April 29, 2013

Rhubarb Leaves Unfurling: A Fancy Dress Ball

During my early morning garden inspection on Friday, I was entranced by the emerging leaves of the rhubarb plants as they unfolded from their round red knobs, at first looking like the convolutions of a brain. 

They were decorative and frilly, of varying hues of green and yellow, with touches of red. As they unfolded they seemed to be fists relaxing and loosening.  

 The crisp pleats of leaves became like elegant fans....

...or glorious bustles on a gown, or grand Renaissance collars.

From their beginnings, the rhubarb leaves take on a dramatic role; they begin as fabulously folded, sashaying their way into life, and grow into the grandest leaves in the garden.

April 28, 2013

El Anatsui: A Romance with Materials

Gli (Wall), 2010 detail; aluminum and copper wire

Hanging in the soaring atrium space at the Brooklyn Museum's exhibition Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui, are enormous shimmering curtain walls. For me, their magic lies in the small bits of metal shaped and connected, in a sense woven, to make the large work. I first saw El Anatsui's work several years ago at the Hood Museum and was enchanted by his use of discarded materials, mainly bottle caps, transforming them magically into glittering and colorful "fabrics".

Drifting Continents, 2009, detail; aluminum and copper wire

At this exhibition, I continued to be fascinated by the forms and colors of this recycled trash, where different ways of folding the metal create rich and complex interactions.

Gravity and Grace, 2010, detail; aluminum and copper wire

Even simple patterns of color are beautiful in detail, whether with some random colors crossed by a bent line....

Gravity and Grace, 2010, detail; aluminum and copper wire

...or with larger color-shapes. From a wall label at the exhibition, I learned that El Anatsui developed a palette of 30 different shapes from the basic materials. He has 40 assistants who bend and attach the pieces into color blocks, which he then assembles into a whole. I worry about those assistants handling small bits of metal all day long, but a friend who watched the video on the process assured me that they seemed very happy in their work.

Gravity and Grace, 2010; aluminum and copper wire

Then I came to the pieces themselves, huge works draped on the wall. I have read that there is no predetermined way to hang them, that the artist wants a fluid, unfixed process. When I stepped back from admiring the ordinary materials transformed, I was disappointed in the work itself, which seemed to me without form, and having too random an accumulation of color. It is as though these monumental pieces are just illustrations of what can be done with what is normally thought of as trash, without a compelling presence; the whole does not become greater than the sum of its parts.

Black Block, 2010; aluminum and copper wire

 But then...in the last gallery of the exhibition were two monochrome pieces, one black, one red, that stunned me; they had an emotional power and beauty far beyond what I'd seen in the other galleries. They somehow managed to be both severe and lush at the same time. The large gathered folds are swept into graceful curves, reminding me of medieval sculpture, similarly crisp and solemn.

Black Block, 2010, detail; aluminum and copper wire

The component parts of these Block works are smaller, and similar in color, so don't call as much attention to themselves.

Red Block, 2010; aluminum and copper wire

I am showing this photo of Red Block with figures so you can get a sense of its scale. The one dramatic diagonal fold at top plays against the vertical folds at the bottom, like a sweeping dress gathered in the hand. 

Red Block, 2010, detail; aluminum and copper wire

The sculptural quality of these two works gives them a majestic presence, simple yet deeply evocative. There is something touching and human about these warm curves, as we imagine our clothing, our linens, draped about us. In these two works, lowly materials have truly been transcended. 

April 25, 2013

New Prints, Cardboard and Potato, with Some Thoughts on Imperfection

Bulge, ink on Sansui SH8 paper; image size 10 x 14, paper size 18 x 22; ed. 3

For nearly my entire art making life I have been in pursuit of precision: of form, line, light, color; my paintings continue to aim for a kind of perfection, for a slow and careful looking. So it's something of a relief to have found a medium where I can throw all that out the window and embrace accident and imperfection. The prints I've been doing, both those made from corrugated cardboard plates and those from shapes cut out of potatoes, dipped in ink and stamped, seem to have imperfection inherent in their materials. I've made many prints in the past––both lithographs and drypoints––working on the plates and having them printed by master printers. I know how important it is to have an edition in which every print is like every other, with no variations. So are these prints I'm doing actual editions, when the one above is close to perfect but has a drip of yellow ink at the top?

Another one of the edition had a doubling of lines in the red, but somehow I didn't mind.

I thought this print was perfect until I noticed that some of the lines on the right faded off, likely because I didn't put enough pressure on that side of the paper when transferring the ink. Rather than be upset about these imperfections and thinking of them as sloppiness, I've decided to embrace them, treat them as an essential element of the work. People have mentioned the Japanese concept of Wabi-sabi to me in speaking about imperfection; Wikipedia says this about it:
Characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include asymmetry, asperity (roughness or irregularity), simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy, and appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes.
I would not venture to include my work in this aesthetic, but for me there is something of a relationship. 

Untitled 19, ink on Twinrocker paper, 2 panels each 15 x 7 1/4 in. 

The element of accident comes into play even more with my potato prints, where the piece of potato picks up ink in an irregular way; each stamp of the same shape comes out differently.

Untitled 20, ink on Masa dosa paper, 15 x 12 in.

For me, much of the interest in these prints is seeing the variations of inking that come from the stamping process.

Untitled 21, ink on Nishinouchi paper, 10 1/2 x 14 in. 

Shapes, though originating from the same piece of potato, can have a different character. None of it is planned; it is all improvised, hoping for a good outcome.

Untitled 22, ink on Nishinouchi paper, 12 x 12 in.

Repetition sets up rhythm and variation.

Untitled 23, ink on Twinrocker paper, 7 x 15 in. 

And variations come from light and heavy inking.

Untitled 24, ink on Twinrocker paper, 7 1/4 x 8 in. 

Untitled 25, ink on Twinrocker paper, 7 x 7 1/4 in. 

These two small pieces have surprising shifts of color in the larger shapes. I simply put the potato down on the palette in a couple of places, allowing color mixing, not knowing what will result. In a sense, this process is a letting go, a letting go of preconceptions, of control.

Untitled 26, ink on Gifu green tea light paper, 10 1/4 x 11 in. 

They are a letting go of the perfect, and instead finding pleasure in the irregular. 

April 23, 2013

New Life in a Vernal Pool

In early spring, it is magical to come across small bodies of water hidden in the woods, reflecting sky and trees on their glassy surfaces. These are vernal pools, whose water will evaporate later in the season.

They are filled with fallen leaves, branches, and downed trees, creating a rich visual stew, layered with actual and reflected objects.

Some reflections have their own artistry, with sensitively wriggling lines broken by the larger forms of leaf and moss covered branch.

The real action and wonder of these ponds is with the animal and insect life that they support. I was drawn to this pond, off my regular walking trail, by the loud singing of wood frogs who were busy reproducing in this tucked away place. You can see the large mass of eggs floating in the shallow water (more clearly seen if you click the photo to enlarge). And, at the upper left, there is a female laying eggs and a male atop a female.

In this species, the female is larger than the male. The male remains clasped on the female's back until she deposits her eggs, at which point he will deposit his sperm onto the eggs. From learning about this process here, I wonder why the female at the top has no male with her. It's fascinating to see this life going on around me, almost hidden, but prolific, a joyous part of spring.

*If you would like to hear the happy song of the wood frog, you can see my brief video of this vernal pool at this link on youtube. Putting a video into the blog post doesn't seem to work, so try the link, where the frogs sound like a flock of ducks.

April 21, 2013

Does Size Matter?

Jacopo Tintoretto, Paradise, 1592; oil on canvas, 30 x 74 feet. (see an excellent enlargement here)

Is bigger better? (speaking of artworks of course). It's been many years since I stood in front of this gigantic painting by Tintoretto, so I don't know how I'd feel about it now. Does the wow factor translate into something deeper?

Fra Angelico, The Apostle Saint James Freeing the Magician Hermogenes, 1425-29; tempera and gold on panel, 10.2 x 9 in. 

Or is there a different kind of awe that comes from the intense focus and intimacy that a very small work calls forth? The small predella panels of Fra Angelico have given me deep and complex aesthetic and emotional pleasure.

The Master of Catherine of Cleves, The Hours of Catherine of Cleves, ca. 1440, Saint Valentine; 7 1/2 x 5 1/8 in. Detail.

Seeing this exhibition of the Hours of Catherine of Cleves at the Morgan Library (you can see the entire manuscript in hi-res images at the link) inspired me to begin painting on parchment. The paintings are close to small miracles, taking us into a closely observed world full of stories and wonder.

Richard Serra, Junction/Cycle, 2011

In contemporary art, an artist who immediately springs to mind when thinking about very large work is Richard Serra. I happen to have come to love and appreciate his work, writing about my change of heart here. In thinking about the size of Serra's work, I feel that the enormity of it is essential to its meaning: our physical relationship with it, walking through and around it, is a powerful experience.

Ken Price, Geometrics, installation view from his retrospective at the LA County Museum of Art

At the same time there is someone like Ken Price, making tabletop clay sculpture, completely engaging and endlessly inventive.

Joel Shapiro, installation view from 2009 exhibition at LA Louver.

Or Joel Shapiro, who has made sculpture from tiny floor pieces to large public projects. I like his pieces like these, which are a smaller than human sized, where form and content and scale seem to work so well together. So here is a question: is Serra so much more well regarded than these other sculptors because he's truly a better artist, or because his works are monumental in size?

Anselm Kiefer, Jerusalem, 1986; acrylic, emulsion, shellac, and gold leaf on canvas (in two parts), with steel and lead; 12 1/2 x 18 1/3 feet.

When I think of giantism in contemporary painting, I think of Anselm Kiefer. I have had the opposite experience with Kiefer's work as with Serra's, beginning by admiring it enormously when I first saw it in the 1980s, finding a rich narrative in the imagery and use of materials, but now feeling bullied by the paintings; they seem to be unnecessarily large, like male braggadoccio. I've felt the same way about Frank Stella's work, and wrote a blog post about his "Irregular Polygon" series, which I felt were much much too large for their content and form. 

Raoul de Keyser, Again, 2010; watercolor and charcoal on canvas mounted on wooden panel, 
6 1/3 x 11 4/5 in. 

For me, the way I'm feeling about art making now, I find looking at modestly sized works such as those of Raoul de Keyser (see more paintings here) much more satisfying. Intimacy and tenderness are important qualities, certainly as important as boldness and grandeur. So now I come to why I've written this post, a brief complaint: I am tired of people telling me to work larger, telling me that my paintings, textiles, drawings, would look great really really big. They are not meant to be big; part of their meaning resides in their small size; at a larger size they'd be different work, work I'm not interested in doing now, though I have in the past and might in the future. Why is it that no one tells an artist about her six foot painting "gee, that would look so great at 12 inches!"? Each of us has to find what we want to say in our work, and how to say it, at whatever size works best; there should be no outsized respect for large work in itself.

April 18, 2013

Four New Hooked Wool Drawings

2013 #6, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 18 x 13 1/2 in. 

I recently finished a group of hooked wool drawings, two of which have my often-used central image and two with large areas of painted color. I just recently began using this second compositional format after seeing the "Inventing Abstraction" show at MoMA; I explain and show two examples in this blog post. In #6 I use Ellsworth Kelly's red blue green, and add yellow as a background.

2013 #7, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 14 3/4 x 12 in.

In a way, #7 has both the central image and painted background. I thought of the diamond as dangling from the square.

2013 #8, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 14 3/4 x 12 in.

I feel a little uncertain about the balance in this piece. My idea was to have the large rectangle tilting on top of smaller ones, but I think that it might be too large; perhaps the middle rectangle could have been a bit longer, the top one shorter?

2013 #9, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 11 1/2 x 18 7/8 in. 

#9 is like a small row of signs, barriers of some sort, but they are also simply bisected circles. It's interesting to think of how we insert narrative and emotion into geometric shapes.

April 17, 2013

Pattern: Quilts at the Brooklyn Museum

Robbing Peter to Pay Paul Quilt, ca. 1850; cotton

It's wonderful to realize that traditional quilting patterns have been used for over a century and a half, with each quilter adding their unique variations; if you google any of the pattern titles, you'll see how widely the quilts can vary within each pattern. The Brooklyn Museum currently has a wonderful show of quilts from their collection: "Workt by Hand": Hidden Labor and Historical Quilts. I photographed several examples at the show; I can't guarantee the accuracy of the color, since it was quite dark in the galleries, but the images will give you a good idea. Please click on the images to enlarge them to see more detail. I am particularly interested in the red and white quilt above, with its design of overlapping circles, which remind me of the drawings I've been doing based on a similar idea; here the circles are in a row, four circles around one, while the design I've been using has six circles around one.

Hexagon Quilt, Sweden, ca. 1880; cotton.

A multitude of small hexagons form circular designs, each sharing white hexagons with its neighbors.

Delectable Mountains Quilt, ca. 1850; cotton.

What a delightful name for a quilt pattern, and so odd. So I looked it up and it turns out that the title comes from John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress; they are one of the rest havens. From this quilting website I found this quote:
So they went up to the mountains, to behold the gardens and orchards, the vineyards and fountains of water; where also they drank, and washed themselves and did freely eat of the vineyards. 

Flying Geese Quilt, ca. 1847; printed cottons.

Triangles form the basis for several patterns: Delectable Mountains, Flying Geese....

Baskets Quilt, ca. 1860; cotton.

...and a more representational Baskets.

Log Cabin Quilt, Barn Raising Setting, ca. 1890; cotton.

Log Cabin uses long rectangles pieced together. This quilt is very dramatic with its dark diamond shaped pattern between the lighter colors.

Touching Stars Quilt, ca. 1850; cotton.

This quilt is a stunning array of diamond shapes put together to make a star, with large white diamonds as shapes between the stars.

This amazing quilt is dizzying in its complexity, and powerful in its imagery. Unfortunately, I forgot to photograph the wall label so can't give you any information on it. Even though it uses the same piecing of diamonds as the Touching Stars quilt, it is only one central star with octagons surrounding it. 

Here's a detail of the center of the quilt, so you can see how the shapes are pieced together.

Tumbling Blocks Quilt, 1865-70; made by Mrs. Victoria Royale Broadhead; silk, velvet, wool.

This was the only quilt I photographed whose maker was known; it won awards at two state fairs. The pattern plays with illusionism, as piles of blocks seem to sit atop one another in endless succession. To make the illusion, diamond shapes are pieced together....I couldn't figure it out, but found the key to the pattern here. I will never be a quilter, but some of these design ideas might find their way into my textiles one day.