In the Studio

Sabrina Gschwandtner

BY Leah Ollman, May 3, 2018

Sabrina Gschwandtner, Hands at Work IV, 2017. Courtesy the artist


Time turns into space in Sabrina Gschwandtner’s Film Quilts. To make each “fabric,” Gschwandtner cuts lengths of 16mm footage and sews them, mostly by machine, into traditional patterns and asymmetrical, crazy-quilt designs. 

“There’s a time-based element to it,” she says, calculating that a quilt measuring four-by-six feet uses the equivalent of 30 seconds of film, “but it’s not a time-based medium anymore, used in this way. This is a different kind of editing, where you have images next to each other and on top of each other. I think of it as a new kind of montage.”

Within the interlocking triangles, diamonds, and squares, the LA-based artist weaves together passages of faded old footage, black countdown leader, and stripes of vivid color that she has made by applying lithography ink directly onto the film’s surface. The lightbox-mounted works invoke, at once, modernist abstraction (Albers is one inspiration), stop-motion photography, stained glass, domestic textiles, and folk art. The attention these pieces command toggles between the information imparted frame by frame and an overall geometric buzz.  

Gschwandtner started making the quilts in 2009, after she was given a cache of educational films that had been deaccessioned by the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. Watching them, she became fascinated by the shift in tone and style that mirrored broader societal changes, how the films from the ‘50s had “an omniscient male narrator with a British accent describing what you’re seeing and what it means. By [the time of] Pat Ferrero’s Quilts in Women’s Lives (1981), you have women speaking directly to the camera, describing what they’re doing and what it means for them. You can see the influence of feminism on the narrative structure.”

Sabrina Gschwandtner, Hands at Work (for Pat Ferrero) II, 2017. Courtesy the artist

The Film Quilts emerged, in part, from an archivist impulse, Gschwandtner’s desire to save this material and make it visible again. Embedded with social and material history, the quilts are also vehicles of autobiography. Footage she has shot herself, including her undergraduate thesis film from Brown, appear in the work, as do other recordings of her life. In a dozen pieces shown last year at Shoshana Wayne Gallery in Santa Monica, CA, Gschwandtner focused on images of hands at work – sewing, dyeing, spinning, gardening, metalsmithing, and making puppets – a tribute to those forms of labor and craft and a self-reflexive analogy to her own cutting and stitching process. 

She had learned to crochet as a child, but her connection to handwork was revived – and the groundwork for the Film Quilts set – during her final year at Brown, when she roomed with two textile students from the Rhode Island School of Design. Gschwandtner joined them late at night in the kitchen, where they would knit, the practice giving her a way to bridge the theory she was studying by day with the more sensual immediacy of making. She’s lucky, she says, to have found a way, in the Film Quilts, to similarly connect history and touch, ideas and intuition.

“There’s a part of the work that’s so thought-through, and then there’s another part – trying this blue next to the red, with the yellow, and seeing how that works – that provides so much play and joy,” she says, adding, “There is something about moving things around with the hand that is just pleasurable.”