Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Fibers That Bind Us

Photo courtesy of Rachael Matthews from the UK Crafts Council
"High fiber" usually refers to a type of diet, but High Fiber at the National Museum for Women in the Arts demonstrates how "high art" integrates with the everyday world of a Folk Art.  In the multi-media world of contemporary art, Fiber Art has gained recognition as a serious art form over the last fifty years.  Like the art of glass making, fiber art was invented milleniums ago for utilitarian purposes. Knitting, sewing and weaving developed to meet basic needs of warmth and clothing, but as soon as pattern and design were involved, the process of making art began.

Knitted objects are often in Matthews' work
When the ancient artists/crafters knitted, knotted, wove or stitched to follow patterns or innate designs in their heads, they tied together movements between the left and right hands, bridging the creative left side of the brain with the analytical right side of the brain.

Contemporary fiber art may or may not have definite recognizable patterns and designs, but fiber art by definition is very tactile and textural.   It may also be sculptural.

The National Museum for Women in the Arts' exhibition of contemporary fiber artists, on view until January 6, 2013, features seven contemporary fiber artists, each working in styles completely different from the next one. High Fiber is the third installment of NMWA biennial Women to Watch exhibition series, in which regional outreach committees of the museum meet with local curators to find artists. The NMWA made a final selection of the seven artists representing different states and countries.

Rachael Matthews was a leader in a revival of knitting movement in the UK about 10 years ago.  She is co-owner of a knit shop in London, Prick Your Finger, where one is more likely to see objects crafted of yarn, rather than a sweater. In Knitted Seascape, 2004, Matthews used illusionism much the way painters do; her hanging curtains, lace-like and pleated, open onto the seascape seen through a false window.  She created depth similar to that in Raphael's visionary painting. The vigorous texture into those waves, making their foam as real as in a Winslow Homer seascape, is not painted but knitted.  Matthews also did a floor sculpture to which an hourglass and skull and crossbones attach.  We are reminded of death in A Meeting Place for a Sacrifice to the Ultimate Plan, 2010.  Another piece she supplied in the exhibition is a wedding dress, made as a collaborative effort where the individual pieces knit by different women form the whole.   Collaboration and connection is certainly a part of emerging trend in Fiber Art.

Louise Halsey, from the Arkansas council, is a weaver, who has spent years studying the ancient art of weaving, while teaching and doing workshops.   Her work demonstrates vivid color and technical perfection, but also shares the artist's own narrative ideas.  The four works in this show are images of homes. On her website, she explains, "Recently I have been weaving tapestries using the house as a symbol for what I cherish. These images of houses include placing the house amidst what I see as threats that are present in the environment."  Dream Facade, at right, may warn of being too strongly possessed and owned by vanity, while Supersize My House, 2011, questions the dream of bigger and bigger homes.

Louise Halsey, Dream Facade, 2005
wool weft on linen warf - tapestry technique

The house becomes sculpture in large, colorful constructions by Laure Tixier, from France and representing Les amis du NMWA, are based on architecture from around the world.  Like children's forts out of blankets, architecture meets the basic need for shelter with imagination in design.  She stitches the forms out of felt and very large Plaid House reflects the classical architecture of Amsterdam.  Smaller houses are also on display and they reveal her domestic interpretations of diverse types of architecture, including that of the future.  Tixier clearly has an interest in the symbolism and meaning of architecture in history.

Laure Tixier's Plaid House , 2008, wool felt and thread, 90-1/2" x 33-1/2" 
Collection of Mudam Luxembourg 

Debra Folz of Boston combines sophisticated cross-stitch patterns on furniture and mirrors with a sleek modern look. Her works are a contrast to the homespun beauty of some of the works described above, but she was trained in Interior Design.  The threads are small and look mechanical but can have depth, control, color harmony and pattern.  Mixing thread with a industrial materials may sound discordant, but this harmony of opposites is beauty!

Debra Folz, XStitch Stool, 2009.    Steel base, 
perforated steel and nylon thread, 20 x 14 x 12 in
Steel is the canvas for embroidery.  
Beili Liu, Toil, 2008, Silk organza,72 x 36 x 8 in

Homes and their contents give security and comfort, but not all works of art in the exhibition have a domestic meaning.  There are sculptural wall hangings and installations in the NMWA's show.  Beili Liu, recommended by the Texas State committee, spun strips of silk, a material traditionally associated with China, her country of origin.  For Toil, she burned the edges of silk fabric with incense before winding the strips into the funnel-shaped projections that point off the wall.  These forms twist and turn in various directions -- like miniature tornadoes -- creating paths and shadows on the wall.  A variety of beige and brown tones add to the richness of this view.  Liu's larger Lure Series (not on view) installations use thread to recall Chinese folklore, she has that is said her work highlights the tensions between her Eastern origins and Western influences. She bridges these gaps well.  In fact, fiber art is all about connecting.   

Fiber Art seems to be on the verge of asserting new importance into the world of art.  Jennifer Lindsay, one of my former students from the Smithsonian Associates and Corcoran College of Art and Design's Masters Program in the History of Decorative Arts, coordinated the public outreach, the design and collaborative installation of the Smithsonian Community Reef.  The replica of a coral reef in crochet made expressly for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History's 2010-2011
expressly for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History's  2010-2011 Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef project, is now on view in the Putman Museum of History and Natural Science in Davenport, Iowa, until 2016. 

Jennifer Lindsay, Cowgirl Jacket is a memento mori to Frida Kahlo, photo by Judy Licht
 Jennifer also dyes her own wool yarns and uses them to make intricate knitted and crocheted clothing, examples of which are shown here.  She calls her cowgirl jacket a memento mori for  Frida Kahlo.  It uses nearly every knitting stitch available.    Note the skeletons which link this design to El Dia de los Muertos.   Memento mori is a reminder of death.

Lindsay's Russian Star, photo by Judy Licht
Getting back to the women's museum, in the permanent collection, there are other works of fiber or those that remind us of fiber.  On the 3rd floor of the NMWA, Remedios Varo's Weaving of Space and Time is on loan along with two other works by Varo.  The oil on masonite painting uses a symbolic  circle to magically pull together the opposites of male and female figures, representing time and space.  Within the circle are threads, not real threads but painted threads in light glazes that weave together ideas.  Nearby is also a Judy Chicago painting whose circular painted form in acrylic and airbrush resembles the type of patterning with which traditional fiber artist created.  

NMWA also has a piece by Magdalena Abakanowicz, one of the best known fiber artists of today.  Four Seated Figures are of her recognizable life-size figural types made of fabric.  The same, yet different, these abakans are representative the anonymity and uniformity of communist society in Poland, what she has known during the bulk of her life.  Born in 1929, to Abakanowicz is accustomed to living in conditions which repressed individual creativity and intellect in favor of the collective interest.

Magdalena Abakanowicz, Four Seated Figures, 1974-2002, burlap, resin, metal pedestal
figure: 115 cm, 55 cm, 63 cm     pedestal: 76 cm, 47 cm, 23 cm
coll. The National Museum of Women in the Arts
Finally, we can be reminded of the diverse women came together for their quilt-making art who in a film of 1995 called How to Make An American Quilt, including Maya Angelou, Anne Bancroft, Ellen Burstyn, Alfre Woodard and Winona Ryder. Quilting is one the most lasting forms of Fiber Art, embedded into so many folk art traditions.  In the end, the making of a quilt is compared to life:  "As Anna says about making a quilt, you have to choose your combination carefully.  The right choices will enhance your quilt.  The wrong choices will dull the colors, hide their original beauty.  There are no rules you can follow.  You have to go by your instinct.  And you have to be brave."

It's with fibers that women can connect and that the women of history are tied to the women of today.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Monreale Cathedral Blends Many Art Traditions in Medieval Sicily

Sicily was controlled or settled at various times by Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Saracens,
Normans and Spaniards.  This view is Monreale, in the north, east of Palermo.
The island of Sicily has a central location in the Mediterranean Sea which has made it the most conquered region in Italy, and perhaps the world.  Even the Normans who ruled England also went to Sicily.  Despite the violence of the Middle Ages, today we can recognize that era in Sicily as providing an example of cross-cultural cooperation which is to be admired.  Islam, Judaism, Greek Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism lived in tandem and with tolerance during most of that period.  The different religious and cultural groups poured the best work of various artistic traditions in to the building of Monreale Cathedrale, about 8 miles outside of Palermo.

Bonnano of Pisa cast the bronze doors
in 1185

A Norman ruler, William II (1154-89), built Monreale Cathedral between 1174 and 1185. When the Roman Empire first became Christian, Sicily reflected the ethnic Greeks who lived on the island.  In the 8th century, Saracens conquered Sicily and held it for two centuries, although a majority of residents were Christians of the Byzantine tradition. William the Conqueror's brother Roger took over the island in 1085, but allowed the other groups to live peacefully and practice their religion. Normans, Lombards and other "Franks" also settled on the island, but the Norman rule between the late 11th and late 13th centuries was quite tolerant.  By the 13th century, most residents adopted the Roman Catholic faith. Germans, Angevins and finally, the Spanish took control of the island.
This pair of figural capitals in the cloister could be a biblical
story such as Daniel in the Lion's Den or even a pagan tale

Monreale Cathedral was built on a basilican plan in the Romanesque style that dominated Western Europe in the 12th century, although the Gothic style had already taken hold in Paris at the time of this building.  It is based on the longitudinal cross plan with a rounded east end. Two towers flank the facade.  (This Cathedral ranks right up with Chartres and Notre-Dame of Paris, as one of the world's most beautiful churches.)
Capitals feature men, beasts and beautiful
acanthus leaf designs

In the artistic and decorative details, there is great richness.  The portal has one of the few remaining sets of bronze doors from the Romanesque period.  These doors were designed and cast by a Tuscan artist, Bonanno da Pisa.  A cloister, similar to the cloisters of all abbey churches has a beautiful courtyard with figural capitals. Its pointed arches betray Islamic influence. The sculptors who carved the capitals are thought to have come from Provence in southern France, perhaps because of similarity in style to abbey churches near Arles and Nîmes, places with a strong Roman heritage.   However, on the exterior apse of the church is a surprise.   It has the rich geometry of Islamic tile patterns.  Islamic artists who lived in the vicinity of Monreale were probably called upon to do this work.
Islamic artisans decorated the eastern side of the church with rich geometric patterns 

The Greek artists who decorated the Cathedral's interior were amongst the finest mosaic artists available. The Norman ruler may have brought these great artisans from Greece. Monreale Cathedral holds the second largest extant collection of church mosaics in the world. The golden mosaics completely cover the walls of the nave, aisles, transept and apse - amounting to 68,220 square feet in total. Only the mosaics at Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey, cover more area, although this cycle is better preserved.  The narrative images gleam with heavenly golden backgrounds, telling the stories of Biblical history.  The architecture is mainly western Medieval while imagery is Byzantine Greek.
Mosaics in the nave and clerestory of Monreale Cathedral

A huge Christ Pantocrator image that covers the apse is perhaps the most beautiful of all such images, appearing more calm and gentle than Christ Pantocrator (meaning "almighty" or "ruler of all") on the dome of churches built in Greece during the Middle Ages.  The artists adopted an image used in the dome of Byzantine churches into the semicircular apse behind the altar of this western style church.  Meant to be Jesus in heaven, as described in the opening words of John's gospel, the huge but gentle figure casts a gentle gaze and protective blessing gesture over the congregation.  He is compassionate as well as omnipotent.

Christ Pantocrator, an image in the dome of Greek churches, spans the apse
of this western Romanesque church.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Words of Art and the Art of the Word

   Semen Fridliand, Die kaüfliche Presse (The Venal Press) 1929 halftone reproduction, 
6 1/4 x 8 1/4 in. (16 x 21 cm)  National Gallery of Art Library, David K.E. Bruce Fund
At least four exhibitions on the Mall, at the National Gallery of Art and Hirshhorn Museum, take a look at printed word in painting and other art forms of the past century.  Chronologically, these exhibits begin with the avant-garde artists of circa 1910 at the National Gallery of Art's "Shock of the News" exhibition.  They end with today's leading provocateur-artist, Ai Weiwei of China, at the Smithsonian's contemporary art museum, the Hirshhorn.   So we search for the meaning of the word in art.   
Jean-Léon Gérôme, O Pti Cien, 1902, is an academic style

In 1902, Jean-Léon Gérôme, a leading academic artist of the day, painted O PTI CIEN, a puppy wearing a monacle. The letters suggest a reading of "au petit chien" ("at the little dog"), which would sound approximately like  Oh P T shee-en to the French.  But the letters also form the French word for an optician. This work actually was a competition for an advertisement, but Gérôme's humorous pun set the stage for the Cubists, Surrealists and other artists who brought the painted word into prominence: Picasso and Georges Braque, Dada artists and even Surrealists like Magritte.

The intersection of the news media and visual art is the subject of the National Gallery's Shock of the News.  This cultural force burst onto the scene around the 2nd decade of the 20th century, when an Italian group, the Futurists, published their manifesto in 1909.  Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque were soon incorporating collage into Cubism and using words from the newsprint to articulate their artwork. Guitar, Sheet Music and Glass, 1912 has the masthead from "Le Journal," a Paris daily.  The letters Jou appear as reminders of le jour, meaning day, journal, the daily newspaper and jouer, which means to play.

Pablo Picasso, Guitar, Sheet Music, and Glass, 1912  sheet music, newspaper, colored and white paper, charcoal, and hand-painted faux-bois paper on wallpaper  47.9 x 36.5 cm (18 7/8 x 14 3/8 in.)Collection of the McNay Art Museum, Bequest of Marion Koogler McNay ©2012 
Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NewYork

That last word is the key, because modern art, if anything, is playful and ironic. If you can't make the world better, why not laugh about it?   The Dadaists, who followed Picasso, were despondent over the established civilization and the horrors of World War I.  Particularly in urban centers of Germany and in Paris and New York, they couldn't fight the world, so ridiculed it.  Their art is full of newsprint, ready-made objects and things not expected to part of aesthetics.   Hannah Hoch's collages are particularly playful and  interesting      

Hannah Höch  Von Oben (From Above), 1926-1927  photomontage and collage on paper 30.5 x 22.2 cm
(12 x 8 3/4 in.)Des Moines Art Center’s Louise Noun Collection of Art by Women through Bequest, 2003

Semen Fridliand's photo halftone image, The Venal Press, above center, is a commentary on the public's capability to let the press influence their to beliefs in everything.  How much greater that power is with the blogs, the facebook and Twitter of today!

Of course, Picasso continued to respect the power of print media in Guernica, of 1937 (not in the exhibition), which is his commentary the first time a bomb was dropped from air, hitting the Basque city of Guernica in Spain.  He wanted the monumental, 25-foot painting to have journalistic quality and therefore imitated the lettering of newspapers, while painting only blacks, whites and grays.
On Kawara,Oct. 26, 1971 (Today series no. 97), 1971
cardboard box, newspaper, and liquitex on canvas
painting: 10 1/8 x 13 in., box bottom: 10 1/2 x 13 3/8 x 1 3/4 in. box lid: 10 5/8 x 13 1/4 x 1 3/16 in. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Joseph H. Hirshhorn Purchase Fund, 2007. The Panza Collection

On Kawara painted the date, October 27, 1971, in white on a black canvas.  It is one of over 5,000 such images his has done over many years.  Each painting goes along with a cardboard box and cover and the packing functions as a time capsule, because the news of that day is place in the box with the painting.   After leaving the Shock of the News exhibition, National Gallery visitors move onto the next exhibition, Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective.

Roy Lichtenstein, Look Mickey, 1961, oil on canvas, 121.9 x 175.3 cm (48 x 69 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Roy and Dorothy Lichtenstein in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art © Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington

First and foremost, we think of Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997) as the artist who transformed the art of the comic book into a higher form of art.  As a Pop artist, he is often eclipsed in reputation by Warhol.  This large exhibition brings together works from his entire career, encompassing several themes.  Throughout his long career, he used bold colors and ben-day dots.  The dots imitative of a printer's dots for the comics and newsprint remain a consistent signature of his style, but Lichtenstein's late work parodies earlier art history using few words. His images of the 1960s borrow from cartoons, but he added captions and details to complete the compositions.  His captions capture the spirit and humor of certain cultural icons like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.  Other large cartoon-like images fill rooms on the specific themes of war and romance.  He uses boldness, humor and a surprising amount of emotion in a simplified style. 

Barbara Kruger, an installation at the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, through 2014
The bold, sans serif letters of Barbara Kruger overwhelm the ground floor of the Hirshhorn right now.  The exhibition, called Belief + Doubt = Sanity, uses words in every way to make us think. Kruger was a graphic artist before she became a fine artist and the heritage of graphic art remains part of her style and her appeal, much like it did for the Pop Artists before her.  The stairs and adjoining rooms are dressed in bold letters using only black, yellow, red and white, an overwhelming effect.  Her messages are arresting, questioning thought about politics, consumerism and all sorts of aspects of contemporary life.  We realize the dichotomy of much in the world in which political banter stems from belief in one truth.  The only sane way to evaluate it is with a blend of belief and doubt.  Her art functions to ask questions, to question the cultural norms and to make us stop to think.  As we ponder one of her bold messages, we recognize ourselves in the lines:  "YOU WANT IT, YOU BUY IT, YOU FORGET IT."

Ai Weiwei, Coca-Cola Vase, 2007, paint on Qing Dynasty
ceramic at Hirshhorn Museum until February 24, 2013
The Ai Weiwei exhibition, According to What (named after a painting by Jasper Johns currently in a Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibition, Dancing around the Bride), is on the 3rd and 4th floors of the Hirshhorn.   Like many contemporary artists, Ai Weiwei doesn't limit himself to one medium; he does photographs, sculptures installations.  He critiques American and Chinese governments, most notably the shoddy building construction which led to the death of 4,000 plus children in an earthquake. Ancient culture and modern life clash, but come together in Coco-Cola vase. He disrespects tradition but forces us to think how consumerism, corporate marketing and globalism meet ancient culture. 

The works of Ai Weiwei and Barbara Kruger entertain, but those artists also challenge us and make us think more than Pop Art does.  This summer I saw another contemporary, conceptual artist's work at the Institute of Contemporary Art in of University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.  Stefan Sagmeister's The Happy Show, is also the work of a graphic artist, like Kruger. The words printed are in black on a yellow ground, the typeface combination that can be read most easily in the mode of the yellow pages. Yellow is the happiest of colors.  Sagmeister made me think of a  modern "pursuit of happiness" written into the Declaration of Independence.  The exhibition questioned, provoked, entertained, tried to make us laugh and added one more valuable asset, encouraging happiness.  If we recognize the paradoxes that Barbara Kruger and Ai Weiwei demonstrate, it's possible to use the art of the word to promote not just "JOU" (play), but also joy in the world, or joy in the word.
Stefan Sagmeister, The Happy Show, at Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, April 4 - August 12, 2012