impact of gun violence. In these buildings, 207 people, mostly children, were shot and killed or injured. In the aftermath, even more than a decade later, Photos poured hundreds of hours into memorializing each place. If only we all dedicated such care and attention to contemplating the complexities that created crime scenes out of schoolyards. Quilting is a craft that requires an intense amount of time and labor; the commitment to each of these portraits evidences Photos’s sincerity and earnestness—but there’s something else in the medium that works uncannily well with its subject. Look closely and you can see the individual strokes that hold the whole scene together, with something as delicate as a cut of ivory thread. Something in the medium, too, suggests the idea of unraveling.
It’s discomfiting to look at the quilt of Columbine High School that is hung near the door of the gallery; this marks the first in my personal recollection of what is now well-trodden news fodder. Photos’s technical ability to apply painterly perspective to her quilts means that the school seems vast, stretching across the horizon line and curving toward the dark edging of the quilt. Matte blue skies with scallops of clouds fill in the blanks. Underneath the subject of the quilts, underlying the art—an object of protest—is something with utility: it is a quilt, a source of warmth and comfort. The opposition between the intent (to “confront the new banality of mass murder,” as the wall text states) and the snugness of doing so with a blanket amplifies the tension between site and reality; this killing takes place—and often—at the schools where children might well still be dressed in the gingham that now memorializes their schools in Photos’s quilts.
Underneath the subject of the quilts, underlying the art—an object of protest—is something with utility: it is a quilt, a source of warmth and comfort.
To step into Sanitary Tortilla Factory is to see grief transfigured into material form. Despite the news cycle marching on, the dead staying buried, the laws remaining immovable, someone has continued working, remaining quietly intent across many hours. I can’t imagine a better expression of steadfastness, of a long memory and a powerful will, than this enduring craft. In a time that often feels scrubbed free of tenderness, without a scrap of attention left over for mending the rifts in the fabric of society—an apt metaphor, isn’t it?—Photos attempts to repair the holes in heart and memory with something soft, which, in this case, is also very powerful.