March 3, 2014

Simple Means, Divergent Meanings

Last month there was a show at Jeff Bailey Gallery, Simplest Means, that included some beautiful Shaker objects along with contemporary painting and sculpture. I was not going to write about this show because I had a disagreement with its premise, but the photographs I took at the show kept drawing me back to thinking about it. So what is my disagreement?...maybe it's a quibble but it really bothers me: in the press release for the show, the gallery emphasizes the formal links between the Shaker artifacts and the contemporary painting and sculpture on view:
The formal relationships established between the Shaker objects and contemporary artworks may seem accidental, however, it is through their making, by the simplest of means (media, method, and design), that purity and perfection are sought and perhaps achieved. 
For me, this formalist reading of the Shaker works ignores their originating impulse, as functional objects made by an intensely religious community as a form of prayer. Every aspect of life in Shaker communities was in service to God. Mother Ann, the Shaker founder, said:
Labor to make the way of God your own; let it be your inheritance, your treasure, your occupation, your daily calling. 
I consider myself a formalist as an artist––someone interested in color, shape, composition, form, etc––and I get great aesthetic pleasure from looking at the Shaker objects: the swelling curve of that bonnet ending in a quiet ruffle is stunning. But it is a leap to then compare its weaving with the repetition of shapes in a contemporary drawing or painting, a leap that fails utterly.

The Shakers had an egalitarian society, with women holding important positions; the founder of the sect was Mother Ann Lee, and the leadership in each village consisted of two men and two women. They were celibate so women and men kept apart even though they were equal. Work––farming, making furniture, putting up herbs, weaving––was all part of daily life and the members of the communities made the implements needed for that work, and sold some of it to support themselves. The fork above is a functional object, pleasing in its direct forms.

Shaker design is an early embodiment of the modernist "form follows function", and it arrived there through a prayerful attentiveness.

A ladle....

....and an iron, so perfect in form, so satisfying to contemplate.

Seth Koen, Tramontane, 2010; wood and aniline dye, 1/2 x 16 z 13 3/4 in.

Also satisfying were the contemporary works in this show. Koen's finely drawn line of wood rested in a corner, slightly tense, pushing outward.

Nathlie Provosty, Untitled (13-04), 2013; ink on tea-stained paper, 11 3/4 x 8 1/2 in. 

Delicate washes of dark create rhythmic hemispheres.

Chie Fueki, Check, 2013; acrylic on mulberry paper, 20 1/4 x 20 3/8 in. 

Folded paper acts like cloth in a brightly checkered pattern.

Don Voisine, Step Up, 2013; oil on wood, 11 x 12 in.

Monumental black, moving forward and back, is held in by a frame of brilliance.

Cary Smith, Splat #23, 2013; color pencil on Arches hot press watercolor paper, 9 x 9 in.

Organic forms grow, wriggling, from the geometric.

Michelle Grabner, Untitled, 2013; silverpoint and black gesso on panel, 12 in. diameter

A spinning wheel of light and dark arises from a fixed point, like the Big Bang. All the works in the show, which you can see here, are close to my sensibility, so I truly enjoyed seeing them. Whether or not I had an argument with the premise of the show, I'm glad to have seen it.


  1. This is a terrific collection and thoughtful commentary, as always. Thanks so much for posting this Altoon.

  2. thank you, this is great. I enjoy the photos and your reflections upon the works and the premise.

  3. Thanks for reading, and I'm glad you liked the post, Deborah and Ravenna.

  4. Your objection to the press release's emphasis on formality highlights the omission of the Shakers' originating impulse to simplify, but I wonder if contemporary formalists might also possess a spiritual dimension to their pursuit.

    1. Oh yes, Chris, there is certainly a spiritual yearning in much contemporary abstract painting and in that of the past; think of Malevich and Kandinsky. But that was not the context in which the work in the show was presented, and any private spirituality is entirely different from useful objects created in a strict religious community. See the Facebook thread for more thoughts on this.

  5. This was so interesting, Altoon. Thanks for such a thoughtful post. Boy, that iron is so beautiful...

    1. Thanks, Connie. Yes, that iron is stunning isn't it?

  6. I enjoy making things in Shaker form, and have decided Mother Anne must have been vision-impaired, and the workmen knew it, for the forms are simple, stripped-down, and elegant, most likely passing her feel-test, while sometimes the chatoyance of the figured-woods they used, or the outrageous shades of paint they applied were so sinfully sensual, they were perhaps getting one over on her!
    David Pye has some interesting things to say about form following function in the first chapter of The Nature & Aesthetics of Design.
    I thoroughly enjoy your blog. Thanks.

    1. Thank you, JBS, I'm glad you enjoy the blog. I haven't read anything about Mother Ann being vision impaired; the simplicity of the designs came from religious conviction not a physical defect. Most of the furniture was not painted and any paint on objects was, to my eye, quite subtle, not outrageous at all.