I had no idea when I first encountered Maureen Cummins’ work that I would someday have the privilege of hosting an exhibition of this work (the gallery hosted In Retrospect in 2010, a traveling exhibition featuring the work of Maureen Cummins, Nava Atlas and Ann Lovett), and including it in gallery inventory.
I was so enthralled with my first glimpse of her work that the glance turned into a lengthy examination. This happened during a visit to Norlin Library’s Special Collection at the University of Colorado, Boulder Campus. On display in a cabinet featuring new arrivals was Crazy Quilt. On request Maureen’s other items in that collection were retrieved for me to view.
The bright colors and accessible format of Crazy Quilt make this work instantly approachable. It feels familiar and comfortable, almost cheerful, thus employing one of Cummins’ well used tactics – the instant visual appeal of her work supported by a high level of craft and scholarship. This effectively delays the discovery that these works are about some very unpleasant aspects of history, both personal and from various archives.
By her own admission Cummins is interested in motifs that people have very superficial reactions to. She pulls people in, and surprises them.
“They’re expecting one thing, and then they get another. It’s almost like an ambush.”
In Crazy Quilt, Cummins presents experiences of women in an assemblage of 150 years of quotes from women institutionalized for mental illness. This motif is both a reference to the fact that women in Victorian asylums were forced to sew and the unwanted, useless scraps that are part of the crazy quilt style. The quotes, presented in a text resembling embroidery, range, from the famous (Zelda Fitzgerald) to the more personal inclusion of a passage of a letter written by the artist’s mother, Dolores Bodkin Cummins. In the passage included in Crazy Quilt Dolores describes the doctors treating patients like rats in a maze.
Crazy Quilt opens fully to a format that mimics a crazy quilt layout with individual square panels making up the whole, while the “crazy quilt” style, with its use of useless and unwanted scraps of fabric, is a commentary on the position of marginalized populations in our society.
Cummins work with historical record continues, each successive work raising the bar of content/concept presentation with appropriate structure and material.