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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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.

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?

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