Archive for the 'sculpture' 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.

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: 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)?

Meaningful? Morbid? … or simply a mixed bag to be sorted each on its own merit? (by Olga Norris)

Rabbits’ Village School, Circa 1888
Walter Potter: Rabbits’ Village School
It was popular during the 19th century, and gradually becoming a minority curiosity during the 20th, but then suddenly there has been a revival of the art of taxidermy – or a growth in the use of taxidermy in art. In the 19th century the amateur Walter Potter made sentimental tableaux which can excite responses through the vowels from ah to ugh. (Image above, more images and an article here)
Damien Hirst
Damien Hirst: Away from the flock (from here)
Somehow not really seen as taxidermy (I don’t know the technical details of taxidermy as opposed to – or in addition to preservation in formaldehyde) the conceptual art of Damien Hirst burst onto the scene with a shark, halved cows, sheep, …. And now he is certainly not alone. A few years ago I saw and was intrigued by the work of Claire Morgan, which was when I started thinking about the use of taxidermy in sculpture.
Claire Morgan: Fantastic Mr Fox (from here)
This was followed by watching a BBC programme about Polly Morgan in the series What do artists do all day? You can watch here and here. There seem to be so many artists now working with taxidermy as part of their sculpture – there are links here and here to some of them.
I find that my initial negative reaction to most of this art gets in the way of my thinking about it. It has nothing to do with guts and feathers and fur, but somehow it feels disrespectful to the beasts if the quality of the work draws attention to the taxidermy rather than to the idea being explored in the piece. I thought of Hirst’s work as art first and considered the technique of presentation seriously only when I read that the shark had to be replaced because it was rotting. It’s the worth of the artistic expression which engages me rather than the particularities of technique in this case. I found that Claire Morgan’s work also engaged me, but perhaps that is because I saw and walked round it, observing, thinking, feeling – whereas the other work is simply represented in photographs and therefore not sufficient to make a considered enough judgement.
Shauna Richardson: Bulldog (from here)
And then I found out about the ‘crochetdermy’ of Shauna Richardson. She, with one tool, overwhelmingly one material, and lots of time achieves remarkable results. Here and here are more links about the crochet work. It certainly is extraordinary craft, as was shown in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition The Power of Making, but is it art? I certainly do not think it’s any less worthy of consideration simply because she does not use the body of the original beast. Like all work, I reckon that each individual piece should be weighed on its own merits, and not lumped in with however the technique of its making is considered at any point in time.
I’m curious to know what you think.

Take a ride on a Carousel by Kristin McNamara Freeman

After a long winter with much snow and record breaking freezing temperatures, a walk on the trail by the Clark Fork River took me to Caras Park. Here I found a work of art that continues artfully to bring delight to folks of all ages. This “Carousel for Missoula” has a wonderful and amazing story of how it was imagined, created and continues to operate with the support of a non-profit volunteer organization year round.

A man by the name of Chuck Kaparich, grandson of a Croatian immigrant to Butte, Montana in the early days of the 20th century, who worked in the mines and raised his family in that city, had a photo taken of he and his wife and seven children in front of a carousel in Butte and sent it to his relatives back in Croatia to show that he had made a success of his life. His grandson was visiting the carousel in Spokane, Washington in 1989 and when he saw the carousel there, the memory of that family portrait touched him deeply and he began to cry. As he read the story of that carousel and learned that every horse was hand carved by a Danish immigrant, Charles I.D. Looff, as a wedding present for his daughter early in the 1900’s, his own story with the carousel began to be written.

Chuck began in earnest a search for anything and everything he could learn about carousels and reliving his childhood memories of the carousel in Butte he was determined to learn how to carve and to make a carousel. This carousel he would make for his grandfather and it would be in Missoula, Montana.  For his birthday in 1990 his wife got him a set of carving tools. His journey with the tools and the carving of the wood, collecting images to use so that each horse would tell a story, began with a dedication to carve each day before going to work.

As Chuck carved the horses he could see them spinning around on a carousel in Caras Park, in downtown Missoula next to the Clark Fork River. He decided that if his dream was to become reality he needed to get that piece of land he saw in his dream secured for a carousel. He loaded one of his horses in his truck and went to see the Mayor. After a long conversation the mayor finally agreed to this dream plan. Next it was to convince the city council of the dream with four carved horses and each step of the way believers in the dream gathered around him. A foundation was formed and a team of volunteers worked on the project until the dream was reality and the carousel opened in 1995. The involvement went to the community of people and organizations who adopted ponies that were being created, each one telling a story and using colors and symbols that reflected who they were.

The ACFM, a Carousel for Missoula, organization has a website at where you can see individual horses and learn about how this organization now 19 years later still operates the carousel and the “Dragon Hollow” playground without government funding. Here is a photo of the books I first read as the journey to learning about carousels began for me.


In my search for information about carousels, historical locations and creators, I discovered that still today carousels from the 1800’s and early 1900’s are to be found around the world, still operating and delighting folks of all ages. A visit to Wikipedia will give you links to so many places that have information about the carvers, many of them regarded around the globe for their talent in holding the tools just so in their hands to slowly remove pieces from a block of wood until it took on the life of the animal in the maker’s vision, most often horses. The “heyday” of carousel creation was just at the turn of the twentieth century.

The book “The Carousel Keepers” is a fascinating recorded history of the carousels and the places where they “live” in  New Jersey. This oral history project was completed under a grant from the Historical Society of New Jersey and the book published in 1998. The book, “Thrill Rides – Carousels” is a children’s non-fiction work and has some great stories, information and photos. “Pony Tales: A Carousel for Missoula” is a most wonderful children’s book with stories by twenty-four writers and illustrators from Montana.

The carousel was so familiar to folks that when the Broadway musical “Carousel” was written by by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, the public knew that the story was going to be set at a carnival. This stage production is a perennial favorite that is often performed by small theatre companies across the USA every year, and was created also as a most successful movie.

Carousels in the Coney Island Style, the Military Style and the Country Fair Style are still operating in parks and building designed especially for them around the US, in England, the Netherlands, Germany, France and Australia. Treat yourself to a return to the memory land of childhood summer picnics and outings with a visit to one of these works of art. An historical treasure of the skilled carvers, painters and story theme researchers for over a century. Art is not just to be found on the walls of museums or carved in stone, or cast in bronze…..the carousel provides a look at art in motion, art for everyone, art to ride.


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