ArtISTS and Nature

I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.                        --John Muir

Nature draws us out to explore, then gently sends us inward to reflect. Most often, we wind up feeling better as we gaze upon the moment-to-moment changes in the ocean, sky, mountain, desert, forest, meadow, or garden. We might be awed by the tiniest flower, bird, or insect, cheered by a profusion of color, intrigued by creatures looking for food or a mate, lulled by the incoming and outgoing tides, the rippling circles in a lake, or a babbling brook.

Sunset at the Pacific Ocean

Sunset at the Pacific Ocean

As artists, how do we capture that experience? How do we translate it visually, acoustically, or tactilely? Do we try to render it as realistically as possible?

When I approached the following artwork at The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, initially I thought it was a photograph. But that didn't make sense, for I was in a gallery devoted to 19th-century European art. When I got close enough to take a careful look, I realized it's actually an oil painting. Before photography took over as king of realism, the fine details of representation rendered by Swiss artist Alexandre Calame (1810-1864) convey a palpable sense of the landscape.

"Riverbed at Rosenlaui sur Meyringen" (c.1862), by Alexandre Calame. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

"Riverbed at Rosenlaui sur Meyringen" (c.1862), by Alexandre Calame. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

"Riverbed at Rosenlaui sur Meyringen" (c.1862), by Alexandre Calame. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

"Riverbed at Rosenlaui sur Meyringen" (c.1862), by Alexandre Calame. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

If we don't choose the exactness of realism, do we abstract the scene so that, while it's not recognizable, it still conveys the essence of a landscape or seascape? Through different kinds of strokes, the Impressionists blurred the details and, instead, offered an "impression," as in this painting by French artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919)

"Low Tide, Yport" (1883), by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The Clark Institute, Williamstown, MA.

"Low Tide, Yport" (1883), by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The Clark Institute, Williamstown, MA.

Detail of "Low Tide, Yport" (1883), by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The Clark Institute, Williamstown, MA.

Detail of "Low Tide, Yport" (1883), by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The Clark Institute, Williamstown, MA.

The tendency toward abstraction continued even more strongly in the 20th century. Working with scenes in upstate New York, American artist Arthur Garfield Dove (1880-1946) explored how to depict motion. As the title card at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston describes, "Blues, greens, and yellow resonate and harmonize in overlapping arcs, filling a canvas punctuated by tree trunks that seem to leap above the horizon." Without the title and description, would we know this?

"Dancing Willows" (c.1944), by Arthur Garfield Dove. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

"Dancing Willows" (c.1944), by Arthur Garfield Dove. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

American painter Joan Brown (1938-1990) presents a thick, clotted mass of paint strokes at the center of her Abstract Expressionist painting "Brambles." There isn't even the slightest hint of representation, yet the feeling is one of an almost impenetrable mass, the way we encounter actual brambles.

"Brambles" (1957), by Joan Brown. Oakland Museum of California.

"Brambles" (1957), by Joan Brown. Oakland Museum of California.

Around the world, nature is depicted with paint, wood, clay, fibers, metal, and more. The results might be stylized, traditionally indigenous, classical, avant-garde, particular to a place or era.

"Autumn View," by Fiona Robertson. Machine and hand embroidery. Source: http://www.fionarobertsonartworks.co.uk/

"Autumn View," by Fiona Robertson. Machine and hand embroidery. Source: http://www.fionarobertsonartworks.co.uk/

There's even a Japanese stone art known as suiseki, influenced by Chinese scholar's rocks many centuries ago. Unlike sculpture, they are not deliberately carved to reflect landscapes, but are found intact in rivers, oceans, and karst. They are selected because of their expressiveness through shape, color, and texture. Considered objects of beauty to be gazed upon and enjoyed the way one might interact with a painting, suiseki remain unaltered in their natural form, but placed in a wooden base.

Like the simplicity of suiseki, some forms of East Asian nature painting leave out more than they include; the viewer imagines the rest. It's a different kind of abstraction.

"Goose and Reeds, Willow and Moon." Pair of six-panel folding screens; ink, color and gold on paper, by Maruyama Ōkyo (Japanese, 1733–1795). Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

"Goose and Reeds, Willow and Moon." Pair of six-panel folding screens; ink, color and gold on paper, by Maruyama Ōkyo (Japanese, 1733–1795). Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

"Celebrated Waterfall" (1820–1830), by Yanagawa Shigenobu (Japanese, 1787–1832). Polychrome woodblock print. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

"Celebrated Waterfall" (1820–1830), by Yanagawa Shigenobu (Japanese, 1787–1832). Polychrome woodblock print. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

"Sun and Plum Branches," Shibata Zeshin (Japanese, 1807–1891). Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

"Sun and Plum Branches," Shibata Zeshin (Japanese, 1807–1891). Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

Not everyone tries to illustrate, whether realistically or abstractly, what they see in nature. For some artists, actually working directly with its raw materials is what results in a different kind of art. British sculptor, photographer, and environmentalist Andy Goldsworthy immediately comes to mind.

"Wood Line" (2011), by Andy Goldsworthy. Made from eucalyptus branches laid out in a sloping, sinuous curve through a eucalyptus grove in San Francisco's Presidio. Source: http://www.for-site.org/project/goldsworthy-in-the-presidio-wood-line/

"Wood Line" (2011), by Andy Goldsworthy. Made from eucalyptus branches laid out in a sloping, sinuous curve through a eucalyptus grove in San Francisco's Presidio.
Source: http://www.for-site.org/project/goldsworthy-in-the-presidio-wood-line/

Known for his land art, especially through the 2001 documentary film Rivers and Tides, Goldsworthy creates site-specific ephemeral sculptures with rocks, leaves, flowers, pine cones, snow, stone, twigs, thorns, and icicles. His intention is to understand nature by participating directly in it as intimately as possible. He explains:

Movement, change, light, growth and decay are the lifeblood of nature, the energies that I try to tap through my work. I need the shock of touch, the resistance of place, materials and weather, the earth as my source. Nature is in a state of change and that change is the key to understanding. I want my art to be sensitive and alert to changes in material, season and weather. Each work grows, stays, decays. Process and decay are implicit. Transience in my work reflects what I find in nature....I couldn’t possibly try to improve on Nature. I’m only trying to understand it by an involvement in some of its processes.

"Touching North" (1989), by Andy Goldworthy. Source: http://visualmelt.com/Andy-Goldsworthy

"Touching North" (1989), by Andy Goldworthy. Source: http://visualmelt.com/Andy-Goldsworthy

"Green to Yellow Leaves" (1980), by Andy Goldsworthy. Source: http://visualmelt.com/Andy-Goldsworthy

"Green to Yellow Leaves" (1980), by Andy Goldsworthy. Source: http://visualmelt.com/Andy-Goldsworthy

Ephemeral installation by Andy Goldworthy. Source: http://visualmelt.com/Andy-Goldsworthy

Ephemeral installation by Andy Goldworthy. Source: http://visualmelt.com/Andy-Goldsworthy

Recently, I came across other artists who utilize nature as their palette and canvas. For example, Ian Ross and Andrés Amador manipulate sand. Ross works with a rake to make giant designs on beaches in California. By "carving" into the smooth surface where the tide has receded, his own type of ephemeral and impermanent art form emerges. 

Source: http://ianrossart.com/project/installation/

Source: http://ianrossart.com/project/installation/

Source: http://ianrossart.com/project/installation/

Source: http://ianrossart.com/project/installation/

In the San Francisco area, Andrés Amador also employs a rake to create works of art that can be bigger than 100,000 sq. ft. After he spends hours developing contrast through wet and dry sand, the tide washes it all away. Only a photograph and a memory remain.

Source: http://www.viralnova.com/beach-art/

Source: http://www.viralnova.com/beach-art/

Source: http://www.viralnova.com/beach-art/

Source: http://www.viralnova.com/beach-art/

Given that everything is impermanent anyway, including ourselves--after all, we, too, are nature--does it matter whether our artistic creations live on or disappear?

Questions & Comments:
How does being in a natural environment affect your artistic sensibility?
Do you bring the experience back to your studio and let it inform you subconsciously? Do you try to recapture the scene?
Do you work outdoors? Paint au plein air? Work from sketches and/or photographs?
Do you prefer representational art of natural scenes or are you more inclined toward the abstract?
What artists come to mind for their relationship to Nature?

Sunset at the Pacific Ocean.

Sunset at the Pacific Ocean.

How Do We Respond?

What artist has not reflected on her/his intention in creating art? We ask ourselves what the purpose of our work is and the effect we hope to achieve. Talk to a dozen artists and you'll get a dozen different answers to this question.

Some of us could be engaging in a formal exploration of themes, colors, techniques, materials, or styles. Others are recording observations of places, people, animals, and events. Perhaps we simply want to decorate space or capture beauty. Maybe we're expressing dreams, exorcising inner demons, evoking emotions, moving toward healing. We might be attempting to make visible what's spiritually invisible and to understand our place in the world. If we're deeply disturbed by issues of a social, political, and/or economic nature, the challenge of our art could be to exhort public action.

Detail of "Red Disaster" (1963), by Andy Warhol. Silkscreen ink on synthetic polymer paint on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Derived from a photograph of the electric chairs in Sing Sing Penitentiary in Ossining, New York, where alleged Soviet spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed on 13 January 1953, at the height of the Cold War. 

Detail of "Red Disaster" (1963), by Andy Warhol. Silkscreen ink on synthetic polymer paint on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Derived from a photograph of the electric chairs in Sing Sing Penitentiary in Ossining, New York, where alleged Soviet spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed on 13 January 1953, at the height of the Cold War. 

If our desire is to confront the conditions of our times or even earlier periods, how do we go about doing that? What will affect viewers to open up and see things through another heart and mind? Does our artwork have to be blatantly political? Can we offer something that enables people to calm down in the midst of discord and turmoil? Do we create art full of rage in the hope that it will provoke people to act, or do we employ humor? What will be most effective in generating awareness and discussion of charged topics?

"The Rich Soil Down There" (2002), by Kara Walker. Cut paper and adhesive on painted wall. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. In 19th-century American homes, small and delicate silhouettes of loved ones and happy domestic scenes decorated the walls. Finding silhouettes, and racial stereotypes, reductions of human beings, Walker transforms this quaint tradition by turning an entire museum wall into a large tableau of racial and sexual violence in the pre-Civil War South.

"The Rich Soil Down There" (2002), by Kara Walker. Cut paper and adhesive on painted wall. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. In 19th-century American homes, small and delicate silhouettes of loved ones and happy domestic scenes decorated the walls. Finding silhouettes, and racial stereotypes, reductions of human beings, Walker transforms this quaint tradition by turning an entire museum wall into a large tableau of racial and sexual violence in the pre-Civil War South.

"No Vote, No Voice" (2017), by Alice Beasley. Textiles. This is Beasley's response to the day the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act and turned its back on voting as central to democracy.   

"No Vote, No Voice" (2017), by Alice Beasley. Textiles. This is Beasley's response to the day the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act and turned its back on voting as central to democracy. 

 

"Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming Out)," 1840, by Joseph W. M. Turner. oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. A year after the reprinting of Thomas Clarkson's 1808 History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade, this painting coincides with the first meeting in London of the World Anti-Slavery Convention to campaign for the end of slavery.

"Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming Out)," 1840, by Joseph W. M. Turner. oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. A year after the reprinting of Thomas Clarkson's 1808 History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade, this painting coincides with the first meeting in London of the World Anti-Slavery Convention to campaign for the end of slavery.

Detail of Joseph Turner's Slave Ship (1840). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Detail of Joseph Turner's Slave Ship (1840). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

"Untitled" (2011), from the series Shakyō rōjin nikki (Diary of a Photo-Mad Old Man), by Nobuyoshi Araki. Source: http://artradarjournal.com/2015/05/15/japan-after-fukushima-10-artists-making-art-about-the-disaster/. This is Araki's response to the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant disaster, the largest nuclear incident since that of Chernobyl in 1986. Using scissors, he created gashes in 238 photographic negatives, creating the appearance of black rain, gaping wounds or nails clawing for help.

"Untitled" (2011), from the series Shakyō rōjin nikki (Diary of a Photo-Mad Old Man), by Nobuyoshi Araki. Source: http://artradarjournal.com/2015/05/15/japan-after-fukushima-10-artists-making-art-about-the-disaster/. This is Araki's response to the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant disaster, the largest nuclear incident since that of Chernobyl in 1986. Using scissors, he created gashes in 238 photographic negatives, creating the appearance of black rain, gaping wounds or nails clawing for help.

 Rendering of "Good Fences Make Good Neighbors," by Ai Weiwei. Commissioned by the Public Art Fund, this Chinese artist and activist will build more than 100 fences across New York City in response to the international migration crisis. He was an immigrant in NY in the 1980s for 10 years. Source: various online news releases.

 Rendering of "Good Fences Make Good Neighbors," by Ai Weiwei. Commissioned by the Public Art Fund, this Chinese artist and activist will build more than 100 fences across New York City in response to the international migration crisis. He was an immigrant in NY in the 1980s for 10 years. Source: various online news releases.

Not every artist feels compelled to tackle vexing issues in a direct visual statement. At least for now, I am one of them. However, this doesn't necessarily mean remaining silent. I've chosen to be involved in hands-on action for immigrant members of my community. But those who do choose to give public voice to their concerns and resist the wrongs they perceive approach their art projects in individual ways. The images I've gathered reveal how certain artists have responded to the conditions they know about through personal experience or learn about through the news as well as friends, relatives, and colleagues. In some cases, the work of a single artist, such as Doris Salcedo, can vary greatly in form and material.

"Untitled" (2008), by Doris Salcedo. wooden tables, wooden armoires, metal, concrete. Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA.

"Untitled" (2008), by Doris Salcedo. wooden tables, wooden armoires, metal, concrete. Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA.

The image above and the one below are of works from "The Materiality of Mourning" by Salcedo, a Colombian artist based in Bogotá. They contain items that convey both a familiar sense and an unsettled feeling. The furniture is piled together at disjunct angles; the chairs are partially crumpled or otherwise damaged. They seem to reference domesticity, but they embody tragedy, for they are no longer useful and the homes in which they might have resided are no longer inhabitable by those who have fled for their lives.

"Thou-less" (2001-2002), by Doris Salcedo. carved, stainless steel chairs. Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA.

"Thou-less" (2001-2002), by Doris Salcedo. carved, stainless steel chairs. Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA.

In my early twenties, I was fortunate to live and work in Colombia during a halcyon period, when a reign of horrific violence did not grip this beautiful country. Born in 1958, Salcedo, did go through the turbulence and brutality, and members of her own family were among the many people who vanished. Her sculptures and installations address the pain, trauma, and loss that Colombians have suffered because of a ferocious civil war among government forces, drug cartels, leftist guerrillas, and right-wing paramilitaries. At the same time, she provides space for both individual and collective mourning. Her artwork deals with the fact that beyond grief lies the unbearable emptiness left by the disappearance of loved ones.

Click the link for a short video in which Salcedo guides viewers through this terrain and demonstrates why "art cannot explain things but it can expose them--that's why art here is so important and necessary": https://www.theguardian.com/cities/video/2016/jul/26/artist-doris-salcedo-bogota-forces-work-brutal-video

While the images above are of hard materials, Salcedo's work is also of a delicate nature. A Flor de Piel, below, is a large "shroud" made of real rose petals sutured together by hand. According to the artist, the piece is intended as "a flower offering to a victim of torture, in an attempt to perform the funerary ritual that was denied to her.”

A Flor de Piel (2013), by Doris Salcedo. Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA. Measuring approx. 11 ft. x 16.5 ft., this tapestry is comprised of thousands of treated and preserved, hand-stitched rose petals and intended as a shroud for a nurse who was kidnapped and tortured to death.

A Flor de Piel (2013), by Doris Salcedo. Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA. Measuring approx. 11 ft. x 16.5 ft., this tapestry is comprised of thousands of treated and preserved, hand-stitched rose petals and intended as a shroud for a nurse who was kidnapped and tortured to death.

Detail of A Flor de Piel (2013), by Doris Salcedo.

Detail of A Flor de Piel (2013), by Doris Salcedo.

Close-up of suturing rose petals for A Flor de Piel, by Doris Salcedo. Source: http://www3.mcachicago.org/2015/salcedo/works/a_flor_de_piel/

Close-up of suturing rose petals for A Flor de Piel, by Doris Salcedo. Source: http://www3.mcachicago.org/2015/salcedo/works/a_flor_de_piel/

Equally delicate is Disremembered, a series of fragile-like, ghostly blouses that Salcedo developed after interviewing mothers who had lost their children to gun violence in Chicago. Through these sculptures, based on one of her own blouses, she gives form to the lost bodies deeply mourned by their families yet often ignored by society. Each one is made of raw silk threads interspersed in an irregular pattern with more than 12,000 tiny, blackened needles. The result is a kind of hair-shirt that both suggests and inflicts pain.

"Disremembered" (2014, 2015-16), by Doris Salcedo. silk thread and nickel-plated steel. Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge MA.

"Disremembered" (2014, 2015-16), by Doris Salcedo. silk thread and nickel-plated steel.
Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge MA.

Detail of "Disremembered," by Doris Salcedo. Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge MA.

Detail of "Disremembered," by Doris Salcedo. Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge MA.

What else do artists do when faced with something so atrocious as to be unimaginable? When World War II revealed inhumanity on a scale never before witnessed, they responded to the horrors in every medium.

German painter Max Beckmann (1884-1950) created a portrait of the era with traditional still-elements--skulls, extinguished candle, playing cards--to intimate the frailty, unpredictability, and impermanence of life. He created Still Life with Three Skulls in 1945, during the final months of the war, while living in Amsterdam, where he had fled in 1937. He described those years as "a truly grotesque time, full to the brim with work, Nazi persecution, bombs, and hunger."

"Still Life with. Three Skulls" (1945), by Max Beckmann. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

"Still Life with. Three Skulls" (1945), by Max Beckmann. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Polish emigré Arthur Szyk (1894-1951), a book illustrator and one of the most prolific political artists of World War II, presented other images, such as the one below. Did it serve in any way to turn the tide against Hitler? Can we ever know what the impact was?

"Madness" (1941), by Arthur Szyk. Magnes Collection, University of California, Berkeley.

"Madness" (1941), by Arthur Szyk. Magnes Collection, University of California, Berkeley.

Some people tried to capture what was happening through photographs, in the hope that someone would eventually know the reality, not the lies. An exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, "Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross," is only one of many such endeavors. Between 1940 and 1944, at great risk to himself and his family, Ross hid in places where he was forbidden to go and concealed a camera inside his coat in order to take pictures that depict the tragic poignancy of being singled out for genocide: driven by extreme hunger, people desperately dig for the rotten potatoes thrown away by Nazi soldiers; taken from their parents, children are literally carted off to a death camp; forced into deportation, people leave behind their dishes and food pails. He hid some 6,000 negatives in iron jars in an iron-rimmed box, which he buried in the ground. Miraculously, he survived and was able to unearth the documentation, much damaged by groundwater, once the war ended.

Children being deported to Chelmno and Nerem death camp (1942), photo by Henryk Ross. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Art Gallery of Ontario.

Children being deported to Chelmno and Nerem death camp (1942), photo by Henryk Ross. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Art Gallery of Ontario.

Food pails and dishes left behind by deported ghetto residents (1944), photo by Henryk Ross. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Art Gallery of Ontario.

Food pails and dishes left behind by deported ghetto residents (1944), photo by Henryk Ross. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Art Gallery of Ontario.

There are so many other works of art that I could include--famous and not famous--about violence committed against women, children, and other beings, against the oceans and forests, against people of one religion, ethnic group, race, nationality, or another--but the list is endless and a blog isn't supposed to be. Just know that artists everywhere are resisting and protesting in the name of immigration rights, housing, healthcare, free speech, equal opportunity, religious freedom, indigenous rights, environmental protection, LGBTQ rights, and much more.

But what happens when art is used for opposite reasons? In the play Leni, at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley, California, the main character, Leni Riefenstahl, says: It's just a film. Can a single piece of art really be so dangerous?  It's an important question. In Riefenstahl's case, the answer was "yes." Though lauded for artistry, her films "Triumph of the Will" (1935) and "Olympia" (1938) were funded by the Nazi government, which used them as powerful propaganda tools: to glorify Aryan beliefs about racial "purity" and the superiority of the "Germanic master race" to take over the world. Yes, art can be dangerous when used against others. Which leads me back to the question at the beginning of this post: What is the purpose of our work and the effect we hope to achieve? Added to that, what is an artist's responsibility in polarizing times, such as our own?

I'll end with some words from poet Mary Oliver's latest book, Upstream: Selected Essays:  "...the power of every idea is intensified, if not actually created, by its expression in substance....[T]hose who are the world's working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward."

Questions & Comments
How do artists play a galvanizing role in shaping popular opinion on the defining issues of our times?
Is an artist responsible for how his/her artwork is used?
What work of art changed your mind and heart about a troubling political/social condition?
How do you use your artistic voice to express your stance on issues of concern?

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1,800 Pieces

A few days ago, when I stopped by our local health clinic, I was stunned to see a flyer about an upcoming talk: "Collecting, Accumulating, Chronic Disorganization, and Hoarding." After the many dozens of responses to an earlier post on this topic (3 Feb), of course, I had to read further. I'd never heard of such a presentation in a medical venue. I'd never heard of such a presentation, period.

According to the notice, the guest speaker will address the fact that an estimated 4-6% of the general population experiences some level of disordered behavior called hoarding. Is this psych speak? Does that number apply to people who accumulate objects with which to create art? And does it include individuals like Rene di Rosa (1919-2010), who collected 1,800 pieces of eclectic artwork by 700 to 800 artists and displayed them in three galleries (including his former residence), across a sculpture meadow, and around a serene 35-acre lake, all set in a vineyard of 217 acres ?

35-acre lake at di Rosa

35-acre lake at di Rosa

Recently, I toured di Rosa with two old friends whom I've known since the end of the 1970s, when we all lived in Napa Valley. Located in the Carneros region of the valley, it is truly a lovely place to while away hours looking at a wild variety of art in a country environment, especially in spring weather. We enjoyed the opportunity to be outdoors, where sculptures punctuate the landscape in every direction. The first one appears at the end of the walkway that leads visitors from the parking lot to Gatehouse Gallery.

from parking lot to Gatehouse Gallery entrance at di Rosa

from parking lot to Gatehouse Gallery entrance at di Rosa

Seated Woman with Vase (1998), by Viola Frey. Ceramic. Outside Gatehouse Gallery.

Seated Woman with Vase (1998), by Viola Frey. Ceramic. Outside Gatehouse Gallery.

Although there are also sculptures inside Gatehouse Gallery and the former home of Rene and Veronica di Rosa, most of the larger works are on the grounds; for example, on the road up to the house, alongside the lake, in the residence courtyard, and throughout the meadow beyond it. A jitney transports visitors from Gatehouse Gallery to the upper area.

Mississippi River II (1966), by David Lynn. Cast aluminum on concrete piers.

Mississippi River II (1966), by David Lynn. Cast aluminum on concrete piers.

Converted from a winery, the former residence of Rene and Veronica di Rosa is a Napa County Landmark, 130 years old, .

Converted from a winery, the former residence of Rene and Veronica di Rosa is a Napa County Landmark, 130 years old, .

Reclining Nude #2 (1987), by Viola Frey. Ceramic. Residence Gallery courtyard.

Reclining Nude #2 (1987), by Viola Frey. Ceramic. Residence Gallery courtyard.

Viola de Lodi (1988), by Robert Arneson. Ceramic. Residence Gallery courtyard.

Viola de Lodi (1988), by Robert Arneson. Ceramic. Residence Gallery courtyard.

From Grandmother Series (California Dress), 1978, by Viola Frey. Ceramic. Residence Gallery courtyard.

From Grandmother Series (California Dress), 1978, by Viola Frey. Ceramic. Residence Gallery courtyard.

Matter Contemplates Spirit (2001), by Stephen Kaltenbach. Ceramic. Residence Gallery courtyard.

Matter Contemplates Spirit (2001), by Stephen Kaltenbach. Ceramic. Residence Gallery courtyard.

Lynched Volkswagon (1966). Rene di Rosa created this red car installation hanging from the boughs of a eucalyptus tree in back of the residence.

Lynched Volkswagon (1966). Rene di Rosa created this red car installation hanging from the boughs of a eucalyptus tree in back of the residence.

sculpture meadow and hills beyond the residence

sculpture meadow and hills beyond the residence

Looking through arch of one sculpture toward For Veronica (1987), by Mark di Suvero. Steel, paint. Created for Veronica di Rosa.

Looking through arch of one sculpture toward For Veronica (1987), by Mark di Suvero. Steel, paint. Created for Veronica di Rosa.

The above images just touch on how much is outside. Inside the house, I was overwhelmed by the amount of art that could be crammed--literally, from floor to ceiling--into one building.

kitchen wall of Residence Gallery

kitchen wall of Residence Gallery

All for Me (1966), by Charlene Milgrim. Found objects. Residence Gallery.

All for Me (1966), by Charlene Milgrim. Found objects. Residence Gallery.

Rene di Rosa's story is an interesting one. He was born and raised in Boston, graduated Yale University, worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, and tried his hand at the great American novel while living in Paris, then gave up urban environments for a rural life. Before California became world renowned for its wine, he bought 465 acres in 1960, planted grapes on 250 of them, and studied viticulture at the University of California, Davis. He went from befriending the avant-garde artists, writers, and musicians in San Francisco to also getting to know a group of counterculture artists at the newly founded art department of UC Davis. Many of them became lifelong friends. In the 1980s, he sold his winery to afford him the means with which to invest in creating an “art preserve” for the public. He invited artists to create new works on the property. In order to accommodate his ever-growing collection, di Rosa constructed buildings to house it. He opened the "art park" in 1997. Among the well-known artists are Robert Arneson, Joan Brown, Paul Kos, Manuel Neri, Viola Frey, Robert Hudson, Peter Voulkos, and William T. Wiley.

living room and mezzanine in Residence Gallery

living room and mezzanine in Residence Gallery

mezzanine in Residence Gallery

mezzanine in Residence Gallery

I have to admit that I was daunted by the sheer volume of art in the former residence of di Rosa and his wife Veronica, herself an artist. My head was aswirl as I looked around, up and down, in and out. I found it impossible to give so many pieces--their shapes, colors, styles, materials, textures, concepts--adequate attention. But, given enough time, anyone can learn a lot about what interested Northern California artists during the second half of the 20th century and the boundaries they trespassed, and be inspired by what they did on their own terms.

I can deeply appreciate what all that amassing of art meant for the particular coterie of artists from the 1950s on that di Rosa favored. His support of their experimentation, defiance of convention, and nose-thumbing at the so-called authorities of the art world nurtured their freedom in maintaining anti-commercial, even subversive, values. Today, re-purposing and assemblage are common. However, creating with found objects and non-traditional materials has not always been an acceptable art expression at galleries and museums. An iconoclast himself, di Rosa didn't care, for he wasn't an art snob. He wanted people to have their own experience, without any need for expertise in the field.

Gigolo (1989), by George Herms. Found objects. Gatehouse Gallery.

Gigolo (1989), by George Herms. Found objects. Gatehouse Gallery.

Untitled R (1990), by George Herms. Assorted shoes, plywood, wire. Gatehouse Gallery.

Untitled R (1990), by George Herms. Assorted shoes, plywood, wire. Gatehouse Gallery.

E Flat (1986), by Robert Hudson. Mixed media. Mezzanine of Residence Gallery.

E Flat (1986), by Robert Hudson. Mixed media. Mezzanine of Residence Gallery.

Nimbus (2000), by David Ireland. Steel, concrete, gold leaf, wood panel. Gatehouse Gallery

Nimbus (2000), by David Ireland. Steel, concrete, gold leaf, wood panel. Gatehouse Gallery

Warren Walter, William (1981), by Richard Shaw. Porcelain with decal overglaze. Gatehouse Gallery

Warren Walter, William (1981), by Richard Shaw. Porcelain with decal overglaze. Gatehouse Gallery

Eschewing the jitney, my friends and I walked along the lake to return to our cars. We marveled at what one person can accomplish because of a keen interest, commitment, and the resources and resourcefulness to realize a dream. His aesthetic preferences may not resonate with everyone, but di Rosa performed a great service. In spanning the art movements of the Bay Area, his 1800 pieces provide a tangible presence of Northern California's art history and an example of what hoarding art can achieve. He left a legacy to be admired and enjoyed in a natural setting.

Diretto di Passaggio (Aqueduct) (1990), by Veronica di Rosa. Steel, patina, rust. By the lake.

Diretto di Passaggio (Aqueduct) (1990), by Veronica di Rosa. Steel, patina, rust. By the lake.

Twist (1990), by Archie Held. Steel.

Twist (1990), by Archie Held. Steel.

Questions & Comments:
Individually established art preserves and museums have been growing in number. In addition to di Rosa's, I've visited Oliver Ranch (Geyserville, CA) and The Clark (Williamstown, MA) in the U.S. and several in Japan and Korea. What places have you found? What were they like? What kind of art do they exhibit?

Seeing the kinds of materials and found objects used in the di Rosa collection, what inspires you in creating your own art? How can you put to good use your own kind of collection?

 

It's Not What You Think It is: Unexpected Art in Unexpected Places

What happens when we look more closely, whether with the naked eye or equipment? Incredible details come into focus, bringing with them the possibility of beauty and interest we might never have conceived of. That's what some scientists and artists have discovered. As a result, a certain kind of artwork has been emerging because of technological advances and a discerning eye. In a winning combination of science and art, what is observed microscopically can be magnified into large images that defy a viewer's guess as to what they might be. To me, they register as abstract paintings or textile designs. In fact, there are artists using such images to create their own work in these mediums.

While the subjects have been aspects of nature, for the most part, imagine what would occur if you suddenly zoomed in on all those things you have lying around your house and studio or rusting outside. What new art might be inspired by such "stuff"? What if you zeroed in on the carcass of a long-ago abandoned car or the mildewed pattern on a wall you pass by every day? How might these tiny designs fuel your creativity in a big way?

Detail of rusting fuel storage tank. West Coast, Ireland.

Detail of rusting fuel storage tank. West Coast, Ireland.

I had an experience of this just the other day when I was up the coast in Mendocino County. I stopped in to see an exhibit at Partners Gallery in Ft. Bragg, California, and when I walked back to my car, I suddenly noticed something. I took full-frame and close-up images. Can you guess what the first two details are? Abstract watercolors? Coffee- or wine-stained paper?

Now look at the complete images. Are they artwork in a gallery's windows? It turns out that paper was taped to the front windows of an empty storefront. Because of condensation on the glass, the paper developed an unexpected pattern as though an artist had created watercolors that look like maps. Unlike the artists' images that follow, there's nothing technical about these impressions, but I offer them as an incentive to not hurry past and discount what seems to be nothing at first glance.

Fernán Federici is a renowned molecular geneticist and award-winning microscopist who takes stunning photographs of plants at the cellular level. It all started more than five years ago, when he was a Ph.D. student in biological sciences at Cambridge University. While working with microscopes and fluorescence microscopy, he found himself staring at spectacular colors and patterns. He got permission from his adviser to post images on his Flickr site. Here are a few of his plant art. Would you have known what they depict?

El Choclo ("corn cob"), by Fernan Federici.  Source: http://www.featherofme.com/fernan-federici-microscopic-photographs-of-plants/

El Choclo ("corn cob"), by Fernan Federici. 
Source: http://www.featherofme.com/fernan-federici-microscopic-photographs-of-plants/

Plant art by Fernan Federici. Source: http://www.featherofme.com/fernan-federici-microscopic-photographs-of-plants/

Plant art by Fernan Federici. Source: http://www.featherofme.com/fernan-federici-microscopic-photographs-of-plants/

Diospyrus Lotus, by Fernan Federici. Source: http://www.featherofme.com/fernan-federici-microscopic-photographs-of-plants/

Diospyrus Lotus, by Fernan Federici.
Source: http://www.featherofme.com/fernan-federici-microscopic-photographs-of-plants/

And then there's the incredible photography of crystals by Lee Hendrickson. If asked, I would have said the first image is of feathers, but it's not. The second could be a kind of grass, but it's not. The third has to be a watercolor, but it's not. And the fourth reminds me of a mountainside on an old Chinese scroll, but it's not. Try guessing and then check out the captions for big surprises.

"Mystique," crystalline acetaminophen, by Lee Hendrickson.  Source: http://www.photographyofcrystals.com/

"Mystique," crystalline acetaminophen, by Lee Hendrickson. 
Source: http://www.photographyofcrystals.com/

"Caffeine 4 p.m.," crystalline caffeine, by Lee Hendrickson.  Source: http://www.photographyofcrystals.com/

"Caffeine 4 p.m.," crystalline caffeine, by Lee Hendrickson. 
Source: http://www.photographyofcrystals.com/

"The Palisade," crystalline phenylethylamine found in chocolate, by Lee Hendrickson. Source: http://www.photographyofcrystals.com/

"The Palisade," crystalline phenylethylamine found in chocolate, by Lee Hendrickson.
Source: http://www.photographyofcrystals.com/

"Impression," crystalline Truvia, a non-caloric sweetner from Stevia plant, by Lee Hendrickson.  Source: http://www.photographyofcrystals.com/

"Impression," crystalline Truvia, a non-caloric sweetner from Stevia plant, by Lee Hendrickson. 
Source: http://www.photographyofcrystals.com/

There are, of course, many more images as well as a mathematically calculated art of fractals, but that's for another post. There have also been exhibits around the country (and perhaps internationally) on this growing relationship between science and art. Betty Busbyis a prolific fiber artist whose work exemplifies that relationship. She renders microscopic images highly magnified in various kinds of textiles, using a range of surface design techniques.

[For an earlier post on science and artexploringtheheartofit.weebly.com/blog/mutual-inspiration-science-and-art]

"Fungia," by Betty Busby. Source: http://www.bbusbyarts.com/

"Fungia," by Betty Busby. Source: http://www.bbusbyarts.com/

"Intercellular," by Betty Busby. Source: http://www.bbusbyarts.com/

"Intercellular," by Betty Busby. Source: http://www.bbusbyarts.com/

Clearly, for some artists, science has become a great source of artistic inspiration. And, for some scientists, art is what their research can turn into. Then there are those artists who never used technology to achieve similar results. Take American painter Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986), renowned for her large flowers. She explained how she came to create them:

It was in the 1920s, when nobody had time to reflect, that I saw a still-life painting with a flower that was perfectly exquisite, but so small you really could not appreciate it. … I decided that if I could paint that flower in a huge scale, you could not ignore its beauty.

O'Keeffe's words strike me as the best reason for enlarging the tiniest nuances. It's what enables us to see and appreciate the fantastic art that is Nature itself.

*Note: To view the conversation that was started on the former Weebly site of this blog and add your comment, click here or to start a new conversation, click "Comment" below.

Mining the Past, Creating in the Present

Earlier this month, I spent a whirlwind weekend in the SF Bay Area, combining art exhibits, a film, and meetings. Although all different, they stimulated thoughts about originality, an issue that often arises in artistic circles: If I use cloth that someone else dyed or wove or embroidered, is my textile art not original? If the artist "copies" someone else's work but gives it a slightly different twist, is that plagiarism? Whose art is it anyway?

Jim Jarmusch. Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wcUwxcbhtdQ

Jim Jarmusch. Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wcUwxcbhtdQ

This all started with the film "Paterson." Curious about what was behind the story--the daily life of a bus driver who's also a poet--I decided to do an internet search. In the process of reading about the filmmaker, Jim Jarmusch, I came across something he said in an interview:

Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic.

Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don't bother concealing your thievery--celebrate it if you like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: "It's not where you take things from, it's where you take them to."

Godard's quote has stayed with me: What we do with what we've "taken," where we go with it, is what counts. After all, is there any subject matter for art that doesn't already exist? When it comes to what inspires us to create something new, we turn to the past and to perennial sources--nature, emotions, people, animals, ideas, beliefs, geometry, and so on. In a sense, it's like playing a piano. In an address presented on the occasion of his 2014 exhibition "Let the Games Begin," Gerhardt Knodel, fiber artist and former director at Cranbrook Academy of Art, said:

A piano offers eighty-eight keys to be played. Which ones to choose? Endless combinations have been explored, realms of melodies and harmonies and rhythms have been uncovered in that field of eighty-eight keys, but the appetite for pursuing the potential is not spoiled by what has been done before.

On the contrary, we mine from the past what captures our attention and fuels our creativity in the present.

Screened Icosahedral Lamp (2013), by Phil Webster; 3D-printed plaster composite with LED light.

Screened Icosahedral Lamp (2013), by Phil Webster; 3D-printed plaster composite with LED light.

Coincidental to my going to the movies, earlier in the day, I viewed "Reverberating Echoes: Contemporary Art Inspired by Traditional Islamic Art," curated by Carol Bier, at the Doug Adams Gallery in Berkeley. In the show's title, notice the word "Inspired by" rather than "Designs Stolen from." The seven artists of diverse backgrounds draw upon an Islamic visual heritage, one which is not necessarily inherent in each one's personal history. Does that mean that they're appropriating from another culture, that they're copying the patterns of anonymous artists and artisans from the past? Or can we see their artwork as appreciation? The old adage, "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," comes to mind. Two examples from the show follow.

Born in Michigan, conceptual artist Nazanin Hedayat Munroe has studied Persian art history. In the work below, she combines textiles that recall "the sheen, drapery, and translucency of silk, long cherished in the visual arts of Iran." She also references the poetry of Nizami (d. 1209) and Hafez (d. 1389). But clearly she has originated her own expression.

"100 Destinies, 2015," by Nazanin Hedayat Munroe. Textile and mixedmedia installation: hand-painted silk gown, dressmaker's form, thread, map pins, and poems of Hafez on cardstock.

"100 Destinies, 2015," by Nazanin Hedayat Munroe. Textile and mixedmedia installation: hand-painted silk gown, dressmaker's form, thread, map pins, and poems of Hafez on cardstock.

Detail of "100 Destinies, 2015," by Nazanin Hedayat Munroe.

Detail of "100 Destinies, 2015," by Nazanin Hedayat Munroe.

Chris Palmer, born in Pennsylvania, studied origami with Japanese masters and also visited the Alhambra (Moorish palace and fortress complex) in Spain. Using mathematical formulas, he explores the two distinct and ancient cultural traditions of tilings and tessellations by folding handmade paper and undyed silk to create lines and geometric patterns.

"Shadowfold Whirlspools" (1997), folded and pleated silk, uncut and undyed, by Chris Palmer.

"Shadowfold Whirlspools" (1997), folded and pleated silk, uncut and undyed, by Chris Palmer.

"Shadowfold Zillij Dodecagrams" (2010) and "Shadowfold Zillij Octagrams" (1997), folded and pleated silk, uncut and undyed, by Chris Palmer.

"Shadowfold Zillij Dodecagrams" (2010) and "Shadowfold Zillij Octagrams" (1997), folded and pleated silk, uncut and undyed, by Chris Palmer.

Folded and pleated silk, uncut and undyed, (detail), by Chris Palmer.

Folded and pleated silk, uncut and undyed, (detail), by Chris Palmer.

Folded and pleated silk, uncut and undyed, (detail), by Chris Palmer.

Folded and pleated silk, uncut and undyed, (detail), by Chris Palmer.

[If you can get to Berkeley to see these works up close as well as those of the other artists, the exhibit runs until May 26.]

Then the latest member magazine from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SF MOMA) came in the mail and, once again, the question of inspiration and originality popped up. This time, it concerns two celebrated artists, one French, the other American. Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993) first became obsessed with the art of Henri Matisse (1869-1954) when he was a student at Stanford University. As he put it, "Right there I made contact with Matisse, and it has just stuck with me all the way." Over time, Diebenkorn incorporated elements--both the how and the what to paint--that drew him to the French painter's oeuvre. The upcoming exhibition at SF MOMA includes about 100 paintings and drawings by both artists. When you look at two below, do you doubt originality? 

"View of Notre Dame" (1914), by Henri Matisse. Museum of Modern Art, NY.  Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/View_of_Notre-Dame

"View of Notre Dame" (1914), by Henri Matisse. Museum of Modern Art, NY. 
Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/View_of_Notre-Dame

"Ocean Park #79 (1975), by Richard Diebenkorn. Museum of Modern Art, Fort Worth, Texas. ©The Estate of Richard Diebenkorn. Source: http://www.themodern.org/ocean-park-79

"Ocean Park #79 (1975), by Richard Diebenkorn. Museum of Modern Art, Fort Worth, Texas. ©The Estate of Richard Diebenkorn. Source: http://www.themodern.org/ocean-park-79

There are countless instances in which artists become enchanted and engaged with the art of another culture or a particular painter, sculptor, weaver, or ceramist. And why not? As American painter Lee Krasner (1908-1984) once said, "We are all influenced by other artists. Art brings about art." We come across things that others have made: We like the way they patterned the fabric. We're drawn to the mark-making or the combination of gems and metals or the thick brush strokes. We're dazzled by the geometrical pattern in a mosaic floor. If we then create something using those inspirations, is our work still original?
[see also 17 August 2014 post: exploringtheheartofit.weebly.com/blog/whats-original]

I look for understanding about this issue through a bit of etymology. The word "origin" is derived from the Latin oriri, to rise, and defined as "the point at which something begins or rises...something that creates, causes, or gives rise to another." By the 14th century, "original" meant "not secondary, derivative, or imitative" but "inventive; new." Since 1942, "originality" is construed as "freshness of aspect, design, or style; the power of independent thought or constructive imagination." Perhaps "constructive imagination" is the answer. Using what we chance upon, are drawn to, or find interesting, we use our imagination to construct something new, something that authentically originates from ourselves.

Questions and Comments:
What does originality mean to you?
If you find yourself wanting to use something from another artist, how do you make it your own?
What examples of blatant imitation, copying, or plagiarism come to mind? 

*Note: To view the conversation that was started on the former Weebly site of this blog and add your comment, click here or to start a new conversation, click "Comment" below.

Artists as Hoarders

As an artist, you're bound to collect stuff. After all, how can you create art without lots of paint, paper, canvas, clay, stone, metal, fabric, thread, and yarn? But how much stuff? Has your textile stash migrated into every part of the house because one closet won't hold it all? Is your garage so packed with recycled materials for assemblage that you can't park your car in there? Do you have any space left for yet another bin of plastic pieces in the barn?

If you're already wondering whether you're a hoarder, rest assured that I won't be visiting to check. Instead, here's another definition of hoarding to consider--collecting for repurposing. Now, doesn't that sound better?

An obsessive collector, Clare Graham doesn't give any of this a second thought. His stuff--a staggering amount of dominoes, buttons, ropes, wires, pop tops, scrabble tiles, yardsticks, swizzle sticks, bottle caps, soda cans, tin cans, and other disposable items--is piled in a 7,000-square-foot warehouse, MorYork, in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. He started his "habit" in Canada, when only eight years old, using the dozens of drawers in a roll top desk to catalog and organize such found items as crystals, rocks, and animal bones. As an adult, Graham often waits years to accumulate just the right size, texture, and quantity of objects before piercing, stringing, collaging, and bundling them into his unique sculptures. I saw a room loaded with them at the Craft & Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles in October 2014. Incredible recycling!

Detail of Telephone Wire Wall Hanging (2006), by Clare Graham.

Detail of Telephone Wire Wall Hanging (2006), by Clare Graham.

Telephone Wire Wall Hanging (2006), by Clare Graham.

Telephone Wire Wall Hanging (2006), by Clare Graham.

Pop-Top and Asparagus, Cafe Chairs, Furniture, Strands, and Ball Sculptures (2011), by Clare Graham.

Pop-Top and Asparagus, Cafe Chairs, Furniture, Strands, and Ball Sculptures (2011), by Clare Graham.

Detail of Bottle Cap Tower and Empire State Building (1992), by Clare Graham.

Detail of Bottle Cap Tower and Empire State Building (1992), by Clare Graham.

Detail of Pop-Top and Asparagus, Cafe Chairs, Furniture, Strands, and Ball Sculptures (2011), by Clare Graham.

Detail of Pop-Top and Asparagus, Cafe Chairs, Furniture, Strands, and Ball Sculptures (2011), by Clare Graham.

Bottle Cap Tower and Empire State Building (1992), by Clare Graham.

Bottle Cap Tower and Empire State Building (1992), by Clare Graham.

Button Yin Yang Tapestry (2006), by Clare Graham

Button Yin Yang Tapestry (2006), by Clare Graham

Detail of Button Yin Yang Tapestry (2006), by Clare Graham

Detail of Button Yin Yang Tapestry (2006), by Clare Graham

By Clare Graham.

By Clare Graham.

Detail. By Clare Graham.

Detail. By Clare Graham.

Louise Bourgeois, born in France in 1911, saved nearly every item of clothing she wore. She also accumulated everything else--from wood and plaster, to latex, marble, bronze, and glass--to create her artwork. In the 1990s, she decided to use her own clothes as sculptural elements, on various hanging devices and in enclosed installations or "cells." It seemed a logical choice. Because she barely left home once in her 80s, she stopped needing her many outfits for different occasions and was no longer concerned with fashion in the way she had once been. Then, in 2002, at the beginning of her 90s, Bourgeois constructed the linen binding and pages of Ode a l'oubli ("Ode to Forgetting/the Forgotten") out of 60-year-old, monogrammed hand towels from her trousseau for a 1938 wedding. Working from one page to the next for six months, Bourgeois cut, arranged, and stitched her own used clothing as well as sheets, tablecloths, napkins, and leftover scraps to form 32 fabric collages that comprised the "book."

Part of Ode a l'oubli (2004), by Louise Bourgeois.  Source: https://www.pinterest.com/maracantabrana/ode-%C3%A0-loublie/

Part of Ode a l'oubli (2004), by Louise Bourgeois. 
Source: https://www.pinterest.com/maracantabrana/ode-%C3%A0-loublie/

Page 9 of "Ode a l'oubli" (2004), by Louise Bourgeois. Source: https://www.moma.org/

Page 9 of "Ode a l'oubli" (2004), by Louise Bourgeois. Source: https://www.moma.org/

Artists Judith Selby-Lang and Richard Lang collect plastic, lots and lots of it. While most people put their plastic remains into recycling bins to be picked up, since 1999 the Langs have been bringing home plastic debris they find washed up on Kehoe Beach in the Point Reyes National Seashore, north of San Francisco. They clean, sort by color, and categorize thousands of pieces. Then they "curate" these bits of plastic and fashion them into artwork--sculptures, prints, jewelry, and installations--that has been exhibited internationally. Their on-going "archeological" project about our throwaway culture and plastic pollution of our seas has been featured on NPR and in film festivals. And it all started on a first date. Click here to see the vimeo.

Judith Selby-Lang and Richard Lang at Kehoe Beach, Pt. Reyes National Seashore. Source: http://beachplastic.com/

Judith Selby-Lang and Richard Lang at Kehoe Beach, Pt. Reyes National Seashore. Source: http://beachplastic.com/

Chromagreen, by Richard and Judith Selby-Lang. Source: http://plasticforever.blogspot.com/

Chromagreen, by Richard and Judith Selby-Lang. Source: http://plasticforever.blogspot.com/

Chromagreen, by Richard and Judith Selby-Lang. Source: http://plasticforever.blogspot.com/

Chromagreen, by Richard and Judith Selby-Lang. Source: http://plasticforever.blogspot.com/

There are many more artists who turn accumulations into particular artwork. Pascale Marthine Tayou, born in Cameroon in 1967, creates large installations to address political, social and environmental concerns. In some, he adorns crystal glass figures with beads, plastic flowers, and feathers, or he pierces Styrofoam with thousands of pins and razor blades and stacks hundreds of birdhouses against a wall. He also embellishes "dolls" with cable ties, key rings, plastic bags, brightly colored beads, brushes and plastic knives, or piles up colored plastic bags and wraps and binds with cloth, sewing and knitting himself. For videos of 2015 "World Share" installations at The Fowler Museum at UCLA, click here.

After three colorful images of Tayou's art, the final two photos are of "Man's Cloth," by the Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui. Renowned for his large-scale, complex, intricate, yet flexible metallic cloth-like wall assemblages, he lets curators alter their shapes with each installation. For a video of "Gravity and Grace," click here. For "Man's Cloth," El Anatsui sourced the thousands of folded and crumpled pieces of metal from local alcohol recycling stations in Nigeria and bound them together with copper wire. It is a kind of homage to kente cloth, woven by the Asante and Ewe peoples and probably the best known of all African textiles. El Anatsui's artwork references colonial and postcolonial economic and cultural exchange in Africa, consumption, and environment. But he also points to the power of human creativity and ingenuity to transform what has been discarded and even to make it beautiful. As the saying goes, "One man's [woman's] trash is another man's treasure."

One part of "Boomerang" (2015), by Pascale Marthine Tayou.  Source: http://www.serpentinegalleries.org/exhibitions-events/pascale-marthine-tayou-boomerang

One part of "Boomerang" (2015), by Pascale Marthine Tayou. 
Source: http://www.serpentinegalleries.org/exhibitions-events/pascale-marthine-tayou-boomerang

Installation by Pascale Marthine Tayou. Source: https://alchetron.com/Pascale-Marthine-Tayou-849771-W

Installation by Pascale Marthine Tayou.
Source: https://alchetron.com/Pascale-Marthine-Tayou-849771-W

Installation by Pascale Marthine Tayou. Source: https://alchetron.com/Pascale-Marthine-Tayou-849771-W

Installation by Pascale Marthine Tayou. Source: https://alchetron.com/Pascale-Marthine-Tayou-849771-W

"Man's Cloth" (1998-2001), by El Anatsui. British Museum, Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

"Man's Cloth" (1998-2001), by El Anatsui. British Museum, Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

Detail of "Man's Cloth" (1998-2001), by El Anatsui. British Museum, Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

Detail of "Man's Cloth" (1998-2001), by El Anatsui. British Museum, Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

So feel free to keep collecting but don't forget to put all that stuff to good use: create more art with it or share it with others to help them create art too.

Questions and Comments:
If you're a collector/hoarder, what do you accumulate and what's your particular attraction to those items?
How do you use the materials/objects you amass to create art?
Who are your favorite artists who work with huge amounts of materials?

*Note: To view the conversation that was started on the former Weebly site of this blog and add your comment, click here or to start a new conversation, click "Comment" below.

Memories and Art

We all have memories, lasting and fleeting. Over time, new ones appear while others gradually fade away; some become more vivid or change in tone and content. And then there are those memories that aren't really our own yet haunt us, memories of episodes that occurred many decades before we were born.

The arts have been and continue to be a particularly fertile ground where all kinds of memories, pleasant and unpleasant, have seeded new work. An exhibit in San Francisco is a particularly good example of this. From Generation to Generation: Inherited Memory and Contemporary Art is on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) until April 2. It brings attention to the stories that were lived by others but somehow turned into the artists' stories as well.

"What Goes Without Saying" (2012), by Hank Willis Thomas. Wooden pillory and microphone.

"What Goes Without Saying" (2012), by Hank Willis Thomas. Wooden pillory and microphone.

CJM Assistant Curator Pierre-François Galpin and independent curator Lily Siegel have brought together the work of 24 artists who grapple with their past--secondhand rather than direct experiences. A widely diverse group, they question and reflect on ancestral and collective memory through sculpture, installations, fiber, photography, sound, video, and mixed media. While at least five artists focus on the Holocaust, others address the American War in Vietnam and Cambodia, the Turkish genocide of Armenians, the legacy of racial injustice in America, the Korean War, World War II in Okinawa and Greece, the Mexican Revolution, indigenous culture in Alaska, and more.

Kevlar Fighting Costumes (2015), by Nao Bustamente. An homage to the courageous women soldiers (soldaderas) who fought in the Mexico revolution (1910-20. Re-imagined traditional garments, only now with protection against bullets and knives.

Kevlar Fighting Costumes (2015), by Nao Bustamente. An homage to the courageous women soldiers (soldaderas) who fought in the Mexico revolution (1910-20. Re-imagined traditional garments, only now with protection against bullets and knives.

The exhibit is multi-layered, appealing to our senses and emotions, provoking not only thought but also compassion. It was originally inspired by Dr. Marianne Hirsch's research on what she calls "postmemory." Because there is so much to convey about this subject and about the individual artists themselves--how such memories affect them and how they work with them through their art--I can't begin to address this all here. Nor can I include photos of everything, especially because of the mirror effect of some pieces (basically, you'd see me taking a picture!). I'll introduce a few examples and, if you're interested, you can watch vimeos, skypes, panel presentations, and other communications from the artists on the CJM website. Given the enormous number of refugees in the world since the 20th century, this is an extremely compelling issue. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that there is a huge population suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome because of their own memories and those of generations before them.

From the series "Immortality: The Remnants of the Vietnam and American War,” by Binh Danh.

From the series "Immortality: The Remnants of the Vietnam and American War,” by Binh Danh.

Artist Binh Danh, who visited Vietnam for the first time since he left as a child on a refugee boat in the 1980s, was struck by how much the landscape has remembered the trauma of war. Growing up in the U.S., he saw photos of children with missing limbs because of bombings and Agent Orange. To capture those times and effects, Binh Danh uses the natural chlorophyll process. He produces a digital transparency, places it on top of a living leaf, sandwiches that between glass and a backing board, and then exposes it to the sun. Combining technology and nature in this way is new to me, so I was especially struck by how well it represents the poignant tragedy of war in Vietnam in the fragility of a leaf. As the leaves die, so will the pictures, though memories linger.

"Mother Load" (1996), by Yong Soon Min.

"Mother Load" (1996), by Yong Soon Min.

Yong Soon Min, born as the Korean War ended, immigrated to California when she was seven years old. She uses the Korean tradition of bojagi (patchwork) to create her installation representing different eras. She sewed together black and white photographs from the Japanese colonial period that she printed on fabric. She also stitched together color photographs to make a carrying cloth for a bundle. In addition, there is camouflage fabric representing the Korean War, her mother's red scarf, hanbok (traditional women's costume), and shoes. The artist cut some of these items in half to indicate that a part of oneself gets left behind in the native country while the other starts a new life elsewhere. "Mother Load" is about bearing the load of memories her mother transmitted.

"Mother Load" (1996), by Yong Soon Min.

"Mother Load" (1996), by Yong Soon Min.

If you've read the book or seen the movie, "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis," you'll recognize the name Eric Finzi and the objects in his aluminum and glass sculpture. He is a descendant of a family that witnessed the fascist takeover of Italy and that was deported to concentration camps in Germany. Strong memories related through stories told to us by others can become internalized and deeply entangled with our identity and place in the world. As Finzi says, "A story and family memory can assume as much importance as anything that has happened to you. The collective memory can be incredibly powerful." Perhaps this is so because memory is not necessarily voluntary nor dependent on historical facts, but can be a conglomeration of feelings and sensations.

"Tennicycle" (2014), by Eric Finzi.

"Tennicycle" (2014), by Eric Finzi.

Loli Kantor, a photographer based in Fort Worth, Texas, was born in France and grew up in a Holocaust survivor community in Israel. Bernice Eisenstein, a mixed-media artist based in Toronto, also was raised among survivors. On the other hand, Lisa Kokin is not a child of survivors, yet watching film footage of Holocaust victims as a child in Long Island, New York, traumatized her as though she, too, could experience the horrors. She has spent a great deal of her artistic career confronting the fears that were embedded by what people she never knew had endured. "Inventory," her mixed-media gut installation on two walls, is composed of more than 1,000 scraps of cloth and paper, earrings, buttons, and other small found items that comprise the lives of such individuals. Kokin created it after visiting the Buchenwald concentration camp, where she saw piles of humble objects left behind by those who were killed. She says that her artwork is a way to process information. Though it doesn't entirely eradicate the terror, it does help. She believes it's her responsibility as an artist to address past events of import so that future generations can place them in an appropriate context. All of these artists are using their work to oppose the unfortunate tendency toward cultural amnesia.

"Inventory" (1997), by Lisa Kokin.

"Inventory" (1997), by Lisa Kokin.

Detail of "Inventory" (1997), by Lisa Kokin.

Detail of "Inventory" (1997), by Lisa Kokin.

Although raised on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Silvina Der-Meguerditchian had four grandparents who were Armenian refugees. When her uncle approached her with her grandmother's suitcase and said he'd throw it out if she didn't take it, she found a treasure trove of documents and photographs. She knew this was her connection to the many people who were part of her heritage, people spread far out from their homeland. She decided to knit them all together by crocheting the photographs with wool to create the "carpets" she calls "Family I and Family II." They're a reconstruction of something old and something new, a way to recover a sense of belonging that she felt had been taken away from her.

"Family I and Family II," by Silvina Der-Meguerditchian.

"Family I and Family II," by Silvina Der-Meguerditchian.

Detail of "Family I and Family II," by Silvina Der-Meguerditchian.

Detail of "Family I and Family II," by Silvina Der-Meguerditchian.

My final images are of a rug cooperatively woven of 2,000 silk ties in the village of Kalavryta, Greece. Foutini Gouseti, born in Athens but now based in Rotterdam, heard a story from an old man who was only a boy during World War II. In 1943, the entire male population over the age of 14 was executed and the town destroyed by the Nazis. Only women and children survived in ruins, partly through international relief efforts. The boy was sent to pick up and bring home what was designated for them. When his mother opened the big package, rather than badly needed food and clothing, she found 2,000 silk ties. For the boy, this was a happy memory because of the many bright colors during such a dark time. For the mother, it was not the hoped-for relief. Not knowing what else to do with the ties, she wove a traditional kourelou carpet. The old man remembers that they were starving and freezing, but they could walk and sit on silk. Gouseti's Kalavryta 2012 is a contemporary recreation of the one that was made from the strange gift of ties.

"Kalavryta 2012," by Fotini Gouseti.

"Kalavryta 2012," by Fotini Gouseti.

Detail of "Kalavryta 2012," by Fotini Gouseti.

Detail of "Kalavryta 2012," by Fotini Gouseti.

While the exhibit title refers to a phrase found in word and song in Jewish practice: l’dor vador—the call to pass tradition from one generation to another--the exhibit itself embraces many historical events of different cultures. Who could have anticipated that this phrase would eventually take the form of passing on memories from generations that actually experienced dreadful events?

Questions and Comments:
What memories have you inherited about experiences that are not your own? Have you incorporated them in your artwork and, if so, how?

French writer Marcel Proust (1871-1922) is famous for pointing out how our senses trigger memories. Dipping a madeleine into a cup of tea--the smells wafting into his nostrils--unleashed a flood of memories that became his 7-part novel, À la recherche du temps perdu(Remembrance of Things Past). Has something similar happened to you? Did you turn those memories into some form of art?

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Making Marks: Writing and Art

Source: https://www.craftsy.com/blog/2016/07/mark-making-ideas/

Source: https://www.craftsy.com/blog/2016/07/mark-making-ideas/

Mark making is an essential aspect of creating a work of art. We make marks with a pencil, a piece of pastel, charcoal or chalk, a brush and paint, a needle and thread, and all kinds of other instruments that let us incise lines, dots, shapes, and patterns into clay, wood, metal, stone, and plastic. The marks can be straight or squiggly, rigid or loose, singular or repetitive. They can express emotions, movement or stasis, order or chaos, weakness or strength. The range is infinite. It is with "letters" as well.

Writing is a particular form of making marks to communicate, record history, and preserve religious teachings. It is also an object of beauty in itself. That's why, ever curious, I went to the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco last Saturday to attend a program on "The Story of Writing in the Arts of Asia."  I'm fascinated by the unusual and appealing marks that other people easily understand, but which I read simply as interesting lines and shapes, such as this sign in Seoul or these calligraphic versions of love in Arabic (al-hubb) and Hebrew (ah-ha-vah). To me, the elegant black lines appear to be dancing.

Al-hubb, by Larisa.lar24. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Al-hubb, by Larisa.lar24. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Ah-ha-vah, by Michel D'anastasio. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/maltin75/4803612829/

Ah-ha-vah, by Michel D'anastasio. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/maltin75/4803612829/

And then there's the calligraphy of China, Korea, and Japan. While the various images I include are from disparate regions and civilizations--Middle East and East Asia--I find mark making oddly unifying. Despite the barriers we encounter in language, there's something in the beauty of the strokes that connects all of us. Maybe it's because the arts have long had the power to transcend cultural differences.

"Crossing the Frozen River,"a poem in running script, undated, by the Kangxi Emperor (1654—1722). The Palace Museum, Beijing. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

"Crossing the Frozen River,"a poem in running script, undated, by the Kangxi Emperor (1654—1722). The Palace Museum, Beijing. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

E Sun-shin calligraphy. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

E Sun-shin calligraphy. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

"Budo" shuji, brushed by Kondo Katsuyuki, Menkyo Kaiden, Daito ryu. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

"Budo" shuji, brushed by Kondo Katsuyuki, Menkyo Kaiden, Daito ryu. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

I came to the tour, led by inspiring docent Julia Verzhbinsky, with some questions: Do the letters of the Hebrew alphabet have any bearing on those of Sanskrit? Do the hieroglyphs of Egypt share any commonality with the ideograms of Chinese? And where and when did writing first go beyond its practical purposes and blossom into art?

First, of course, there are those marks that were made on cave walls and rocks tens of thousands of years ago. Then, dating to around 3200 B.C.E., we have the earliest cuneiform tablets from Sumeria (between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers) as well as small bone and ivory tablets in early hieroglyphic form from Abydos (on the Nile). Gradually, those marks morphed into others.

Ritmal-Cuneiform tablet (ca. 2400 B.C.E., Kirkor Minassian Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Source:https://commons.wikimedia.org

Ritmal-Cuneiform tablet (ca. 2400 B.C.E., Kirkor Minassian
Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Source:https://commons.wikimedia.org

Coffin of Herishefhotep; Abusir, 9th/10th dynasty. Ägyptisches Museum, Leipzig, Germany. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Coffin of Herishefhotep; Abusir, 9th/10th dynasty. Ägyptisches Museum, Leipzig, Germany. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Too readily, we forget that extensive travel over trade routes has existed for many thousands of years (without jets!) and that soldiers and merchants carried a lot more than arms and material goods. For example, Aramaic, which originated in Mesopotamia and is ancestral to Hebrew, Syriac, and Arabic, spread all the way to the Indus Valley under the Archaemenid Empire (4th to 6th centuries B.C.E.). I saw evidence of this on a miniature Buddhist stupa from the ancient area of Gandhara and on statues of the Buddha. Although Chinese is considered completely original, it's hard not to notice similarities between early marks in China and those made elsewhere.

Chart of seal script, National Museum of Korea, Seoul.

Chart of seal script, National Museum of Korea, Seoul.

The earliest mark making in China seems to have been on oracle bones. I am drawn to the seal script that was derived from such "pictures." I can guess what they represent and find out what they mean through Google, but I appreciate them just for their interesting combination of lines. Since I'm not a calligrapher, instead I'm eager to abstract and stitch them onto fabric or paper. Although I've never been to China, I saw the marks above at The National Museum of Korea in Seoul. There I also learned about the Korean attitude toward calligraphy, which is considered one of the major arts that a true intellectual should master. Historically, to be truly adept, the calligrapher needed great knowledge about literature, history, art, and philosophy, for spiritual depth was valued along with artistic beauty. Even modern Chinese scroll paintings that I've seen, for instance, at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, bring together the three arts of painting, poetry, and calligraphy. 

"Plum Blossoms" (1965), by Xiao Ru. Asian Art Museum,  San Francisco, California.

"Plum Blossoms" (1965), by Xiao Ru. Asian Art Museum, 
San Francisco, California.

"Red and Green Plum Blossoms" (1944), by Ye Gongchuo (1881-1968). Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, California.

"Red and Green Plum Blossoms" (1944), by Ye Gongchuo (1881-1968). Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, California.

"Collected Letters" (2016), by Liu Jianhua. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, California.

"Collected Letters" (2016), by Liu Jianhua. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, California.

"Parler Seul" (1947), by Joan Miró. Source: http://www. allposters.com/Posters_i10212240_.htm

"Parler Seul" (1947), by Joan Miró. Source: http://www.
allposters.com/Posters_i10212240_.htm

For some artists today, such as Shanghai- based Liu Jianhua, a letter can be a visual unit of art in itself. He created Collected Letters (2016) by suspending cascading porcelain letters of the Latin alphabet and the radicals that form Chinese characters. Taken out of their practical role as building blocks of language, they become sculptural compositions in their own right. Liu Jianhua was inspired by the Asian Art Museum's collection of Chinese ceramics and the building's original identity as the main public library of San Francisco.

"Collected Letters" (2016), by Liu Jianhua. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, California.

"Collected Letters" (2016), by Liu Jianhua. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, California.

Those of us involved in fiber/textile art are aware that mark making is a big topic of conversation these days. Some artists stitch in abstract marks while others add actual text and recognizable letters. Painters such as Paul Klee and Joan Miró included marks that are reminiscent of scripts from long ago in other cultures. It's ironic that the more we think we're creating something new, the more we realize that we're tapping into something very old. Ancient art, contemporary art. The East, the West. In the end, I don't see any divisions. Influences and inspirations run in both directions.

"Insula Dulcamara" (1938), by Paul Klee. Source: https://learnodo-newtonic.com/paul-klee-famous-paintings

"Insula Dulcamara" (1938), by Paul Klee. Source: https://learnodo-newtonic.com/paul-klee-famous-paintings

Questions and Comments:
What kinds of marks are you drawn to in art and writing?
What do you use in your artwork: your own marks? lettering/script in your language or other languages?

Lino cuts on polymer blocks, by digital designer and artist Charmaine Watkiss.  Source: https://charmainewatkiss.wordpress.com/2010/11/01/lovely-lino/

Lino cuts on polymer blocks, by digital designer and artist Charmaine Watkiss. 
Source: https://charmainewatkiss.wordpress.com/2010/11/01/lovely-lino/

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A New Year for More Art

Source: http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/

Source: http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/

I shouldn't be surprised that the end of another year has rolled around. Still, I can't help thinking, "2017 already? How did it get here so fast?" Maybe because I engaged in a lot of deeply satisfying travel and art activities, the months simply sped by. The old expression that time flies when you're having a good time is the perfect answer.

Thank you for accompanying me during these months of posting about my experiences with and thoughts about art, whether locally or in another country. I very much appreciate your communications. Even if you don't comment, that you're out there reading my blog is a companionable gesture in itself.

I'm going to complete 2016 and begin 2017 with some quotes to reflect on. These are from On Art and Mindfulness, by artist, author, and physicist Enrique Martínez Celaya.

Gleann Fhiodhaig, Scotland. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/.

Gleann Fhiodhaig, Scotland. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/.

Being an artist is not a posture or a profession, but a way of being in the world and in relation to yourself....Understanding who you are as an artist should be thought of as a life-long process inseparable from your work....Growth does not have to be systematic. The way of the artist is a meandering path.                  

"Migrant Mother" (1930s), by Dorothea Lange. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

"Migrant Mother" (1930s), by Dorothea Lange. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

The qualities that distinguish great art from the rest are, directly or indirectly, related to ethics. At the heart of great art you will find love and compassion....A great work of art cannot come fromhatred or cynicism.  

"Frau, Korb tragend (before 1918), by Käthe Kollwitz. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

"Frau, Korb tragend (before 1918), by Käthe Kollwitz. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Balancing Act, Quinn Dombrowski. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Balancing Act, Quinn Dombrowski. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

There is no comfortable foundation for an artist to stand on. Do not look for it, and if you find it, get off it....An artist’s practice should account for uncertainty and instability that is always part of an honest inquiry. Expect change. Embrace accidents and mistakes.
 

Western Bluebird at Ralph B. Clark Regional Park, Buena Park, CA. Photo by Davefoc. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Western Bluebird at Ralph B. Clark Regional Park, Buena Park, CA. Photo by Davefoc. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Art tends to be a solitary experience for the artist, but it becomes less so if you have some relationship with nature and if your work is connected to life.

Arches National Park, Utah. Photo by Don Graham. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Arches National Park, Utah. Photo by Don Graham. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

According to poet Mary Oliver, “The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.” Next year, don't look back on 2017 with regret. Pick up your pen, needle, spindle, brush, or whatever you use and start creating today.

Dawn at the Coorong National Park, South Australia. Photo by Mundoo. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

Dawn at the Coorong National Park, South Australia. Photo by Mundoo. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

Happy New Year!
May 2017 dawn bright with creative promise for you.

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LOOKING AT FACES

What is it about faces that compels us to look? They don't have to be handsome or famous to draw our attention. Any face can be interesting, captivating, or intriguing, without celebrity or accepted standards of beauty. Isn't the face what we notice first in others, whether human or animal? There don't even have to be real persons connected to the faces we see in the arts.

Stranger, by Helgi Halldórsson, Reykjavík, Iceland. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Stranger, by Helgi Halldórsson, Reykjavík, Iceland. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Portrait of Pablo Picasso (1915), by Amedeo Modigliani. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Portrait of Pablo Picasso (1915), by Amedeo Modigliani. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Female chimpanzee at Twycross Zoo UK, by William H. Calvin. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Female chimpanzee at Twycross Zoo UK, by William H. Calvin. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Faith Obae, by Chris Combe, York, UK. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Faith Obae, by Chris Combe, York, UK. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

That's exactly what struck me about "A Face Explored," an exhibit by textile artist Susan Lane, at Vacaville Art Gallery in Northern California until December 30. The fourteen faces on the walls don't refer to anyone in particular. Lane didn't start out with the intention of capturing the visages of people she knows. Rather, she wanted to explore the process of working in a series because she'd read that it challenges one's creativity: ironically, imposing limitations can lead to expansion. The result is a body of work that clearly expresses her own voice through faces that, because of the cohesive quality of the exhibit, may seem the same yet are entirely different.

As the series evolved, Lane found herself considering the latest iteration to be her favorite thus far. But that kept changing. She started with line drawings, began to fill in shapes with color, then created new shapes and even incorporated text, all to support the mood of the piece. Split images--the two-faced look--also emerged. They're reminiscent of masks, showing simultaneously our bright side--what we want to project to the world--and our shadow side--what we prefer to keep hidden from view.

What proved fascinating is how Lane was able to combine and recombine similar elements to create a new feeling in each face. If you look carefully, you'll see the same nose structure, lips, and eyes throughout, but they don't feel repetitious in a "same-old, same-old" way. Each face is infused with an entirely unique look.

To see what I mean, check out these detail shots. You'll also notice the texture created through the application of thread, yarn, other materials, and stitching.

As I viewed the faces in the gallery, I came up with my own interpretation of emotions that I think they convey. However, I found out that my impressions don't necessarily match what Lane experienced and strived for in creating them. What we bring to or take from a work of art is not always what the artist intends. And that's okay. There are no title cards for Lane's faces because she prefers that the viewer bring her/his own story to it. Her own experience in making the faces was that sometimes there was a story about the face and sometimes there wasn't. But once a piece is completed, a story unexpectedly emerges.

Our brain wants to identify what's going on in another face, for that's part of our crucial self-preservation instinct ever since the earliest humans roamed the plains of the Serengeti so many thousands of years ago. Still, sometimes to our dismay and danger, we don't read expressions correctly. The face we see may not be true or authentic. Actors can put on many faces required in their roles and make us believe what's not actually there.

For centuries, artists have tacitly understood how important our faces are in evolution and social life. In portraying them--from ancient Egyptian renderings to modern abstract paintings--they arouse both our perceptions and reactions. Artists can capture a face as they sense it in a model, presenting it just as it appears or revealing something deeper behind the facade. Lane's faces make me want to learn more about them, even though there's no one there but the artist herself.

[For more photos, www.susanlanetextileart.com/] 

Questions and Comments:
What are your favorite faces in the long history of art? 
Which artist expresses faces in a way that captivates your interest? Can you explain what the attraction is?
Do you portray faces, realistically or abstractly, in your own artwork? If so, what is it about faces that impel you in that direction?

*Note: To view the conversation that was started on the former Weebly site of this blog and add your comment, click here or to start a new conversation, click "Comment" below.

What's Universal? Part 2

Minimalism is universal. Abstract is universal. Geometric is universal. That's what an exhibit at The M. H. de Young Museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park makes clear, just as the play I saw in Berkeley conveyed the universality of certain emotional issues and ethical choices [see 11/13/16 post].

"Laura's Quilt" (2007), by Gyöngy Laky. The M.H. de Young Museum, San Francisco, California.

"Laura's Quilt" (2007), by Gyöngy Laky. The M.H. de Young Museum, San Francisco, California.

When I walked over to the entrance wall of "On the Grid," I was surprised to find not cording, but twigs held in place by nails. "Laura's Quilt" (2007) was created by Gyöngy Laky, an American artist born in Hungary.

Once I entered the gallery, I found an interesting and beautiful variety of textile works from around the world that share the same characteristics attributed to the 20th-century school of abstract art known as Minimalism. While the movement included such artists as Donald Judd, Sol Le Witt, Dan Flavin, and Agnes Martin, the pieces on exhibit were created by weavers and other artists/ARTisans, mostly from different cultures. However, they all use a gridded arrangement as a patterning device and/or repetition of simple geometric shapes. As the description of the exhibit states: These objects reflect the movement's core principle that there is a beauty in simplicity that is both universal and timeless.

Tibetan apron panel, 1900s. Wool; twill weave.

Tibetan apron panel, 1900s. Wool; twill weave.

Woman's tunic (phyang) of cotton and silk, ca. 1900. Burma, Asho Chin people.

Woman's tunic (phyang) of cotton and silk, ca. 1900. Burma, Asho Chin people.

Korean wrapping cloth (bojagi), piecework made of bast fiber.

Korean wrapping cloth (bojagi), piecework made of bast fiber.

Detail of Korean wrapping cloth (bojagi).

Detail of Korean wrapping cloth (bojagi).

Woman's skirt panel (pagne) from Gorea Island, Senegal.

Woman's skirt panel (pagne) from Gorea Island, Senegal.

Detail of woman's skirt panel (pagne) from Gorea Island, Senegal.

Detail of woman's skirt panel (pagne) from Gorea Island, Senegal.

Japanese Buddhist altar cloth (uchishiki), early 1800s. Silk, gold leaf on paper strips, twill lampas, supplementary-weft patterning.

Japanese Buddhist altar cloth (uchishiki), early 1800s. Silk, gold leaf on paper strips, twill lampas, supplementary-weft patterning.

Detail of Japanese Buddhist altar cloth, late Edo period.

Detail of Japanese Buddhist altar cloth, late Edo period.

Soto Zen Buddhist's priest robe (kesa), Japan, ca. 1603-1868, piecework of bast fiber (ramie or hemp) and appliqué.

Soto Zen Buddhist's priest robe (kesa), Japan, ca. 1603-1868, piecework of bast fiber (ramie or hemp) and appliqué.

Detail of Soto Zen Buddhist priest's robe.

Detail of Soto Zen Buddhist priest's robe.

Man's headdress (abe), late 1800s, Melanesia, Solomon Islands, Santa Cruz Islands. Paper mulberry barkcloth (lepau), painted by hand.

Man's headdress (abe), late 1800s, Melanesia, Solomon Islands, Santa Cruz Islands. Paper mulberry barkcloth (lepau), painted by hand.

Detail of man's headdress.

Detail of man's headdress.

Detail of man's headdress.

Detail of man's headdress.

Breast cloth (kamben cerek or wastra tirtanadi), 1900s, Indonesia, Bali. Cotton; plain weave, spaced warp, discontinuous weft.

Breast cloth (kamben cerek or wastra tirtanadi), 1900s, Indonesia, Bali. Cotton; plain weave, spaced warp, discontinuous weft.

Detail of Balinese breast cloth (kamben cerek or wastra tirtanadi).

Detail of Balinese breast cloth (kamben cerek or wastra tirtanadi).

Detail of Nigerian/Igbo door.

Detail of Nigerian/Igbo door.

Nigerian door, Igbo people, 1800s; iroko wood.

Nigerian door, Igbo people, 1800s; iroko wood.

Bark cloth (siapo), 1900s, Polynesia, Samoa. Paper mulberry barkcloth, block printed, painted.

Bark cloth (siapo), 1900s, Polynesia, Samoa. Paper mulberry barkcloth, block printed, painted.

Detail of Samoan bark cloth (siapo).

Detail of Samoan bark cloth (siapo).

One of the most compelling works, because of its transparent layers, is also the largest in the exhibit. American artist Rebecca R. Medel meditatively created "Wall of Windows" (1990) with cotton and linen, knotted netting, warp- and weft- resist dyeing (ikat). It has an ethereal quality as it moves between form and formlessness. She states in the title card, "My work is about the spiritual, about infinity, about other than this physical plane of existence." Although the process was complex, the resulting installation is the epitome of simplicity, of minimalism.

"Wall of Windows" (1990), by Rebecca R. Medel.

"Wall of Windows" (1990), by Rebecca R. Medel.

Side view of "Wall of Windows" (1990), by Rebecca Medel.

Side view of "Wall of Windows" (1990), by Rebecca Medel.

Side detail of "Wall of Windows" (1990), by Rebecca Medel.

Side detail of "Wall of Windows" (1990), by Rebecca Medel.

What does minimalism mean to you--in art you view or art you create?
What examples come to mind when you think of minimalism and simplicity?
If minimalism and the simplicity of geometric shapes appeal to you, can you describe why? If they don't, what isn't appealing about them?

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What's It Made Of?

In my last post, I said I'd continue with "What's universal?" next time, but I'm going to interject something different between the two parts because of a small exhibit I just saw at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. In some ways, it recalls contemporary Japanese basketry shows that I have viewed in the last few years. [See images in 11/8/2014 post.] The baskets were, in no way, functional but purely sculptural.

"The Sculptural Turn: Contemporary Japanese Ceramics" focuses on a generation of Japanese potters following World War II. They moved from functional forms such as vases and tea-ware to sculptural ceramics as well as from apprenticeships to university studies. They are clearly engaged in a conversation with art movements since the second half of the 20th century. This group also includes the first Japanese women to distinguish themselves in what has been a historically male field. These clay artists have gone beyond tradition and convention by innovating works in exciting, often organic, shapes and textures while still employing time-hallowed materials and techniques with great finesse.

One of the things that I found fascinating about the works in "The Sculptural Turn" is that they don't appear to be made of clay. Each one I gazed at reminded me of some other material. For example, up close, the piece above, "Untitled" (2009) by Ogawa Machiko, looks like meringue. It is actually stoneware and porcelain with pooling glass. In the exhibit catalogue, she explains, "It is my passion for the earth that drives my continual search for the essential in art. The vessel form, with both interior and exterior space, enables me to best pursue this quest--it is not about making vases. Rather, I am inspired by the concept of emptiness within the whole."

When I looked at "Moment in White C" (2012) by Fujino Sachiko, I immediately thought of strips of felt. Yet it, too, is stoneware, with a matte glaze. Not surprising is the fact that this artist worked as a fashion designer and fabric dyer in Kyoto before she studied with pioneering female ceramicist Tsuboi Asuka in the 1980s. 

The third one could be petrified wood covered in fungus. "Untitled" (2012) by Futamura Yoshimi is a combination of stoneware and porcelain. She blends the two to achieve the collapsed rugged form.

In the fourth image, the upper piece struck me as rusted metal and the lower piece as coral, but again they're not. "Mindscape" or "Kei" (2014) by Mihara Ken is multi-fired stoneware. The artist considers it his job "to help the clay express its beauty. Clay leads, and my hands follow. I do not know what shape my work work is going to end up even while I am making it...Once in the fire, the piece is no longer mine--it has its own life and resolution."
"Tentacles Sea Flower" (2013) by Katsumata Chieko is chamotte-encrusted stoneware with glaze.

Another organic shape is "Quiet Submersion" or "Shizukani Shizumu" (2014) by Hattori Makiko. It is made of porcelain but, rather than being smooth, it has a delicate almost barnacle-like texture. She has said of her work that she would be happy if viewers were drawn into it because of the visual and tactile impact of the surface before seeking an explanation of what she has created. She also explains that her process is incessantlyrepetitive, but she doesn't tire of "this Zen-like operation." Instead, she confronts it "with a very relaxed transcendent state of mind." The smaller work above "Quiet Submersion" is "Plant Growth" (2015) by Fujikasa Satoko, stoneware with matte glaze.

The exhibit contains more pieces from the Kempner and Stein Collection, but the images here should give you an idea of some of the thrilling leaps Japanese ceramicists have made. If you're in the Bay Area, go have a look for yourself. I'm not a potter but, as a textile artist, I can't help but appreciate the textural qualities I saw and be inspired.

Questions and Comments:
As an artist in one medium, what other mediums do you find inspiring?
In your own artwork, how do the materials you work with give the impression of being something else?

*Note: To view the conversation that was started on the former Weebly site of this blog and add your comment, click here or to start a new conversation, click "Comment" below.

What's Universal?

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Part of the internet’s magic is that, even if we can’t travel by boat, plane, or train to other places, we can still “get there” via images and even sounds. While it’s clearly not an in-person experience, we can obtain at least a glimpse, for example, of art exhibits or plays to which we simply can’t drive or fly. I try to bring some of them to this blog so that readers living in far-flung cities and towns can come along as I revisit all kinds of art that afford pleasure and/or stimulation. What strikes me about some of them is their universal nature.

Two experiences in the last few months come to mind: "Safe House," a play I recently saw at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley, and "On the Grid: Textiles and Minimalism," an exhibit I went to in September at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. In both instances, what's universal comes through only in what's particular--particular to a historical period, to a geographic region, to a culture, to a family. I find that abstract statistics about a universal issue--such as the enormous number of refugees in the world today--can be transformed into meaning, feeling, and understanding when presented through the story or image of a particular refugee. In the case of "Safe House," it's the account of one free family of color in Kentucky in 1843, the Pedigrews.

"Safe House." Aurora Theatre, Berkeley. Photo by David Allen. Source: https://auroratheatre.org/

"Safe House." Aurora Theatre, Berkeley. Photo by David Allen. Source: https://auroratheatre.org/

Drawing on his own ancestors' history, playwright Keith Josef Adkins offers a gripping and moving tale of the tensions between two brothers who harbor conflicting aspirations. One envisions himself building up a successful shoemaking business in the white community while the other (along with their aunt) risks his family's safety to help fugitive slaves escape on the Underground Railroad not just to the North, but all the way to the Republic of Liberia on the west coast of Africa. Already on probation for previously helping slaves to flee, what do they do next? Adkins' narrative also asks: What does it mean to be free when the majority of the black community is enslaved?

"Safe House," Aurora Theatre, Berkeley. Photo by David Allen. Source: https://auroratheatre.org/

"Safe House," Aurora Theatre, Berkeley. Photo by David
Allen. Source: https://auroratheatre.org/

While watching and listening to the people involved in this life-and-death drama, I couldn't help but think of how the clashes between the siblings (or between generations) often exist in families everywhere. I couldn't help but think of the decisions presented to families in Europe during World War II: Do we help someone trying to hide from the Nazis? Do we endanger the lives of our children by sheltering a Jew or a member of the Resistance Movement? Do we surrender the lives of others in order to save our own? Do we express our deepest humanity at any cost to hold true to our values? Is anyone truly free when not everyone is free?

"The Underground Railroad" (1893), by Charles T. Webber. Cincinnati Art Museum. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

"The Underground Railroad" (1893), by Charles T. Webber. Cincinnati Art Museum. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

I also can't keep from wondering what I would do under similar circumstances. It's comfortable to believe that I would help however I could, that when actually faced with such a dilemma, my most compassionate self would step forth boldly. But would it? Would I feel compelled to first save my own skin and those nearest and dearest to me?

These are not easy questions that the characters confront in "Safe House." And they don't have easy answers, for as the story unfolds, it's clear that the family pays a big price whichever direction it takes. Yet this is how art can play a universal role: by not coloring the world black and white, racially or morally. This is how art can induce us to reflect on what we consider truly important, what we'd be willing to stand up for, sacrifice for. Art can be beautifully and skillfully executed and still have the power to shake us up.

[Next post: "On the Grid: Textiles and Minimalism"

Questions and Comments:
How do you understand art's role in expressing universal themes?
What examples from the different arts do you find speak to anyone anywhere?
What do you consider universal in your own art?

*Note: To view the conversation that was started on the former Weebly site of this blog and add your comment, click here or to start a new conversation, click "Comment" below.

The Museum as Art Itself #2

Last year, I was so enamored with the Miho Museum in Japan that I posted about my general experience rather than about the particular art pieces inside it. This year, I found myself responding to Museum SAN (Space Art Nature) in South Korea in a similar way. In both cases, as well as when I visited the island of Naoshima in Japan's Seto Inland Sea (2012), it is all about the environment and how the architect worked with the site to create art that, in turn, houses art.

Museum SAN is located in a beautiful natural setting that is regularly transformed by the four seasons. The closest city is Wonju, Gangwon Province, approximately 87 miles east of Seoul. Oak Valley, a golf resort, is the backdrop in this view from the rear of the building dedicated to space-light installations by American artist James Turrell. Opened to the public only three years ago, the museum complex was designed by Tadao Ando, a Japanese master of minimalist architecture and "critical regionalism." He says of this project:

I always wished to create a place that could provide the 'energy for life'— nourishment for the mind that will last even when one becomes a hundred years old, restoring the energy to children to run and shout for joy in nature, who had lost their vitality overstressed by the cramming educational regime. Therefore I did not want to build an ordinary museum that is like a silent box, and this site was a perfect spot for realizing my plan.

Although not far from Seoul, getting to Oak Valley was not a simple hop, skip, and a jump except by car. In fact, I wanted to go there during my trip to Korea last year, but couldn't work out the logistics. Thanks to a friend living there, it was an easy and lovely outing this year.

Getting to the ultimate view in the photo above entailed a process of moving along walkways and through gardens from the minute we arrived.

After paying the entry fees, we followed the signs to visit each part of the museum complex, such as the sculpture garden, where we walked around to view the different sculptures, surprisingly all by Western artists.

"Temple" (1990), by Anthony Caro.

"Temple" (1990), by Anthony Caro.

"Realization of a Dream" (1994), by Mark di Suvero.

"Realization of a Dream" (1994), by Mark di Suvero.

"Untitled" (1995), by Joel Shapiro.

"Untitled" (1995), by Joel Shapiro.

We emerged from the garden and onto the path leading to the museum building.

Sculpture by Mark Di Suvero.

Sculpture by Mark Di Suvero.

As we walked along, we passed a woodland and got a glimpse of what was ahead of us.

Around the walls and on the way to the museum's entrance, we came across the introduction of water as an essential element in the overall design.

"Archway" (1998), by Alexander Liberman.

"Archway" (1998), by Alexander Liberman.

I was especially attracted to the entryway because of the constantly changing secondary abstract art created in the "infinity" pools filled with pebbles. Depending on where the light is casting shadows, the images provide inspiration for one's own artwork. The formation of interesting shapes and angles is a factor throughout the complex.

Once inside, there are more visual treats in the rectangular, triangular, and round spaces.

Through horizontal slits in the walls, you can barely glimpse the Triangular Court, with a water sculpture by Eric Orr set amidst rocks that moved with each step we took. Inside, the lines of the concrete planes shifted according to position.

A romantic spot viewed from an opening.

Inside the building, there is an exhibit of modern Korean paintings as well as the Hansol Paper Gallery, which recounts the history of paper and displays traditional Korean paper products (case for thread, brush stand, chamber pot, clothes wardrobe, and more) and book covers. Each section is worth its own post. Here are only two examples of what's in the paper exhibition, which was almost without any light, I suppose in order to preserve the objects.

Paper sewing box.

Paper sewing box.

Chamber pot made of paper.

Chamber pot made of paper.

Kyŏngju: royal tombs of the Silla. Photo by Janet Wishnetsky/Comstock, Inc. Source: www.britannica.com

Kyŏngju: royal tombs of the Silla. Photo by Janet Wishnetsky/Comstock, Inc. Source: www.britannica.com

Next, we leave the museum building and enter the Stone Garden, en route to James Turrell's installations. This area was inspired by the royal tombs of the Silla and Unified Silla Kingdom (1st c. BCE - 10th c. CE).

"Couple on Two Benches" (1985), by George Segal.

"Couple on Two Benches" (1985), by George Segal.

More sculptures set in the stone garden amidst trees turning color.

"Willy" (1962), by Tony Smith.

"Willy" (1962), by Tony Smith.

"Undetermined Line" (1992), by Bernar Venet.

"Undetermined Line" (1992), by Bernar Venet.

You might wonder why I'm including the following signs rather than images of Turrell's work. No photography is allowed inside, only outside. I'm not sure why except that being in these installations is a multi-sensory experience that can't be captured by a picture alone. Sometimes the effect was so disorienting that I felt dizzy. There were even minders to make sure we didn't drop off an edge that appeared to be the floor meeting a wall, but wasn't. In fact, despite all the photos in this post, it is undeniable that being somewhere--walking, hearing, seeing, smelling, feeling--can't be replaced by photos. But if you can't get there, I hope that these give a sense of what a wonderful place Museum SAN is to visit.

Questions & Comments:
What places of art have you found noteworthy?
What about them made you consider them exceptional--the architecture, natural environment, sensibility in weaving together different elements?

*Note: To view the conversation that was started on the former Weebly site of this blog and add your comment, click here or to start a new conversation, click "Comment" below.

Quitting Art?

I've not been able to post these last few weeks because I was intensely involved in activities in South Korea. I am part of a team of four women (Lissa Miner, an American woman living in Seoul; Youngmin Lee, a Korean woman living and teaching bojagi in California; Misik Kim, a Korean woman living and teaching in Seoul; and myself in California) working on two projects. Three of us are bringing a Korean fiber art exhibit to art centers in Northern California next year. And three of us are organizing a 10-day culture/fiber art tour to South Korea next October. I flew over to deal with important details for both.

I was also invited to give a presentation on creativity and facilitate a workshop on "Composing in Small Spaces: Textile Cards." (Many thanks to Misik Kim for the invitation.) The day-long event took place on the green campus of a former university in Suwon, just outside of Seoul. It has been turned into a center for art, craft, and design, called Smart Republic of Korea. It includes studios, classrooms, and galleries. My group met on the ground level in a large area with high ceilings, where we enjoyed a lovely breeze coming in from the open doors.

The following images are from the textile art workshop upstairs where Misik Kim teaches in addition to her classes at Sookmyung Women's University in Seoul.

Ordinarily, I wouldn't write about my workshop experience, but focus instead on the inspiring artwork I viewed in private and national museums and galleries as well as the patterns and shapes that captured my attention wherever I looked. (For example, in and around Seoul there are such interesting bridges that I'd love to do a whole series of wall hangings based on them.) But I have decided to share my day in Suwon first because of how one student in particular responded. I think it's relevant to anyone pursuing a passion and wondering whether it's really the right track to be on.

Before we started the workshop part of the day, I shared my philosophy about creativity, which includes spontaneity and improvisation but not perfectionism and formulas. We don't have to know ahead of time exactly what we're going to wind up with. I also told them that I wasn't there to teach a technique. Rather, my intention was to convey an open-minded attitude toward art-making. I encouraged them to "sing" with their own unique voice, to bring forth what only they could express. I was able to do this thanks to Mihe Shin, a photographer/artist, who generously translated for me the entire day.

Then I gave a simple demonstration and general instructions for creating a small textile card that fits inside a photo frame card, which in turn fits inside a deckle envelope. It can be sent, gifted, framed, or become part of a larger project. This exercise is a way to prime the pump, cut through blocks, spark ideas, try them out, and invite surprises. My emphasis is on letting the class time be fun. I urge participants to feel free to experiment and play, with no agenda in mind, thus allowing something new and different to arise.

I set out a pile of fabric scraps and design samples, some papers, beads of many colors, and other items for embellishment. The women also brought their own stuff to work with. Everyone was given already-cut pieces of flexible but solid material to serve as the foundation, along with a fusible and a cropping frame. They could do any kind of stitching, by hand and/or machine. No limits, except for size.

As I walked around the "mess" on every work table, I watched as each woman did something entirely different from the woman next to her. One braided strips of white slinky fabric as part of her background. Another cut out the circles in a fabric's pattern so that aspects of a second fabric underneath could appear through the holes. Yet another layered small pieces of organza. Everyone did some hand-stitching. I was glad they jumped into it right away. It was as though all I had to do was give them permission not to follow someone else's pattern but to originate their own design. By the end of the short workshop, some people had made at least two cards. 

I had the whole group display their cards on tables at the front. Although they'd all received the same guidelines, the creative diversity was fascinating. Also, I never said they should stay within the frame or expand beyond it, yet some of the women clearly moved out of the box. Though I had lined up some of my own cards on the ledge of the blackboard, I was gratified to see that no one had made anything like mine. Each card was truly an original work. And several gave me some new ideas.

In the end, it was not the resulting card that mattered but the process they'd gone through--how they felt and what they learned. Since there was no formula to follow and nothing to copy, I wanted to know how the exercise affected them. Because I'd not seen anything these women created in the past, I couldn't assess whether what I saw was a big departure from their usual expression. 

At first, the women were shy to voice their feelings. Then, gradually, I heard how much freer and looser and more spontaneous they were in engaging with the materials, maybe trying something different since there were no strict rules, no test, and no judging, for I had encouraged them to remember what it was like to be in kindergarten. 

Then one woman was brave enough to step forward and reveal her heart. She had been conflicted about attending the workshop, for it meant skipping a class. At the last minute, she'd decided to come. She expressed how it was exactly what she needed, for she had reached a crossroads where she was torn about what to do. She shared with us that she has felt lonely, that her artwork isn't cherished by others, yet that of her studio mate is. Her doubts had grown to the point where she found herself on the verge of forsaking art altogether. Now, she knew she wouldn't give up.

How the workshop experience and my words flipped a switch inside her, I certainly can't explain. But when we shift our attitude, when we let go and simply move inside the process rather than fixate on some outside measurement, something happens--things get clear and we know that we have to follow our passion, regardless of the circumstances, however we can.

I told the young woman that Van Gogh, among so many other artists, had to paint, even though no one supported his art except his brother Theo. Yes, it definitely feels wonderful when we receive kudos for our artwork, be it dance, music, weaving, or writing. But perhaps the difference between being an artist and not being one is not whether someone praises what we make, publicly displays it, or purchases it, but whether we have to keep creating anyway. 

Questions & Comments:
Have you ever been at a point where you wanted to give up making art?
How did you overcome it, if you did?
What would you advise others at the brink of forsaking their passion?

*Note: To view the conversation that was started on the former Weebly site of this blog and add your comment, click here or to start a new conversation, click "Comment" below.

Unfinished?

Labor Day weekend, I was an invited artist in Art by the Sea/The Sea Ranch Tour, in which I opened my studio to the public. As in the previous two years, I met lots of delightful people and was happy they purchased my artwork for their homes. But one of the other artists on the tour expressed reluctance to sell her work because she didn't think the pieces were finished. She said she was still experimenting. Yet visitors to her studio wanted to buy them.

"Saint Barbara" (1437), by Jan Van Eyck. Metalpoint, brush drawing, and oil on wood. Photo by Lukas Image Bank, Belgium. Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp, Belgium.

"Saint Barbara" (1437), by Jan Van Eyck. Metalpoint, brush drawing, and oil on wood. Photo by Lukas Image Bank, Belgium. Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp, Belgium.

Naturally, the following questions arose: When is a work of art finished? Who's to say? Or is it ever finished? When do we stop experimenting and reworking? Whether we're involved in literature, theater, music, dance, painting, sculpture, or fiber art, are we ever totally done with a poem, play, symphony, tapestry, novel, or collage, even after it has been exposed to the public? During the decades that I freelanced as a writer, I remember editing everything over and over, until the last deadline forced me to stop. If I were to reread the articles, reviews, and books I published during those times, I bet I'd still want to make changes today. As visual artists, writers, composers, or choreographers, we're constantly evolving, so why wouldn't what we create also keep evolving, even if only subtly? One of the women in the monthly art salon in which I participate told us that, according to a biography of Shakespeare she'd read, he kept revising till the very end of his life.

Head of a Woman (La Scapigliata), by Leonardo da Vinci, 1500-1505. Scala / Ministero per i Beni e le Attività culturali /Art Resource, NY. Galleria Nazionale di Parma, Italy.

Head of a Woman (La Scapigliata), by Leonardo da Vinci, 1500-1505. Scala / Ministero per i Beni e le
Attività culturali /Art Resource, NY. Galleria Nazionale di Parma, Italy.

Only two days before we discussed this issue in our salon, a big exhibition had just ended its run at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible dealt with something that's crucial to any artistic practice; that is, how and when we determine a work of art is finished. The show included works that were left incomplete by the artists, affording a glimpse into their creative process. It also embraced works that were intentionally unfinished (non finito), "an aesthetic of the unresolved and open-ended" that painters such as Rembrandt, Titian, Cézanne and Turner explored. Then there are the modern and contemporary artists who did not demarcate between making and un-making and even left the "finishing" to viewers. The Met cites Janine Antoni, Lygia Clark, Jackson Pollock, and Robert Rauschenberg in that group. In the case of American artist Kerry James Marshall's untitled work below, the viewer is definitely invited to complete the painting by filling in the numbered areas behind the female artist.

"Untitled" (2009), by Kerry James Marshall. Yale University Art Gallery. Photo © Kerry James Marshall, courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. Source: http://metmuseum.org/exhibitions.

"Untitled" (2009), by Kerry James Marshall. Yale University Art Gallery. Photo © Kerry James Marshall, courtesy
the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. Source: http://metmuseum.org/exhibitions.

By our standards, artwork from hundreds of years ago might not appear incomplete today because their treatment would make a different statement in the 20th or 21st century than that of detailed realism in the past. El Greco's "The Vision of Saint John" is a good example. In the 17th century, the painting looked unfinished, but not so now.

"The Vision of Saint John" (ca. 1609–14), by El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos). The Rogers Fund, The Met Breuer, New York.

"The Vision of Saint John" (ca. 1609–14), by El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos). The Rogers Fund,
The Met Breuer, New York.

The Met's website has photos of 209 exhibition objects. I selected some of them for this post. As you look at them, do you feel that they're incomplete? Would you rather have had the artists finish them or do you enjoy the opportunity to imagine what they would be like? Do you find yourself filling in details? Do you interpret the art differently? I consider the incomplete portraits far more interesting, for they seem to convey moods that might not otherwise come across so distinctly when there is so much else to view in the painting beyond the face.

"Portrait of a Young Man" (ca. 1770), by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Photo by Hickey Robertson, Houston. The Menil Collection, Houston, Texas.

"Portrait of a Young Man" (ca. 1770), by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Photo by Hickey Robertson,
Houston. The Menil Collection, Houston, Texas.

"George Romney" (1784), by George Romney. © National Portrait Gallery, London/ Art Resource, NY. National Portrait Gallery, London.

"George Romney" (1784), by George Romney. © National Portrait Gallery, London/
Art Resource, NY. National Portrait Gallery, London.

"Woman Reading" (ca. 1927), by Juan Gris. ?Photo by Dianne Yanovick Dornquast. The Met Breuer, New York.

"Woman Reading" (ca. 1927), by Juan Gris. ?Photo by Dianne Yanovick Dornquast. The Met Breuer, New York.

According to the Met's notes, Juan Gris once expressed a "desire to find a more sensitive side in his art, one he associated with the freedom and charm of the unfinished." The underdrawing in this work reveals how Gris constructed his composition geometrically. But he added his personal take on Cubism with such curvaceous elements as the oval shape of the upper body and the flowing black lines. It was not his intention to leave the reading woman incomplete; rather, he abandoned it because of failing health. Still, it has a certain intriguing charm just the way it is, as though peering through an X-ray.

Neither did Gustav Klimt complete his posthumous portrait of Maria ("Ria") Munk III. While he was working on this third attempt at portraying the woman who committed suicide because her fiancé broke off their engagement, Klimt himself died. As with Gris' painting, what remains demonstrates the artist's process. The history of this painting begs another question: How do you finish something that someone else has literally finished off?

Posthumous Portrait of Ria Munk III (1917-1918), by Gustav Klimt. The Lewis Collection, The Met Breuer, New York.

Posthumous Portrait of Ria Munk III (1917-1918), by Gustav
Klimt. The Lewis Collection, The Met Breuer, New York.

Particularly with some expressions of modern art, how is anyone to decide when a painting or sculpture is done? Unless Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) wanted to change the feeling in this portrait of his wife Annette (immediately below), isn't it complete as a reflection of a dark, perhaps troubled state? Would more dabs of clay make a difference in English sculptor Rebecca Warren's "The Twin" (second below)? Etcetera for the others.

"Annette" (1961), by Alberto Giacometti. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, The Met Breuer, New York.

"Annette" (1961), by Alberto Giacometti. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, The Met Breuer, New York.

"The Twin" (2005), by Rebecca Warren. © Rebecca Warren courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery.

"The Twin" (2005), by Rebecca Warren. © Rebecca Warren courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery.

"Untitled I (Green Paintings)" (ca. 1986), by Cy Twombly. ©Cy Twombly Foundation.

"Untitled I (Green Paintings)" (ca. 1986), by Cy Twombly. ©Cy Twombly Foundation.

"Untitled II (Green Paintings)" (ca. 1986), by Cy Twombly. ©Cy Twombly Foundation.

"Untitled II (Green Paintings)" (ca. 1986), by Cy Twombly. ©Cy Twombly Foundation.

"Reticulárea cuadrada 71/6" (1971-1976), by Gego (Gertrud Goldschmidt).  Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros. © Fundación Gego.The Met Breuer, New York.

"Reticulárea cuadrada 71/6" (1971-1976), by Gego (Gertrud Goldschmidt). 
Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros. © Fundación Gego.The Met Breuer, New York.

"Tumors Personified" (1971), by Alina Szapocznikow. Photo by Bartosz Górka. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Zachęta – National Gallery of Art, Warsaw, Poland.

"Tumors Personified" (1971), by Alina Szapocznikow. Photo by Bartosz Górka. © 2016 Artists Rights Society
(ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Zachęta – National Gallery of Art, Warsaw, Poland.

"George Moore (1852–1933) at the Café" (1878 or 1879), by Édouard Manet. The Met Breuer, New York.

"George Moore (1852–1933) at the Café" (1878 or 1879), by Édouard Manet. The Met Breuer, New York.

I noticed that the Met did not include any artwork from Asia, at least not online. It makes me wonder whether aesthetic ideas of incompleteness are perceived differently in other parts of the world. Although Manet gifted his drawing (above) to George Moore in its unfinished state, I am drawn to it as it is, perhaps because it reminds me of certain styles in East Asian art. For example, to the right, this work of Itō Jakuchū (1716-1800), a Japanese painter of the mid-Edo period, is not considered incomplete by any means. It depicts two semi-legendary Chinese monks from the T'ang dynasty: Kanzan ("Cold Mountain") and Jittoku ("the Foundling"). The artist felt no need to fill in the spaces created by his brushstrokes.

Similarly, Japanese artist Maruyama Ōkyo (1733–1795), did not populate the six-panel folding screen (below) with more than one goose. Although nearly empty, the painting does not feel incomplete to me. Looked at closely, the composition conveys a lot about the season and place with minimal brushstrokes. How does it strike you?

"Kanzan and Jittoku" (ca. 1763), by Itō Jakuchū. Museum of East Asian Art, Cologne, Germany. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

"Kanzan and Jittoku" (ca. 1763), by Itō Jakuchū.
Museum of East Asian Art, Cologne, Germany.
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

"Goose and Reeds; Willows and Moon" (1774, 1793), by Maruyama Ōkyo. Ink, color and gold on paper. Mary Griggs Burke Collection. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Source: http://metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/671024

"Goose and Reeds; Willows and Moon" (1774, 1793), by Maruyama Ōkyo. Ink, color and gold on paper. Mary Griggs Burke Collection. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Source: http://metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/671024

Questions and Comments:
Which "incomplete" artworks leave you pondering or wanting to finish them?
How do you deal with the issue of completing your own artwork? When do you know you're done?
How are the criteria for certain forms of East Asian art different from those of Western art? What makes them complete?

*Note: To view the conversation that was started on the former Weebly site of this blog and add your comment, click here or to start a new conversation, click "Comment" below.

Translating Tradition into Contemporary Art

Detail from "Meditation" (1990), by Yoong Bae. Ink and colors on printed paper. Asian Art Museum.

Detail from "Meditation" (1990), by Yoong Bae. Ink and colors on printed paper. Asian Art Museum.

I am fascinated by how artists translate traditions from a long-ago world to our world today. What is the process of transforming aspects of so-called folk art into contemporary art? Who does it, why, and how?

I see this movement from the old to the new almost anywhere I look. Turning bed quilting into quilt art is a good example of changing what many people considered simply utilitarian into something that hangs on a museum wall.

Unexpectedly, other instances popped up last weekend when I visited the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. My main reason for going was to attend the first of a series of lectures sponsored by the Society for Asian Art, "From Monet to Ai Weiwei: How We Got Here." I went with the intention of satisfying my curiosity about the historical transition to modern art in Asia. Each week, for 10 weeks, the focus is on a different region--Japan, India, China, Vietnam and Cambodia, etc. I was disappointed that the initial overview didn't answer my questions, but perhaps other presentations will.

However, the long drive to the city wasn't wasted. While at the museum, I was able to visit new exhibits and enjoy a delightful day with a friend who is a fellow textile artist. I was surprised when one of the new shows, "Mother-of-Pearl Lacquerware from Korea," spoke to my interest in innovating contemporary art from a traditional craft. I'd have never guessed that mother-of-pearl lacquerware would be an inspiration for artists now.  First, some images of the traditional work.

Table with birds and trees motif, 1700-1800. (Joseon dynasty, 1392-1910). Lacquered wood with inlaid mother-of-pearl. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.

Table with birds and trees motif, 1700-1800. (Joseon dynasty, 1392-1910). Lacquered wood with inlaid mother-of-pearl. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.

Two-tiered chest with stand, 1800-1850 (Joseon dynasty, 1392-1910). Lacquered wood with inlaid mother-of-pearl and metal fittings. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.

Two-tiered chest with stand, 1800-1850 (Joseon dynasty, 1392-1910). Lacquered
wood with inlaid mother-of-pearl and metal fittings. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.

Garment box with peony motif, 1700-1800 (Joseon dynasty, 1392-1910). Lacquered wood with inlaid mother-of-pearl. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco

Garment box with peony motif, 1700-1800 (Joseon dynasty, 1392-1910). Lacquered wood with inlaid mother-of-pearl. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco

What follows are contemporary mother-of-pearl artworks: Quite a difference, yet using the same materials and techniques that Korean artisans have employed for 1,000 years.

"1880-Summer-Forest-Gogh Series" (2007), by Kim Yousun. On loan from the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea.

"1880-Summer-Forest-Gogh Series" (2007), by Kim Yousun. On loan from the National Museum
of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea.

Born in Korea in 1967, Kim Yousun learned traditional mother-of-pearl craft techniques on her own. Then, beginning in the 1990s, she began to use mother-of-pearl as her principal medium with which to create her art. She doesn't see it as a material for craft but as a picture plane, a flat surface that allows her to shift between two-dimensional and three-dimensional perspectives because mother-of-pearl produces different lights and hues, depending on the angle from which one views it.

According to the title card, a trip to a forest inspired Kim Yousun to create "1880-Summer-Forest-Gogh Series." A huge admirer of Dutch Post-Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), she found herself standing among the trees, observing sunlight through them. She wanted to capture the specific moment of her subjective experience of energy and light and recreate it with innumerable mother-of-pearl pieces.

Detail of "1880-Summer-Forest-Gogh Series" (2007), by Kim Yousun. On loan from the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea.

Detail of "1880-Summer-Forest-Gogh Series" (2007), by Kim Yousun. On loan from the National Museum
of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea.

Over the years, the luminosity and beauty of abalone shells have made them much more than simply a material to work with. For Kim Yousun, mother-of-pearl evolved into a symbol of hope, one which she shares in an art-therapy series "Rainbow Project" to help people living in orphanages, nursing homes, and prisons to heal emotional wounds through art-making. She says,

The shock I received when I first discovered wet, luminous mother-of-pearl in a narrow, shabby alley in Wangsimri [a district in Seoul] in 1992, and its beautiful lights and hues of a rainbow--that experience marked a turning point in my whole life.....A small abalone shell deep under the sea suffers from coarse stones that keep flowing in, but it creates a pearl out of them, with patience and sacrifice. This...has had a significant influence on me in creating art. Even a small, living creature manages to do something dramatic....So, mother-of-pearl has eventually become my life teacher.

"Pebbles" (2015), by Korean artist Hwang Samyong. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.

"Pebbles" (2015), by Korean artist Hwang Samyong. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.

In front of the mother-of-pearl wall, reflected in a mirrored base, sit three "pebbles." They, too, were created from abalone shells, using a traditional slicing technique employed in many of the Joseon-dynasty (1392-1910) pieces on display in the adjacent Tateuchi Gallery. I watched the painstaking process on a video. Born in 1960, Korean artist Hwang Samyong meticulously applied mother-of-pearl strips as thin as the width of a dime to the smooth, curving surfaces of the fiberglass base.

Detail of "Pebbles" by Korean artist Hwang Samyong. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.

Detail of "Pebbles" by Korean artist Hwang Samyong. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.

The next image is from the video I saw on the thin-slicing technique. To view the video, which reveals the artist's spirit behind his work, just click this link: www.asianart.org/regular/pebbles-by-hwang-samyong/. Hwang Samyong says, "Although it may be an insignificant pebble that can be seen anywhere, through my work and passion, it becomes a work of art."

In the case of both Kim Yousun and Hwang Samyong, as well as a third Korean artist, Lee Leenam, whose work is a fascinating 7.5-minute two-channel video, the results are quite different from the traditional pieces I viewed in the lacquerware gallery. Yet, the past and present coexist not only side by side, but also within the integrity of the original works by contemporary artists.

Across from the contemporary mother-of-pearl artworks is a display of bojagi, a general term for wrapping cloths made in Korea for different functions and people. According to Youngmin Lee, a Korean bojagi artist and teacher in the Bay Area, "Jogak-bo, the art of Korean patchwork wrapping cloths (bojagi), embodies the philosophy of recycling, as the cloths are made from remnants of leftover fabric. It also carries wishes for the well-being and happiness of its recipients. During the rigidly Confucian society of the Joseon dynasty, it was one of the few creative outlets available to women."

Traditional bojagi, 1950-1960. Silk. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.

Traditional bojagi, 1950-1960. Silk. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.

Traditional bojagi from studio of Hang Sang-soo. Silk. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.

Traditional bojagi from studio of Hang Sang-soo. Silk. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.

Long considered a women's domestic craft, in the 21st century fiber artists have rediscovered bojagi for its aesthetic value. Internationally, they are creating their own interpretations, using traditional techniques and a wide variety of materials. Every other year, there is a Bojagi Forum in South Korea that highlights the old and the new, the traditional and the modern, displaying exquisite artwork. The next one is coming up soon, September 1-4, and I am sorry to miss it.

Youngmin Lee is skillful not only in traditional bojagi, but also in adapting it for a contemporary look. In the following first piece, she painted and layered silk organza while using traditional techniques to stitch together the layers and embellish the top. In the second piece, based on viewing mother-of-pearl black lacquerware, again she used a traditional technique to create an original image. Youngmin explains that she specifically chose the "jewel pattern" to help her reproduce the feeling and process of Korean lacquerware onto fabric. She made the piece as "an homage to the enormous labor and care that...artisans endured to prepare and inlay the natural materials on wooden surfaces." Although she used fabrics instead, she still sought to achieve the same effect of luminosity.

Contemporary bojagi (2016) by Youngmin Lee. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.

Contemporary bojagi (2016) by Youngmin Lee. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.

Detail of bojagi by Youngmin Lee. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.  

Detail of bojagi by Youngmin Lee. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.

 

Contemporary bojagi by Youngmin Lee. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.

Contemporary bojagi by Youngmin Lee. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.

Detail of contemporary bojagi by Youngmin Lee. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.

Detail of contemporary bojagi by Youngmin Lee. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.

Artists continue to reinterpret the designs, textures, and techniques of traditional crafts or folk art into new forms. Each artist applies his or her individual perspective in a departure from tradition, while still honoring it. That this is happening around the world, not just in Korea, reflects a desire for reinvention and originality without discarding cultural heritage. As artists mine the past for contemporary artwork, it's hard not to think that what we might have considered passé actually has timeless appeal as well as ongoing vitality and relevance.

Questions and Comments:
What traditional crafts or folk art come to mind as inspiration for new artwork?
Which artists do you consider particularly successful in translating tradition into contemporary art?
How are you mining the past in your own artwork?

*Note: To view the conversation that was started on the former Weebly site of this blog and add your comment, click here or to start a new conversation, click "Comment" below.

Exploring the New SF MOMA

Last Sunday, I finally had an opportunity to visit the newly expanded and greatly transformed Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco (SF MOMA). Given what I discussed in my July 6th post about how much we can/cannot take in during a museum visit, I kept in mind what several readers and I agreed on: If you eat from the whole smörgåsbord, count on getting indigestion! With seven floors devoted to art, the museum has enough to keep you there for days. I limited myself and felt joyful when I walked out, eager to explore other galleries next time. I'm keen on discovering places and art I haven't seen yet.

Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA. Photo by Henrik Kam. Source: https://www.sfmoma.org/

Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA. Photo by Henrik Kam. Source: https://www.sfmoma.org/

I love the "new" museum. It is not only more spacious (the galleries alone have gone from 70,000 to 170,00 sq. ft), but also filled with more natural light along with views of the neighborhood. Terraces now invite you to walk outside among sculptures with a garden wall as backdrop. I appreciated being able to get fresh air in the presence of real plants and Alexander Calder's work. Whereas the "old" museum felt closed in, the latest incarnation feels open.

Maquette for "Trois Disques" (Three Disks), formerly "Man" (1967), by Alexander Calder. Pat and Bill Wilson Sculpture Terrace, floor 3, Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Maquette for "Trois Disques" (Three Disks), formerly "Man" (1967), by Alexander Calder.
Pat and Bill Wilson Sculpture Terrace, floor 3, Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

The Living Wall is a wonderful addition for its greenery, its environmental consciousness, and its connection to art. The largest of its kind in the United States (almost 30 feet high and 150 feet wide), it was designed by Habitat Horticulture. The approximately 20,000 plants of 37 different species (40 percent of which are native to the state and the San Francisco Bay Area) are irrigated by a recycled water system. And the wall is stabilized by felt made from recycled water bottles and polyester. Visitors were lining up in front of it to take photos of each other.

"Big Crinkly" (1969), by Alexander Calder. Pat and Bill Wilson Sculpture Terrace, floor 3, Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"Big Crinkly" (1969), by Alexander Calder. Pat and Bill Wilson Sculpture Terrace, floor 3,
Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

The galleries have everything, even items that some might not consider art at first glance (even at second and third glances!). No matter, for wherever I walk, whether inside or outside, what I see first are shapes, forms, and flow lines. I saw lots of them and, of course, color, as I went from room to room or out to a terrace. I was surprised by artwork I don't remember viewing at SF MOMA prior to the expansion, perhaps because they couldn't be accommodated in the old setting or because they're recent additions.

"In Winter Burrows" (1985), by Martin Puryear. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"In Winter Burrows" (1985), by Martin Puryear.
Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"Two Plus Seven" (2004) by Martin Puryear. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"Two Plus Seven" (2004) by Martin Puryear.
Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Richard Serra's "Sequence" is particularly striking in size, shape, and texture (waterproof steel). Raised in San Francisco, as a teenager, Serra worked in steel mills in the East Bay. I stepped around and through "Sequence" as though I were traversing a canyon. Serra has said, "I found very important the idea of the body passing through space, and the body's movement not being predicated totally on image or sight or optical awareness, but on physical awareness in relation to space, place, time, movement."

The sheer vastness of the two torqued ellipses connected by an S-shape is awesome. I learned that Serra and a German steel fabrication plant have collaborated for nearly twenty years to develop both the machinery and manufacturing areas that are capable of creating such large-scale complex forms. "Sequence" was the first artwork to be set in SF MOMA's new building; then exterior walls were erected around it.

"Sequence" (2006), by Richard Serra. Floor 1, Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"Sequence" (2006), by Richard Serra. Floor 1, Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"Sequence" (2006), by Richard Serra. Floor 1, Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"Sequence" (2006), by Richard Serra. Floor 1, Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

My immediate impression of Ellsworth Kelly's "Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance" was to wonder whether he'd been inspired by scrap quilts. The title card explains that, when he found a bunch of colorful gummed paper squares, he turned them into a series of gridded collages by randomly selecting the colors. One of them became the basis for the oil painting below. According to the museum's description, chance techniques kept Kelly "from following any conscious or subconscious guidelines for balance in these compositions. The unexpected color juxtapositions break down any clear distinction between figure and ground, a disruption that Kelly found fruitful and would soon make a central concern of his work." His intention was for viewers not to analyze or interpret his work but to experience its structure, color, and surrounding space instinctively, physically.

"Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance" (1951-1953), by Ellsworth Kelly. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance" (1951-1953), by Ellsworth Kelly. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Detail of "Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance" (1951-1953), by Ellsworth Kelly, Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Detail of "Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance" (1951-1953), by Ellsworth Kelly,
Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Accustomed to Kelly's rectangular or square colorful paintings, I wasn't aware that he was one of the first artists to create irregularly shaped canvases, some of which I saw at SF MOMA.

Ellsworth Kelly Gallery, Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Ellsworth Kelly Gallery, Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Quite a few of Gerhard Richter's paintings remind me of lovely fiber art that has been dyed, painted, and otherwise manipulated in interesting ways. When I came upon "Geäst" (Branches), I overheard two women on a bench discussing what they imagined could be reflections in a forest stream or pond.

"Geäst" (Branches), by Gerhard Richter, 1988. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"Geäst" (Branches), by Gerhard Richter, 1988. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Detail of "Geäst" (Branches), by Gerhard Richter, 1988. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Detail of "Geäst" (Branches), by Gerhard Richter, 1988. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Although I'm not much inclined toward figurative art, "Walking Man #2" by Nathan Oliveira made me pause because of its intense texturing and mood. Questions arose in my mind about what's possibly going on with this man: Where was he walking? What was he feeling? The landscape seems so stark, the emotions dark. Along with Richard Diebenkorn and others, Oliveira was part of the development of the Bay Area Figurative style.

"Walking Man #2" (1959), by Nathan Oliveira. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"Walking Man #2" (1959), by Nathan Oliveira. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Detail of "Walking Man #2" (1959), by Nathan Oliveira. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Detail of "Walking Man #2" (1959), by Nathan Oliveira. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

One of the things that amazes me about abstract art is how much non-literal work can convey something we know and feel in our environment. To create the rhythm and surf-like pattern of "Three Pointed Waterfall," Pat Steir smeared and hurled white paint onto a black-washed canvas. Because I wasn't familiar with her work, I did a bit of reasearch and learned that John Cage and Agnes Martin were long-time mentors in her ongoing search for the essence of painting. Cage taught her the importance of egoless “non-doing” and the role of chance. Martin conveyed how an artist invests his/her spirit into a work. So Steir poured the paint, let it flow downward along its own unpredictable path, keeping herself out of it by allowing gravity, time, and the environment to decide the result. A blending of Buddhism and Taoism?

"Three Pointed Waterfall" (1990), by Pat Steir. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"Three Pointed Waterfall" (1990), by Pat Steir. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Detail of "Three Pointed Waterfall" (1990), by Pat Steir. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Detail of "Three Pointed Waterfall" (1990), by Pat Steir. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

I remember an exhibit of Ruth Asawa's work at SF MOMA years ago. of which I have the catalogue. I was glad to see some of her delicate yet strong fiber art is still there.The shadows they cast are like a secondary intangible work.

"Untitled" (S.114, ca. 1958), by Ruth Asawa. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"Untitled" (S.114, ca. 1958), by Ruth Asawa. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Detail of "Untitled" (S.114, ca. 1958), by Ruth Asawa. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Detail of "Untitled" (S.114, ca. 1958), by Ruth Asawa. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

I enjoyed coming across more fiber art after a sea of paintings, drawings, and metal or wood sculptures. The textile collage below, with brass, thread, and wood, is by Romanian artist Greta Bræsecu. On the title card, I read that it is "the capstone" to a series of abstract compositions which she produced over a period of six years, in which the Greek myth of priestess-sorceress Medea "becomes a metaphor of creation through defiance and subversive transformation." An fascinating point about Bræsecu's life is that she did not leave communist Romania while other intellectuals were fleeing. She managed to express radical ideas by using handcraft-like techniques and simple gestures that avoided scrutiny for ideological content. Who knows, maybe the apparatchiks figured that a woman working with cloth was more domestic than political!

"Metabola" (1981), by Greta Bræsecu. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"Metabola" (1981), by Greta Bræsecu. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Detail of "Metabola" (1981), by Greta Bræsecu. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Detail of "Metabola" (1981), by Greta Bræsecu. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Because male artists and white artists still predominate, I noted when a work belonged to a woman or a person of color. Sadly, I didn't find equality, though Diane Arbus has a room devoted to her photography and Agnes Martin has a small alcove of paintings. There are large canvases by Joan Mitchell and Lee Krasner and a self-portrait of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera by Kahlo. Perhaps the floors I've not yet visited will reveal more art by Asian, Hispanic, African, and African-American artists.

Detail of "Harm's Way" (1987) by Joan Mitchell. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Detail of "Harm's Way" (1987) by Joan Mitchell. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"Harm's Way" (1987), by Joan Mitchell. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"Harm's Way" (1987), by Joan Mitchell. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

On the other hand, I was glad to notice that at SF MOMA fiber art is integrated into various areas according to artistic movements or periods rather than segregated from the so-called fine arts. This makes me hopeful for textile art in general, especially because the fifth floor, which I didn't reach, has a major fiber piece. Claudy Jongstra of the Netherlands was commissioned to create a site-specific mural installation in a transitional space between the white-walled galleries and the outdoor rooftop garden. On a lower floor, I watched a video interview with her about the entire process involved--from tending a flock of Europe's oldest breed of sheep (Drenthe Heath) for their high-quality wool through natural plant dyeing and felting. I look forward to seeing the finished product on my next visit.

SF MOMA's holdings are greater than 33,000 works of art and design. All I could and wanted to do was focus on a few galleries on a few floors. Although I have lots more photos to share, I'll end here with arguably the most unexpected experience. Opening the door into the Ladies' Room reminded me of stepping into a color-filled James Turrell elevator at another museum. Every inch of SF MOMA is dedicated to art in one way or another!

Ladies' Room at the Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Ladies' Room at the Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Questions & Comments:
Even if you're not a fan of modern art, what can you cite as interesting, intriguing, or challenging about it?
If you are a lover of modern art, what about it floats your boat?

*Note: To view the conversation that was started on the former Weebly site of this blog and add your comment, click here or to start a new conversation, click "Comment" below.

Defiance in Art

Frida Kahlo (1932). Photo by Guillermo Kahlo. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/.

Frida Kahlo (1932). Photo by Guillermo Kahlo.
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/.

For the last month or two, I've found myself thinking about what it means to be defiant in one's art. The word defiance can be defined as "a daring or bold resistance to authority or to any opposing force"; "proud and determined opposition"; "disobedience" and "rebelliousness." In a sense, it's about not trusting the powers-that-be to tell us what kind of art to create or to love. (For fans of etymology: Latin, fi from fidareand de-, a prefix that negates). I also understand that it's about going ahead and doing something in spite of existing conditions and circumstances.

Naturally, pondering defiance led me to identify artists who exemplify it. There are too many to name here, but instantly I thought of Frida Kahlo and Judy Chicago, among lots of other women artists who defied what the establishment prescribed for and expected of women in general as well as people of color.

Selma Hortense Burke (1900-1995) in her studio. Photo by Peter A. Juley & Son. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Selma Hortense Burke (1900-1995) in her studio. Photo by Peter A. Juley & Son.
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Source: amazon.com/

Source: amazon.com/

What prompted this exploration is a character in a novel I read after I returned from Poland and other recent destinations. I was sorting through some old clippings and notes at my desk, when I came across one about a book I'd intended to get from the library for quite a number of years: The Polish Woman: A Novel, by Eva Mekler. The "coincidence" of this title was not lost on me, nor that the main character, Karolina, is an artist.

While the narrative focuses on fictionalized events that occurred during and after the Holocaust, a couple of pages on Karolina's experience in an art world that didn't support her interests caught my attention. As she explains to Rosalind, another character, "it turned out bad" because her sculptures are representational, plus she works in stone, which she admits is unusual. Clearly, she loves creating sculpture, just as so many of us love creating with paints, textiles, cameras, clay, metal, paper, and other materials.

It is hard work, a kind of labor, to break down stone, to tame it. You are tired and dirty and there is dust on face and in hair, even in shoes like you have come out of a mine. But from all this smashing and pounding, you have a beautiful thing, and if you are good, you have touched something true. It is ironic to make something delicate by breaking stone, no? And after, touching what you have made...[it] is like body hunger that has become...satisfied.

"The Kiss" (1888-1898), by Auguste Rodin. Rodin Museum, Paris, France. Photo by Yair Haklai. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

"The Kiss" (1888-1898), by Auguste Rodin. Rodin Museum, Paris,
France. Photo by Yair Haklai. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

What happened to Karolina in the post-war art world of Communist Poland was disheartening. It was something too many of us know well, even in democratic societies and good economic times. She had worked passionately for two years on three small pieces, "Variations on a theme by Rodin," which she conceived of "as a kind of anti-Kiss commentary on the Rodin sculpture she'd adored as an adolescent and had come to resent with the fury of a disillusioned romantic." The pieces depict a male and female nude desperately attempting to embrace, but successively moving farther away from each other until, in the last sculpture, their fingers hardly touch. Unfortunately, her efforts were not received well. She explains to Rosalind, "In the end I was told I have skill, but not imagination. My work, they said, was conventional and romantic." A friend had even taken her aside and suggested she try a different medium, such as clay or papier-mâché. She was hurt and furious:

Art has to be political to please...Soon anything is art only if it is...defiant....Empty canvas is art; a marble ball tied in middle with black string is art. Glue nails and rope together and people praise it as sculpture about repression...Perhaps I should tie myself naked to a hammer and sickle....

"Distribution 1, Bronze" (2013), by Joep van Liefland. Galerie Gebr. Lehmann, Dresden, Germany. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

"Distribution 1, Bronze" (2013), by Joep van Liefland. Galerie Gebr. Lehmann, Dresden, Germany. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Yes, there is important defiance in certain kinds of political art, such as the murals of Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera, Picasso's "Guernica," and much feminist art. I think of Ai Weiwei, who has been clubbed in the head and imprisoned for flouting the Chinese government's authoritarianism. But art can be defiant in other ways as well.

Mural by Diego Rivera (1886-1957). Palacio Nacional, Mexico City, Mexico. Photo by Thelma Datter. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Mural by Diego Rivera (1886-1957). Palacio Nacional, Mexico City, Mexico. Photo by Thelma Datter.
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Creating or performing art can represent ultimate resistance in the face of severe deprivation and terror. At the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp during World War II, sick and starving Jewish prisoners performed Verdi's "Requiem" in spite of the appalling degradation they were suffering. Although they had only a single smuggled score, they sang the famous oratorio 16 times, including once before senior SS officials from Berlin and an International Red Cross delegation. This Mass for the dead was transformed from what the Nazis thought of as the prisoners' meek submission to their fate into an act of defiance and even therapy. Rafael Schächter, the conductor, told the chorus: "We will sing to the Nazis what we cannot say to them." He had to reconstitute the group three times as members were transported to Auschwitz. Their performances symbolized challenge to the authorities that had imprisoned them and demonstrated courage to confront the worst of humankind. For the prisoners, singing Verdi's "Requiem" was an affirmation of life. As theatre and opera director Peter Sellars has said, "During the worst times a lot of the best art is made."

From the film "Defiant Requiem." Source: http://www.defiantrequiem.org/

From the film "Defiant Requiem." Source: http://www.defiantrequiem.org/

Here's yet another take on what is defiant art or a defiant artist. If the art world clamors for figurative or representational art, yet you love to work in an abstract style and continue to do so--or vice versa--then you're defiant in your art. If the art world is fascinated by grit and violence but you prefer peace and beauty, then you're defiant in your aesthetics.

"Low Tide, Yport" (1883), by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Clark Institute of Art, Williamstown, Massachusetts.

"Low Tide, Yport" (1883), by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Clark Institute of Art, Williamstown, Massachusetts.

I remember reading that Richard Diebenkorn went back and forth between abstract and figurative styles, always to the dismay of the art critics, who favored one or the other. He defied all of them and painted what he wanted to paint when he wanted to paint it. The Impressionists were excoriated for making what were deemed "unfinished" paintings, but they did not cave in and go back to the precise and realistic details of classical work. Simply to be an artist can be an act of defiance in a world that values what it considers practical, useful, and financially desirable. 

"Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair" (1940), by Friday Kahlo. Museum of Modern Art, New York City. Source: http://www.moma.org/collection/works/78333

"Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair" (1940), by Friday Kahlo. Museum of Modern Art, New York City. Source: http://www.moma.org/collection/works/78333

Our art can be defiant in what we want to express emotionally. In "Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair," painted after her divorce from artist Diego Rivera, her unfaithful husband, Frida Kahlo asserts her independence as a woman and as an artist. She breaks with the traditional Mexican hair and clothing styles of her previous self-portraits that Rivera favored by cutting off her long flowing hair and wearing his typical garb instead. To make things absolutely clear, she also writes onto the canvas the following lyric of a Mexican song: "Look, if I loved you, it was because of your hair. Now that you are without hair, I don't love you anymore."

For the rest of us, the lyric could be reworded to reflect a too common fact: "Look, if I loved your art, it was because of your concepts and politics. Now that your art is not  au courantin the market, I don't love it anymore."

It takes guts to be an artist in the face of all kinds of opposition, authorities, and obstacles. Sometimes it's not an outside force against which artists are defiant, but an internal situation over which they have little or no control. They don't give up despite the physical or mental hand that they've been dealt. I can't help but think of the many visual artists and writers who never asked for mental illness to dog their steps. 

"Starry Night" (1889), by Vincent van Gogh. Museum of Modern Art, New York City. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

"Starry Night" (1889), by Vincent van Gogh. Museum of Modern Art, New York City. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Vincent van Gogh is a perfect example. In June 1889, he painted "Starry Night," one of his most iconic images, at a time when he resided in the asylum at Saint-Rémy. He had voluntarily entered and accepted the restrictions of confinement. Initially, he was allowed to draw and paint only within the walls of the institution. Even when permitted to go outside, he was supervised. And he alternated between periods of stability and crises of distress. Yet he produced astonishing work that countless thousands line up to view. Vincent van Gogh defied what he didn't seem able to overcome by continuing to challenge himself as an artist and evolve his unique style. Yes, eventually, he succumbed to his demons and committed suicide, but that doesn't negate all the years of defiance.

Questions and Comments:
What do you consider defiant art?
Which artists represent defiance for you?
How are you a defiant artist?

*Note: To view the conversation that was started on the former Weebly site of this blog and add your comment, click here or to start a new conversation, click "Comment" below.

Filling Up on Art

In The Swan Thieves, a novel by Elizabeth Kostova, psychiatrist Andrew Marlow has particular thoughts about visiting places that house art. As he leaves the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., he says, "I believe in walking out of a museum before the paintings you've seen begin to run together. How else can you carry anything away with you in your mind's eye?" Then he notes to himself:

Pushing out through the doors, I experienced that mingled relief and disappointment one feels on departure from a great museum; relief at being returned to a familiar, less intense, more manageable world, and disappointment at that world's lack of mystery: There was the ordinary street without brushwork or the depth of oil on canvas.

Close-up of "Sleeping Girl" (1880), by Pierre-August Renoir. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

Close-up of "Sleeping Girl" (1880), by Pierre-August Renoir. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

I can't say that I wholly agree with Dr. Marlow, for it's definitely possible to perceive beauty and mystery in the everyday scenes around us. It's a matter of opening the mind and paying attention to what's otherwise too familiar. Also, we can feel relief going in either direction. If the day we visit a museum, there are no major crowds, isn't it a relief to get away from the hustle and bustle on the street and the cacophony of blaring horns? At certain moments, when we're standing in front of a work of art that moves us, doesn't it feel as though we've entered a sacred space?

Close-up of "Sunset" (1879 or 1881), by Pierre-August Renoir. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

Close-up of "Sunset" (1879 or 1881), by Pierre-August Renoir. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

But I have to admit that, during my recent 5-week trip and others before it, at times my head was spinning. There was so much to take in, as though the only way to eat was to gorge at an overly abundant smorgasbord. I didn't relish indigestion.

It's a hard call how much art to view, especially when I don't know that I'll ever return to that museum or gallery, let alone that city or country. I used to think I had to do it all, for I might never again have the possibility. Over the years, I've changed my mind. In this one life, there's no chance that I'm going to get to every country, see every work of art, and so on. I don't want to. Fewer but more memorable experiences are far more valuable to me than quantity.

When confronted with a great deal of art, I have several options. Generally, I take a lot of photographs so that I can revisit the art in a more leisurely manner at home. However, they don't necessarily capture the textured details one sees in person. Mostly, I am highly selective about which exhibits I'll view, even how much of the exhibit. I limit myself so that I can enjoy what's there and what I feel drawn to for more than a fleeting glance. In this case, less is definitely more. Another approach is to intersperse museum visits with other activities. There's no formula. I go with what feels right on the particular day.

"Fumee d'ambre gris"(Smoke of Ambergris, 1880), by John Singer Sargent. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

"Fumee d'ambre gris"(Smoke of Ambergris, 1880), by John Singer Sargent. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

If I were to write about all the art I am fortunate to witness and include photos of everything I've seen, you'd soon stop reading this blog. There's only so much any of us can digest. That's why this post offers some tapas instead of a 12-course meal! Enjoy them as you like. These American and European artworks are part of the permanent collection at The Clark Art Institute near Williamstown, which a friend was kind enough to drive me to while I was in Massachusetts.

"Saco Bay" (1896), by Winslow Homer. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

"Saco Bay" (1896), by Winslow Homer. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

While I am usually more attracted to abstract rather than representational art, I was surprised by the light and depth in "Saco Bay," by American artist Winslow Homer (1836-1910). He painted this sunset at Saco Bay, Maine, near his studio. The two women, carrying lobster traps and fishing nets were among the last figures he included in his paintings, which progressively focused only on the sea. A reviewer at the time criticized Homer for the "unnatural strawberry sky," but the painter felt it was one of his best works. If I had not seen it in person, but only in a photograph, I don't know that it would have captured my attention. But as I entered the first gallery at The Clark, I was struck by that strawberry coloring.

In other rooms, I saw works by Inness, Degas, Renoir, Manet, Bonnard, Toulouse-Lautrec, Cassatt, Sargent, Millet, Monet, Morisot, Pissarro, Corot, and more.

These four dancers were modeled by Edgar Degas in the 1880s, then cast 1919-1921. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

These four dancers were modeled by Edgar Degas in the 1880s, then cast 1919-1921. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

One that seemed out of place, considering all the Impressionist paintings in the collection, was "Various Objects," by Louis Léopold Boilly (1761-1845). It's one of his earliest efforts at trompe l'oeil ("fool the eye") painting. He might have even invented the term. The painting seems to be dedicated to a couple, Monsieur and Madame Dandré, to whom some of the letters are addressed. The sprig of pansies (pensées, in French, which also means "thoughts") next to them seems appropriate. Who knows what the objects are conveying, perhaps something related to the couple's activities? It feels like a contemporary assemblage.

"Various Objects (1785), by Louis Léopold Boilly. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

"Various Objects (1785), by Louis Léopold Boilly. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

The last image below is of "The Sower," by Jean-François Millet (1814-1875), one of the founders of the Barbizon school in rural France. He is known for his sympathetic depictions of agricultural laborers and his profound influence on later artists, such as Pissarro and Van Gogh.

Questions and Comments:
If you consider viewing art a high priority at home or while traveling, how do you deal with the fact that so much is available? What are your strategies to counter feeling overwhelmed?

"The Sower" (c.1865), by Jean-François Millet. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

"The Sower" (c.1865), by Jean-François Millet. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

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