Material and Immaterial (by Eileen Doughty)

During a recent visit to New York City, I spent a delightful afternoon at the Brooklyn Museum. On the fourth floor, adjoining Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party,” is an exhibition of outsider fiber art called “Bound and Unbound.”

Judith Scott (1943‒2005) began creating art in 1987, beginning with painting and drawing – with lukewarm interest. Early on, she was guided by the center’s facilitators, but eventually was self-directed. Her drawing style presaged her fiber art wrappings, with “repetitive, swirling linear gestures with multiple color variations.” [Quotes in this post are from Museum signage; images are mine, without flash, per Museum policy. Click on the thumbnails below for a larger image.]

Scott drawing 2Scott drawing 1

Once introduced to fiber art materials, however, she seemed to find a match for her creative needs. Her first wrapped piece was sort of a bridge between media, as she painted the surface – and that was also the last time she bothered with paint, apparently.


She made only one monochromatic work (shown on the right), from torn paper towels, when she ran out of her usual materials: primarily yarn and torn cloth. (Analogous to making patchwork quilts or rugs from used clothing? When you have the urge to create, you use the materials at hand)


The wrapped bundles became more “elaborate and refined” over time. The object(s) being wrapped were not recorded at the time, and for most, it is now impossible to now know what is inside them.

Scott created her artworks on top of a table, with the objects in a manageable horizontal orientation. Physically she would need help in manipulating the large objects, but the artistic choices were all hers.

The Museum displayed a few pieces on the wall (below, and a detail). “Scott constructed a number of pieces with…relief-like surfaces that, when hung on a wall, feel fluid or imply movement, while when presented horizontally appear more fixed and grounded.” (An analogy with wall vs bed quilts?)


The artworks could take weeks or months to complete. She knew when she was finished with a piece, never revisiting it but just going on to the next project.

“By 1989, Scott was experimenting with more elaborately composed works featuring bent and trussed forms, creating a structural tension that is seemingly held in place by her wrapping and weaving technique. Formally, they show an awareness of negative space and sometimes make reference to biological forms amid their elaborate openwork construction.”


Scott produced her art in Oakland, California, at the Creative Growth Art Center, an organization which still serves mentally, developmentally, and physically disabled adult artists. Individuals are encouraged to create art as an end in itself, rather than as therapy. They worked side-by-side in many media: painting, ceramics, tapestry, etc. Scott was Deaf, essentially mute, and had Down Syndrome. “Given…her inability to communicate in a conventional manner, Judith Scott was not in a position to explain her work. What she was actually making, and why she made it, therefore remains elusive.”

Studying her work, I could see many examples of the Principles of Design. Did Scott re-discover these on her own? In which case, are they innate to human nature? The lines of wrapping provide rhythm, line, pattern, area.  Her choices of materials display harmony, and hierarchies of scale. An example is the yarns and tubing/plastic hose in this piece (28 x 15 x 27 in).

Scott hoses

Or consider all the circles in the wrapped chair – particularly, a bike wheel and a hat. Yet there are surprises that are delightful to find. For example, one foot of the chair is different from the other three.

Scott chairScott chair 2

Colors in some pieces are sharply contrasting, while in others they are similarly hued. The “book” has reddish colors, with the spark of blue in the center.

Scott book

Nothing in this exhibition looks like a random hodgepodge of “stuff”. The analysis of any one piece could almost be a Ragged Cloth post in itself.

Scott covered mundane objects, making them unknowable. The object wrapped is immaterial (interesting word!) to its surface – it has become non-objective art. None of the artworks have titles. Judith Scott left no comment, statement, explanation; leaving us open to interpret as we will. I find this is Art at its most powerful.

Judith Scott—Bound and Unbound

Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, 4th Floor

Brooklyn Museum (New York)

through March 29, 2015

Maya Lin: Systematic Landscapes (by Eileen Doughty)

Maya Lin, with sculpture from Bodies of Water series

Architect and artist Maya Lin has developed a large body of work relating to landscapes — large both in number and scale. I visited the Corcoran Gallery of Art, in Washington, DC, to see her indoor pieces.  (The show runs through  July 12.) Many readers will recognize Lin as the architect of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall.  However, that was decades ago, and she does not want to known solely by that one iconic monument.  In an interview in the Washington Post, she described her delight when a visitor asked about her newer pieces without mentioning the iconic monument.

Columbia River (pushpins)

Columbia River (pushpins)

Walking up the marble steps to the galleries, the first installation on view was “Pin River – Potomac.”  It is composed of hundreds of mundane metal-headed pins pushed into the wall, maybe 10 x 10 feet in extent.  It looks very accurate to my cartographer’s eye, with the two branches of the river starting as thin lines in the west, merging in West Virginia and widening as it nears the Chesapeake.  It is (or should be) recognizable to anyone familiar with the geography of this region (I live in Virginia), but to others it may be more abstract.  For example, the catalog/book of Lin’s landscape body of work includes a similar push pin map of the Columbia River (shown here), long and thin and not at all recognizable to me.  Outside of any other cartographic context, it becomes simply a sort of meandering, sketched line.  The shadows of all those pins adds interest.

2 x 4 Landscape

2 x 4 Landscape

The floor of the first room was almost entirely filled with over 54,000 sections of wooden 2×4 blocks at various heights, forming a hill or ocean swell (or both), named “2×4 Landscape”.  I felt as though I were looking from a great height over a vast ancient city of small earthen buildings packed together, seeing only the roofs.  The block heights vary from a few inches to perhaps 10 feet, too high to see the top surface.  They are laid in a grid, as if on top of graph paper, but small variations suggest the hand(s) of people who laid down all those blocks; the human element is implied by imperfection.  Neighboring blocks are at slightly different heights, and variations in color of the wood also are a delight to the eye.  Lin wished that the Corcoran would allow visitors to walk up the hill — wouldn’t that be fun!  However, apparently the Corcoran thought otherwise.

Atlas Landscape

Atlas Landscape

The only color in the otherwise monochromatic  exhibition was a set of atlases, displayed open, where Lin had meticulously cut out contoured sections through a dozen or so successive pages, resulting in cratered voids.  The visible parts of the pages were like sedimentary layers of rocks.  One atlas had index pages cut away, teasing the eye with black-and-white patterns from the bits of visible place name indices.

“Fractured Landscapes” were a series of very large rubbings, sepia-toned pastel on paper. A pane of  plate glass was cracked (I can imagine it being dropped and left flat on a floor), and Lin then laid paper over certain sections to make the rubbings.  The patterns are highly suggestive of river systems.  What a clever way to find complex natural lines in a simple manufactured material.

Fractured Landscape

Fractured Landscape

Similarly, “Plaster Relief Landscapes” used the medium of plaster on one white wall of a hallway.  Lin sculpted four types of landscape patterns in the plaster, smoothing the edges of each rectangular area nearly seamlessly into the wall.  There were no boundaries.  To me, they were suggestive of sand dunes, irregular hills, a canyon, and islands in a braided river.

When in a boat, do you ever wonder about what is below the water surface?  The “Bodies of Water” series uses beautiful Baltic birch plywood to show us the hidden volumes of the Caspian, Black and Red seas (see image at top).  Think of the land holding the water being used as a mold, and these sculptures are what are formed in a sort of lost-wax process.  The top layer of plywood corresponds to the surface of the sea, and each layer beneath conforms to the detailed curves of the bathysphere.  They look a bit like aircraft carriers, precariously balanced on pedestals.  The surface is a light tan, showing the grain of the wood, similar to ripples or contours; the layers below show the gorgeous dark amber variations of the plywood edges.  I wished that they had been displayed bottoms-up, accenting the unknown parts of the seas, making it easier to see the depths but  abstracting them more.

Water Line

Water Line

One of the most satisfying sculptures was “Water Line”,  completely filling a room with a wide grid of black wire, with various points touching the floor or the ceiling.  The viewer must walk underneath it.  It maps the area around Bouvet Island, a very isolated spot in the South Atlantic.  The wires are much like drawn lines, with small bumps and irregularities showing the hand of the artist.    Lin seems to be playing with  how we normally read maps, making you look up towards a surface and read a map larger than yourself — or be inside the map.

Outside of that room were smaller woven wire sculptures, “wire landscapes”, a few feet across, showing one hilly feature each.  After the majesty of “Water Line” these seemed more like sketches.

Blue Lake Pass

Blue Lake Pass

“Blue Lake Pass” fills the final room.  Lin invites the viewer to literally walk in her scaled-down Rocky Mountain landscape. The installation is split into 20 sections (laid out 4 x 5) with enough space for a person to walk between (but not wheelchairs, I noticed).  The heights ranged from 6 inches to perhaps 5 1/2 feet — a very human scale, though the viewer cannot see the entire surface from any one point.  Instead of horizontal layers of wood like “Bodies of Water”, “Blue Lake Pass” is composed of vertical layers of plywood, each layer individually contoured.  A multitude of lines become three-dimensional.  It brought to my mind a lush surface of brushed corduroy, so tempting to touch.  I wanted to be able to vary the lighting, shine a flashlight across the hills,  play with the shadows; walking amongst the sections changes the shadows somewhat as various surfaces of the plywood are revealed or hidden. Like a feminine personification of an Earth goddess, it is all naked, lush curves.

I am envious of being able to work so big.

For many of these installations, Lin collaborated closely with scientists; truly they are art and science combined.  She has found beauty in geography, and shows us the complexity of the landscape in simple monochromatic lines, depicts our fragile world in strong materials.

Doubtless, many assistants were needed to install the largest pieces, if not use the tools to make them.  However, this exhibition shows one artist’s consistent vision.  The Corcoran’s website has a short video, showing two of the pieces being installed and indicating the vast room-filling scale.

Visit Maya Lin’s website to see more of her indoor and even larger outdoor installations.

Critique or Collaborate? by Eileen D.

Pouring In Ideas

Pouring In Ideas

The previous post in the Cafe, by Clairan about working in series, actually touched on another subject that I think needs some discussion.  In her first paragraph, Clairan describes how another student in a workshop approached her about how to proceed on a piece she was working on.  That student hadn’t thought it through herself, but instead apparently wanted someone else to tell her what to do.

This seems to be happening more and more frequently in critique groups:  bringing in unfinished work, and asking how to finish it.  Does this make the piece into a collaboration, instead of a work by a single artist?  Does the artist truly “own” that piece?

As Clairan points out, working in series IS work.  Hard work.  Thoughtful work.  Maybe even painfully thoughtful work.  But such creative work is highly worthwhile.   It forces the artist to think through  problems, to experiment and discover, to examine what it is she wants to say and how to say it.  If she asks someone else how to complete it, who then is speaking through the artwork? What discovery is made? Is a work designed by committee less powerful, less meaningful than a work designed with one voice?

“We learn by our mistakes” is something drilled into most of us since childhood.  Perhaps we were skeptical of that platitude in elementary school and retained that skepticism.  Perhaps we’re just too busy and don’t want to waste our time by screwing up (and quilt art is often a big commitment of time and materials).  We want results now, not later after we’ve mulled it over some more.  And the quickest way to get it done is ask a bunch of people what to do.  Perhaps doing what a bunch of people say to do makes it automatically “right”.

Now, I am not against critique groups.  I am a member of two in-person kind of groups, and a co-moderator of two online groups.  I am in favor of critiquing finished work.  The artist can then hear the reaction to what she herself did, and learn from that.  (She doesn’t have to agree with it, necessarily, but she should listen to what others have to say!)

What is your opinion on getting unfinished work critiqued, versus finished work?  If you’ve had both done, which seemed more successful and why?  Does it matter whether the artist is a novice, or well-established, or somewhere in-between?

MLK Brouhaha (Eileen D.)

Yixin working on scale model of Marting Luther King

Lei Yixin at work on scale model of Martin Luther King

There must be thousands of public art installations in the United States, and every once in a while there is a major brouhaha over one of them.

Right now, controversy is swirling around a memorial to Martin Luther King. It would be placed in the heart of Washington, DC, along the Tidal Basin, not far from memorials to four American presidents. The entire memorial will cover four acres and has a number of architectural elements (visit the website linked at the bottom of this post), but the one disputed piece is the statue representing King. It is based on a photograph showing a contemplative, philosophical King, rather than his more well-known oratorical persona.

Continue reading ‘MLK Brouhaha (Eileen D.)’

Draw A Pig (eileen d.)

Earlier this year, attending my children’s Back to School Night where parents walk through their children’s class schedule and meet the teachers, the calculus teacher had us do a warm-up exercise that has nothing to do with math. (He is a quirky teacher.) He gave us an index card and asked us to take a minute or two and draw a pig on it. After giving his spiel about calculus, he then read a list of pig attributes which allowed us to psychoanalyze ourselves.

So, in honor of April Fool’s Day, and taking a break from heavier subjects of discussion in the Cafe, how about getting a nice drink of your choice and draw a pig? No fair looking at the list below until you are finished!

Continue reading ‘Draw A Pig (eileen d.)’

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