Archive for the 'Art criticism' Category

The art of fiber / the fiber of art (by Olga Norris)

Sheila Hicks
Shiela Hicks with her work Pillar of Enquiry/Supple Column (from this review)

With some regret I will not be able to visit the exhibition Fiber: Sculpture 1960 – Present, on at the ICA, Boston now until January 4, then at the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus from January – April 5 2015, followed by the Des Moines Art Center, Iowa May 8 – August 2nd. However, I have the next best thing: the excellent catalogue with its informative and thought-provoking essays.

I became generally interested in soft sculpture such as the work of Meret Oppenheim and Claes Oldenburg before developing a particular fascination with fibre art in the late 70s through the Royal College of Art Gaudy Ladies exhibitions which included weaver Marta Rogoyska, and Natalie Gibson (whose print designs can be seen here). Then I also became attracted to the work of Tadek Beutlich who worked with weaving off the loom.
Tadek BeutlichThis opened a window for me, and I started looking more and more for examples of sculptural textiles – which led me to a treasury of delights: Magdalena Abakanowicz, Olga de Amaral, Sheila Hicks, Lenore Tawney, and Anne Wilson among so many others. Interesting that I arrived at Eva Hesse and Rosemarie Trockel directly through my interest in sculpture rather than through fibre art.

The catalogue provides clear photographs of the work in situ as well as close-ups, and the essays are also illuminating. The gulf between the burgeoning fibre art movement and what might be called mainstream art critics’ view of art is pointed out in the first essay of the catalogue: The Materialists by Jenelle Porter.
Despite the gains of the feminist art movement, which included a groundbreaking loosening of confining categories and mediums that has continued to have an impact on artists to this day, fiber’s association with women’s work undermined the abstract, material experimentation of fiber artists – man of whom were women, though not necessarily self-identified feminists. … By using traditionally domestic crafts … On the positive side they acquired a ready made alternative art history, and gained a language of form that summoned up vast realms of women’s experience. On the negative side they found themselves confronted by the questionable notion that craft was inherently female, and by the negative aspects of that gendering.

picFiberICA140930Abakanowicz_0352w
Magdalena Abakanowicz: Yellow Abakan (from this review of the exhibition)

In Glenn Adamson’s essay Soft Power he draws the distinction in bold terms by comparing the gravity-enhanced fibre works with distinct periods in history of the unpopularity of the flaccid penis in sculpture. The distinct lack of critical acclaim for the droopy draped natural forms of soft sculpture compares with the critical successes of upright thrusting forms of hard sculpture. This superficial sounding view is in fact an informative well thought-out argument which has certainly presented a different perspective to the feminist debate.
T’ai Smith’s essay Tapestries in Space: An Alternative History of Site-Specificity discusses how many of the glorious fibre sculptures were commissioned for specific buildings and now many have been destroyed or about to be destroyed because they were not looked after or were no longer needed. Barbara Shawcroft’s Legs joyously decorating the spaces of the Embarcadero Station on the Bay Area Rapid Transport network has been neglected, and is now to be returned to the artist – which at least is better than destruction. (Article about Legs here)
Barbara-Shawcroft-and-fiber-sculpture-Cal-Design-76
Barbara Shawcroft: White Form

Robert Rohm’s Rope Piece has been dismantled and lost, but the exhibition curator Jenelle Porter and a team from the ICA reconstructed the work and it is now part of the show.

Art made of fibre does suffer over time. Maintenance and conservation are headaches for collectors and institutions. Some fibre art once bought is wrapped up and put straight into the cupboard. This has happened with Lenore Tawney and MOMA. the latter pleading lack of appropriate space. At least, that might have been so in past decades, but now with the ubiquity of installations, the maintenance nightmares of sharks in formaldehyde, the vast sizes of iconic museum architecture, perhaps this timely revival of these wondrous constructions will have some positive effect -?

photo-614x460Elise Giauque: Pure Spatial Element (from this review of the exhibition)

But in reading this excellent catalogue/book as well as having been given the opportunity to think again about those historic pieces, and to mull once more aspects of feminism in art, I also ask myself, is it really over-simplifying the case by so much to say that generally, work made in materials which need less maintenance and conservation are in the long run more highly regarded (i.e. worth more) by the art world (critics, curators, collectors)?

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Whatever happened to Social Realism? (by Kathleen Loomis)

My art book group was reading about Ben Shahn, the great Social Realism artist of the mid-20th Century, and the question came up, is there any Social Realism in today’s art world?  That movement, you will recall, pictures ordinary people, especially the poor and downtrodden of the world, and implicitly criticizes the power structures that keep them down.  It includes a lot of great art, on both sides of the ocean.

George Luks, St. Botolph St., 1922

Ben Shahn, Demonstration, 1933

Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942

One of the most enduring projects of Social Realism was the monumental effort by the U.S. Farm Security Administration to document poverty during the Depression.  Many unemployed artists, including Ben Shahn, worked for the FSA and produced photos that we all recognize.

Ben Shahn, Boone County, Arkansas, 1935 

Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, 1936

The poor we still have with us, but at least within the realm of painting, there seems to be little interest in High Art lately in documenting their lives.

What happened to Social Realism after its heyday?  We thought of several factors.

First, Abstract Expressionism made realistic painting seem so old-fashioned.  And subsequent trends in art — Pop, Conceptual, Minimalist, whatever — seemed equally bent on distancing themselves from anything from previous generations.  Painters who did stick with the old traditions, such as Andrew Wyeth, may have been popular with the public but were never fully accepted by High Art.

Second, irony came to rule American culture, making it uncool to be earnest or sincere.

Third, photography seemed to be a much better way of depicting the details of real life, and proving that extreme conditions aren’t just a figment of the artist’s imagination.  The FSA photos themselves were Exhibit A for that argument, and photographic documentation of the poor and marginal continues strong today.  You name the fringe group, there’s a photographer who has documented it.  For instance, teenage drug addicts in Tulsa, Oklahoma — Larry Clark (below).

 LGBT — Catherine Opie (below).

Workers in third world countries — Sebastião Salgado (below).

Turkish transvestite prostitutes — Kutlug Ataman (below). Although I neither know nor care much about Turkish transvestites, I confess to having sat for well over an hour transfixed by this video, which went on much longer.

Amputees from Colombian drug wars — Miguel Angel Rojas (below).

There’s obviously no dearth of art photography documenting the ragged edges of society, and if we’re unaware of either the art or the reality, it’s not for lack of somebody trying to enlighten us.  But the preferred form changes with the times.

So imagine my surprise as I was googling away to find paintings made in this very decade in the good old Social Realism style.

Max Ginsburg, Foreclosure, 2011

Had the man worn work clothes and the little girl a raggedy cotton dress, nothing in this scene would distinguish it from a painting of the 30s.  “I choose to paint realistically because I believe realism is truth and truth is beauty,” Ginsburg writes on his website. “I believe that realism can communicate ideas strongly.”

Although this approach is out of fashion, the desire of the artist to document the situations of the non-elite clearly continues.  It will be interesting to see whether photography in its turn will become old-fashioned as a means to accomplish this, and if so, what genre will take its place.

 

Clawing your way out — or in (by Kathleen Loomis)

I’ve been reading a book by Glenn Adamson, “Thinking Through Craft,” in which he grapples with the question of the difference, if any, between art and craft.  Unfortunately, there is a difference, at least in the minds of the High Art world.  Craft is somehow not only different from but inferior to art, in these minds, and those of us who work in the “craft” mediums such as ceramics, glass, wood and fiber have a hard time being regarded as “real artists” in the way that painters and sculptors are.

Adamson writes about the discipline of ceramics shortly after mid-century.  You might want to substitute “fiber” for “ceramics” and see if the discussion rings true.

But first he talks about Robert Morris, one of the so-called Process Artists who really didn’t want to be like the Abstract Expressionists.  He quotes Morris as saying, “When I sliced unto the plywood with my Skilsaw, I could hear, beneath the ear-damaging whine, a stark and refreshing ‘no’ reverberate off the four walls: no to transcendence and spritual values, heroic scale, anguished decisions, historicizing narrative, valuable artifact, intelligent structure, interesting visual experience.”

Adamson continues:  “It was from this attitude that Process Art, the most craft-like of the twentieth-century avant gardes, was born…. If Morris was a sculptor who did not want to make a modern sculpture, then the story of ceramics is primarily that of potters who did not want to make pottery.  Of course, both of these efforts were doomed to failure.  Ceramics, defined as such, could only continue to be ceramics, and for the most part, those who work with clay have remained identified as craftspeople rather than contemporary artists.  Process Artists, meanwhile, despite their seeming attempts not to, made modern art objects that were revered as sculpture.

… The two groups were traveling in opposite directions and, in some sense, each was striving for the other’s condition — the one vainly trying to claw its way to the category of sculpture and the other trying to escape from it.”

Interestingly, Morris tried to claw his way out not just with plywood but with fiber, making many works out of draped or piled felt that were regarded as sculpture, just as the first generation of “fiber artists” were trying to claw their own way in to being regarded as sculpture.

Robert Morris, Brown Felt, 1973

I find it both amusing and discouraging to think of two groups of people desperately headed in opposite directions.  The grass is always greener…

And yet the High Art world does this all the time, arbitrarily awarding designations that are difficult to escape.  Get your MFA from Yale as a painter, and you can subsequently have as many New York gallery shows as you want in whatever medium and technique you choose.  Make quilts, if that’s what floats your boat, but make sure you aren’t too meticulous about the craft techniques.  You might even want to have your mom do the actual sewing.

On the other hand, start out making quilts for your bed or your children, and become so accomplished that your work comes off the bed and onto the wall, and is aesthetically stunning, but you’ll never get that New York gallery show, even if your quilts look just like the guy’s in the previous paragraph.  Or far more likely, even if your quilts look a whole lot better than the guy’s in the previous paragraph.

Go figure.

Emily Carr, Redux (by Clairan Ferrono)

Skidegate

Skidegate 1912

I first became aware of Emily Carr when I saw her work at the National Gallery of Canada in Vancouver 15 years ago.  I was, not to put too fine a point on it, gobsmacked!  I had never heard of her or seen work like hers.  For days I talked about her work (mostly to people who just nodded politely).  When we got home, I looked her up and examined  all the work I of hers I could find.  Then I read Susan Vreeland’s wonderful novel The Forest Lover, a fictionalized account of her life. And in 2007 Sandy Wagner did a post here at Ragged Cloth Cafe about her.  This summer I got the chance to go back to British Columbia, and of course I was anxious to see Carr’s work again.  And I fell in love with it all over again.

Emily Carr 8

Among the Firs  1930’s 36×30″

I love her trees and her light:

The Little Pine                                Scorned Timber

The Little Pine 1931                                                    Scorned Timber 1935

The Red Cedar                                                          Above the Trees

The Red Cedar 1933                                                  Above the Trees 1939

They beautifully convey the forests of British Columbia,  the movement of the trees, the pouring down of light, and, in fact, the spiritual energy that Carr obviously found there.  Her art was too individual, too avant garde for her time.  And while sometimes praised for the “vigor of her technique” her work was shunned as being not realistic enough.  Carr responded to this criticism by saying, “a picture should be more than meets the eye of the ordinary observer. . . .Art is art, nature is nature, you cannot improve upon it. . . .Pictures should be inspired by nature, but made in the soul of the artist, it is the soul of the individual that counts” ( Emily Carr, An Introduction to Her Life and Art by Anne Newlands).

Yes! The soul of the individual and the eye of the artist!

This past fall I took a drawing class for the first time.  I believed myself pretty lacking in talent, but found that my good observational skills kept me in good stead.  The class was working mainly on still lifes, and of course we all endeavored to be as accurate as possible.  Realism (terrifying!). But what was most striking to me, above and beyond my astonishment that my drawings actually looked like what they were intended to, was that all the drawings, while quite “accurate,” were very different and could easily be identified by artist.  Because we see differently and because we are interested in some things and not in others.  In other words, we make choices, and those choices make our work individual.

I am grateful for Emily Carr’s beautiful choices, for her wonderful eye and magnificent soul.

The biggest art prize in the world (by Kathleen Loomis)

Big news in the art quilt world recently is that an art quilt just won a HUGE prize in a competition in which it was pitted against art in all mediums.  The winner is Anne Loveless, of Frankfort MI; the competition is ArtPrize, held in Grand Rapids MI; and the prize is an astounding $200,000, said to be the world’s largest art award.

ImageAnn Loveless, Sleeping Bear Dune Lakeshore, 5’ x 20’

The competition has been going on for five years and is in two parts: one where the winners are chosen by public vote, and one where a professional art jury selects the winners.  Apparently the public section is something like the Oklahoma land rush, where the Sooners lined up in their covered wagons and sped into the sunset to grab the best plots for homesteading.  Any artist in the world can enter the competition, as long as he or she finds a place within three miles of downtown Grand Rapids to display the work, and jockeying for good space begins many, many months before the competition opens.  This year there were more than 1500 entries.

Once the work is installed, anybody who wants to visit can check out the art and cast a vote during the 19 days of the event.  After a week they announce the Top 100, Top 50 and Top 25; towards the end the Top 10 are named and there’s another round of voting.

The winning quilt had to overcome a huge setback near the end of the competition when the federal government shutdown closed the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum.  The quilt and three others in the top ten had been displayed at the museum, a prime location for the competition.  For the last several days of the event, Loveless moved her quilt to a tent outside the building, and slept there to guard it, and to lobby visitors for their votes.

The fact that a quilt won the big prize was received by the art quilt community as wonderful news, but what does it mean to the larger world of high art?  Perhaps not much.

The art critic for the Detroit Free Press, for instance, commented that “there’s quality art to be found at ArtPrize, but you have to wade through a lot of dull, second-rate and amateur work, too.”  He mentioned twelve works that he particularly liked, but they were all in the professional category, not in the public vote running.  Another art  professional, who runs a college gallery, told a local TV station that many of the top vote-getters had “entertainment value, but not art value.”

One of the artists on the professional jurors’ short list wrote in a blog, “ArtPrize is populist. The classic definition meaning that populism is a revolt against elitism.  In practical terms, this is exactly what ArtPrize is and this is good, but unfortunately it engenders limitations. By looking at this year’s popular winning entries and those from previous years three elements are consistent; the art work is large in scale, it is extremely well crafted, and it is easily accessible, no guesswork is needed to immediately understand what is being looked upon. In other words it is easy on the eye and easy to immediately understand.  What goes through the mind of most non-expert viewers, I would suspect, is a wow factor, an immediate acknowledgement how difficult and time consuming it was to produce the work, coupled with a keen appreciation of the talent that went into its creation. Thus a vote is given, not only because the viewer may “like” the piece, but also as a reward for the diligence and craft that went into creating it.”

That description fits the winning quilt perfectly.  In fact, Loveless said that in her two previous ArtPrize participations, “I realized you had to go big to be seen in ArtPrize.”

Loveless, of course, saw larger implications in her big win.  She told the local newspaper art critic, “Textiles aren’t considered fine arts. They think of the quilt on the bed. But definitely this is art.  I think next year, we’ll have a lot of textile entries. I think I’m paving the way for quilters in general.”

I’m sure she’s right that there will be lots more quilts entered in ArtPrize next year.  But I think she and all the quilters who exulted over the news are whistling past the graveyard when they think winning the big one will raise the profile of quilts in the high art world.  The professional jurors didn’t give it the time of day, nor did they choose anything that was among the people’s favorites.

In fact, one might cynically argue that when a quilt won the public vote, it ensured that the pros won’t look at another quilt for many years.  Just as the artist commented above that populism is a revolt against elitism, elitism is a revolt against populism.

The jurors went instead for more cerebral installation art.  The big winner with the jury ($100,000) was Carlos Bunga, a Spaniard, who made “a site-specific, architectural intervention…that uses cardboard, tape and paint to re-imagine a gallery in the former Grand Rapids Public Museum.”  No danger of that one winning the public vote, just as there’s no danger of a quilt winning the jury.

ImageCarlos Bunga, Ecosystem

Questions, questions (by Olga Norris)

In her juror’s statement in the Quilt National 2011 catalogue Eleanor McCain, started with the question ‘What about these works of art demands that they be formed from cloth and thread?  Is there a message and meaning that can only be revealed through this medium?  What in the quilt form is important to the art?  As a fiber art professor once asked, “If it’s not about the fiber, why work in that medium?” 

 I was struck with these questions which set me thinking.  I can only talk about my own work, which was successful in being selected for this exhibition.  I have not seen the discussion which June spoke of in her comments in the previous post, so forgive me if I am duplicating.  (I have had irritating experiences with Yahoo which are too tedious to go into here.)  The thoughts I have originate with my own work(s), but I hope that those thoughts will elicit responses from others. 

Ponder

What about my piece demands that it be formed from cloth and thread?  Well, certainly not the subject, whatever people interpret it to be, because subjects can be explored and manifest in all sorts of media.  It is essentially how the artist wishes to express themselves that dictates what medium, and what techniques within the medium are chosen.  I suppose the question that I should perhaps ask myself each time I make a piece of work in quilt form is ‘Is this the most appropriate medium to choose?’  I do know that although those are the means I mostly use to express myself at present, some ideas and designs ‘do not work’ for me in cloth and stitch, and demand a different treatment.  This is a kind of discrimination on my part, but I must admit that I do not rigorously investigate how far my works demand to be formed from cloth and thread.

 This ties closely with the next question: Is there a message and meaning that can only be revealed through this medium?  Again, the answer is probably no in the case of my piece.  Choosing a medium has more to do with the language, the voice in which I ‘speak’ rather than to do with the message or the meaning.  Of course the medium can colour the delivery of any message, just as it does the interpretation – but is it so important that the message should only be revealed in this medium?  Are there any – or many – messages which can only be revealed in this medium? What in the quilt form is important to the art?  At last a question I can answer without frustration.  As Eleanor McCain said: ‘The quilt is laden, even burdened, with symbolism.’.  It is that symbolism and the symbolic values of cloth and stitch generally which contribute to the way the message is both presented and interpreted.  Indeed this is part of what makes quilt-making a slow art: not only is it obvious that the making takes time, but also the full interpretation should take time.  In this way, being judged for exhibition becomes even more of a lottery if initial impact is not part of the message. 

One of the qualities of the art quilt is that it is derived from an everyday practical object to which one does not regularly pay much attention.  But in that familiarity as part of the background, at a receptive moment it can catch the viewer’s casual glance to reveal more, drawing the eye to consider and perhaps understand more.  Of course enigmatic work in any medium can do that.  And choosing to make work in quilt form is a double-edged sword in that by that very use of everyday materials which hang as they are the work can be dismissed as somehow inferior, easily made, domestic in a pejorative way compared with neat framed wall art which is believed to take skill, and uses special materials which are only to be found in artists’ studios.

I therefore think that it is so much more difficult to make good art using a medium which is so easily overlooked or dismissed.  But the question of good art was not raised. 

The professor’s quoted statement of ‘If it’s not about the fiber, why work in that medium?’ I find it useful to keep asking myself questions such as whether I am a fibre artist.  I could be described as a digital printmaker who uses cloth and stitch.  And sometimes I develop images/designs which are not always suitable for use with cloth and/or stitch.   

Part of my use of medium, I must frankly admit is practical.  I develop designs digitally, which means that it’s clean.  I can pick up and put down my physical work almost anywhere without having to clean up or manage materials in the way that a painter or ceramicist must.  I can stitch while spending every afternoon with my aged mother with whom I do not get on and have nothing to say – but she approves of the activity which thus keeps me sane. I love the feel of cloth, and appreciate the meditative qualities derived from repetitive stitching.

But it is not just that.  I’m interested in comfort and discomfort in human relationships, and for that reason domestic techniques and materials are an appropriate language for me to use at present.

 What I am much more interested in really is Is it good art?  And in a way the only person who can answer that is me.  Hey ho.

Connecting thread (by Olga Norris)

Crafts magazine, May/June 2010

The work of artist Maurizio Anzeri came to my attention in this magazine last year, with an article written by Jessica Hemmings.  And recently I found that an exhibition of his work is on at Baltic, Gateshead.   I am intrigued by uses of stitch, especially when not on cloth, because I wonder what it is that drew the artist to the needle and thread rather than to the pencil, pen, etc.

There is of course the added dimension of both the thread and its effect – in this case the latter being the holes caused by the needle.  So is this use of needle and thread rather than pen and line adding the active dimension of piercing and pulling.  Piercings on anonymous faces from the past, and is it a drawing out of their individuality in its unknown chaotic form, pulled out to form the imposed order of the stitched pattern?

Brigitte Family Album

And do they remind you as they do me of those so fashionable pictures made with nails and string on a dark background – when was that? 

To me these works by Anzeri are the dark side of stitching, somehow destructive of human sentiment because they take time, delicacy, precision, to overlay, to obliterate   Taking the tradition of pattern stitching, historically used to denote cultural difference, originally used in a positive way: treasured reminders of meaningful family moments, added to the similarly important marker of the photographic portrait – from years before the constant instant snapping of today – these spirographic doodlings may be attractive in an abstracted way, but I find them fundamentally cruel in outlook.

But we humans are a cruel species, and just as there is excessive sentimentality about photographs, so at the other end there is this twisting of view of what they might mean.   The artist Julie Cockburn also distorts found photographs, as well as sometimes embroidering on them.

Little one (left) Daydreamer

Mary (left) Warrior

 Is this kind of work yet another way in which an artist can say what others are feeling?  That far from venerating our ancestors and their aspirations for us, their progeny, we want to impose our own patterns on them retrospectively?  Is this form of art chosen because abstraction is not direct or personal enough?  The abstract can be taken in whatever way the observer wishes, such as in the work of  Alison Schwarz.

Untitled

This does not even have a title to point the viewer.  But the altered photographs link directly with every viewer in a very personal way. 

I managed to find a middle ground, using photograph and thread – although with nails this time, not specifically stitch – a use of collage/assemblage by Dayna Thacker.  Do we find this more attractive/acceptable?  And if we do, is it because we prefer to sugar our pills?

Birth of a Prophet

I think that use of traditional materials, domestic skills, and use of previously highly regarded cultural markers can be incredibly powerful semiotic tools in expressing ourselves today.


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