Posts Tagged 'art theory'

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


What is Art? Part 1: Background vs Composition by Dena Dale Crain

Bubbles III, a Darned Quilt by Dena Dale Crain

Bubbles III, a Darned Quilt by Dena Dale Crain

I teach a workshop for patchwork quilters called Darned Quilts. In that workshop, I show my students how to build a background cloth which they will later use for raw edge piecing to create an art quilt of their own design. The core ideas of the workshop provide a theoretical and practical basis for those who have little experience with design so they can learn as they play. I love it when any of my students takes what she learns from me and pushes it forward, makes a second or third piece along the same lines but always improving and moving beyond the basic concepts, something that is easy to do once you understand how to make a Darned Quilt.

Bubbles I, a Darned Quilt by Dena Dale Crain

Bubbles I, a Darned Quilt by Dena Dale Crain

The background cloth as I intend it is always meant to look like some representation of photomicrography, like some snapshot of a narrow view of a much larger world, a field of shapes possessed of greater depth, motion and texture than what would be afforded by a plain piece of fabric. To create that illusion, a gradation background is enhanced with appliqués and trims, embroidery, cording and much more, each treatment applied as a separate layer to result in a seemingly random but even distribution of elements over the surface of the piece.

Background for Bubbles I

Background for Bubbles I

Despite my best efforts to guide my students down this path, which seems the safest for a first-time effort, in almost every class there will be one or two students who immediately ignore my sage wisdom and set about composing the background.

What do I mean by “composing?” I mean that instead of rather thoughtlessly scattering elements over the surface of the cloth as instructed, these individuals deliberately place each element in a designer-ly manner, with full recognition of the importance of each one in relation to the space it occupies and its neighbors. They intend to control each shape or line of trim through a conscious manipulation. These students seem to have an innate understanding of the space and the impact of each trim they apply, and they want to do it their way.

Early in my teaching of this workshop, I fought this tendency amongst my students. I mistakenly believed the only way to make a Darned Quilt was my way–you’ll note a certain lack of humility, yes? Well, we teach, and then we learn!

What I learned was that any student who took off in her own direction despite all efforts to follow my instructions would be equally as likely, if not more so, to produce something truly unique, beautiful and far more original than I had thought her capable of making. Compare, if you will, the treatment of the backgrounds from my Bubbles I and Tara Schmidt’s Skipping Stone. Hers was thoughtfully composed, whereas mine displays a more careless and seemingly random structure.

Skipping Stone, a Darned Quilt by Tara Schmidt

Skipping Stone, a Darned Quilt by Tara Schmidt

The point of this story is to raise with you certain questions about the difference between a background and a composition, and the relevance of each to the world of art. For centuries, traditional patchwork quilters have worked with geometric repeat patterns, quilt block designs that have become classics, with primary artistic focus on selection of fabric colors and prints and the sometimes-achieved secondary designs that can result as patches cut from the same fabrics merge across the design field.

Autumn Splendor, a traditional patchwork quilt from the Northshore Quilter's Guild, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Autumn Splendor, a traditional patchwork quilt from the Northshore Quilter’s Guild, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

At what point do such repeat pattern constructions shift to become works of art? How much composition is involved in setting out a repeat pattern? How important is composition to art?

My personal thoughts on the subject are that repeat patterns belong to the world of decorative arts, any place where the addition of a single motif or multiple repeat units will give a decorative appeal to some product that is essentially functional. Traditional patchwork quilted bed covers fit this definition: functional in warmth for comfortable sleeping but beautiful in their expressions of color and pattern.

Take that same admittedly beautiful bed cover and hang it on the wall; does that make it art? I think not. I think that to be considered art, the arrangement of shapes, the composition, needs to possess certain qualities.

High on my list is a focal point, some area of the image that commands our eyes to settle there. Busy-ness is great; it keeps us searching the image to gain maximum understanding of all it contains, but eventually there should be some focus to the confusion of thoughts provoked, some resting place for the spirit.

Variety is all-important, I believe, to art. Even the simplest abstract paintings like those of Piet Mondrian and Mark Rothko possess variety. We have only to look a little closer to see the finer details without which the work would surely disappoint. Variety in the hues and values of colors, the size and nature of shapes, the widths and styles of linear elements – all these are critical to the making of art; all these contribute to the composition that makes art out of something that might otherwise rank as a background.

Balance of weight in composition is another factor I depend upon as an indicator of composition versus background. In a background, visual weight is distributed equally. In a composition, weight varies from one area of the image to another, but all “feels” right about that distribution because it is well balanced.

How important is framing? Now deceased Kenyan artist Mary Nicholas once visited me in my studio. Upon seeing a series of very small quilts I had mounted in shadowbox frames to make them more important on display, Mary remarked “Isn’t it amazing that the minute you put a frame on it, it becomes “art?!”

Diamond in the Rough, a Spirit Works framed quilt by Dena Dale Crain

Diamond in the Rough, a Spirit Works framed quilt by Dena Dale Crain

If I take three identical unframed stretched canvasses and paint one red, one blue and one yellow, and hang those three panels on a wall, is it art? Would a solid red canvas be considered as art by most people you know? I think not. I would say that it’s a block of color, it took no great thought or emotive involvement to produce it and it is not art by anyone’s standard.

Empty room with three painted panels - art?

Empty room with three painted panels – art?

However, what if I change the proportions of the three panels, making each one different? I carefully reposition and rehang the three panels. Is this art? I seem to see quite a bit of this going on in various interior decorating television programs as a kind of poor man’s art – easy, fast and inexpensive. If we expand our notion of art, it might well include the wall as canvas, and the canvasses as elements along with any furnishings in the room as well as doorways, windows or other architectural features. In this case, the entire wall, perhaps the entire room, becomes the medium. Is this art or mere design? What is the difference between design and art? Have we yet satisfactorily understood those definitions?

Furnished room with three different panels - art?

Furnished room with three different panels – art?

Now you know I am not an interior decorator! Nevertheless, are the three factors of focal point, variety and balance sufficient to qualify a creative image as art regardless of medium, more especially if it is framed?

How much of what we perceive to be art has to do with cultural conditioning? Other people tell us this is art and that is not, so we believe them, we buy into other people’s notions of what is art and what isn’t? And if it is art, is it good art? Who is to say?! Surely, the old cliché “I don’t know what art is, but I know whether I like it or not” ought to suffice, but does it?!

Please join this discussion with your opinions. I would love to hear what you think. Do you recognize a difference between a background and a composition? Do you have strong feelings that one is art more than the other? What factors do you use as indicators that what you’re viewing is art? Are you making art, and if so, how do you know that what you make is art?

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