So-called fine-art quilts are nothing new. Pop-art guru Robert Rauschenberg invented his famous "combine" series in 1955 by sloshing paint on a quilted bedspread. More recent high-art treatments of Granny's handmade bed coverings include Judy Chicago's ground-breaking feminist collaborative projects of the Seventies and the sad, enormous "AIDS Quilt." Usually thought of as women's work, quilting provides a rich field of discovery for contemporary artists; societal and cultural issues, along with the use of recycled materials, load the medium with opportunity for comment and the display of virtuoso craft skills.

Both of these qualities are in evidence at The Artist and the Quilt, a colorful exhibition at Metro State Center for the Visual Arts. This fourth members' show of the Front Range Contemporary Quilters features 40 unusual works by 29 local artists. While some of the "pieced" pieces play clever games with the strict rules of design, turning familiar geometric patterns into the unexpected, others carry the antique tradition of "story quilts" to extremes, resulting in postmodern narratives full of provocative political content.

Among the best examples of this new approach is Dorothy P. Hall's "Reflections on Justice in L. A." A reversible, two-sided quilt presenting two related views of the Rodney King incident, "Reflections" is a stitched and appliqued response to the images we all saw played out on national TV. The choice of quilting as a medium adds an interesting twist; for one thing, the artist had to focus on the incident with painstaking attention for many hours, a kind of meditation on evil. This labor-intensive commitment to a single work verges on the obsessive, a characteristic prized in cutting-edge art. There is also great irony in Hall's wholesome use of found materials and traditional quilting patterns to portray burning buildings and screaming faces. Combined with a free-form applique, which shows two cops beating a fallen man, the overall design is both a thing of beauty and a dispatch from hell. The presentation of these brutal images on the comforting softness of a quilt lends an added jolt.

Joan Wolfer's "In God We Trust" delves even deeper into the American soul. Looking at first like an antique, the piece is made in the design of the American flag, with faded materials and seemingly clumsy appliques amplifying the effects of age and naivete. But on closer examination, it's an illusion, a skillful postmodern "take" on a familiar quilting style. Once again, a political message is stitched in--the stars of the flag are hand-painted on a blue background that also carries a printed version of the Bill of Rights. And the Log Cabin motif worked into the stripes makes its own comment: Some of these American homes are on fire, some are tepees. Skeletons representing war dead sprawl here and there. With the addition of vintage-fabric squares carrying racial stereotypes (cute coolies and minstrels in blackface), this fiber creation is political art first and effete craft--never.

Another Wolfer piece leaves politics behind for a sleek and poetic pun. "Mummy" arranges a regular pattern of pieced and appliqued Egyptian women in blond wigs, each of whom is pregnant with a visible fetus. This gentle pastiche is bolstered by embroidered hieroglyphs and 3-D elements--the ladies reach right out of the quilt with their gracefully robed arms.

Elegant needlework and design make "Mummy" outstanding, but every work here shows consummate skill in those areas. Ilze Aviks's "Blue Checks," for example, uses stitchery witchcraft to conjure up the illusion of pieced quilting on a single, uncut square of blue cloth. Covered over completely with large, even embroidery stitches, this quilt resembles the random patterns of white noise on TV. Once again, the obsessive attention required for such a task indicates a kind of ordered madness, the keynote of the avant-garde.

Contrary to the spontaneity of much modern art, the constraints of quilting construction force artists to invest many hours of labor and thought into each piece. Now that content has expanded from Wedding Ring and Sunflower to every subject covered by contemporary art, those hours generate some real crazy quilts.

The Artist and the Quilt, Front Range Contemporary Quilters' Fourth Members Show, through August 19 at Metropolitan State College Center for the Visual Arts, 1701 Wazee, 294-5207.