May 24, 2005

American Gothic - 75 years of an icon

American Gothic
For the 75th anniversary of American Gothic, Harvard historian and social critic Steven Biel has written a book, American Gothic: A Life of America's Most Famous Painting. The painting portrays the artist's sister and his elderly dentist (photo taken in 1942).

Biel summarizes the significance of the image:

"During the Depression, it came to represent endurance in hard times through the quintessential American values of thrift, work, and faith. Later, in television, advertising, politics, and popular culture, American Gothic evolved into parody—all the while remaining a lodestar by which one might measure closeness to or distance from the American heartland."

American Gothic by Gordon ParksNPR's Melissa Gray offers this audio commentary of American Gothic Gray explores the composition of the work: "The three-pronged pitchfork is one obvious example, but look more closely and you'll see echoes of the design on the face of the man, the bib of his overalls, and the lines on his shirt. In fact, the straightforward Gothic style extends to the directness of the painting itself... In addition to its architectural connotations, "Gothic" can also mean crude or underdeveloped. It's an implication Wood was likely aware of when he titled the painting, though it's unlikely that this was his sole observation about the pair."

In 1942, Gordon Parks provided the first parody American Gothic. It is a parody without humor though:

"American Gothic," considered to be Parks's signature image, was taken in Washington, D.C., in 1942, during the photographer's fellowship with the Farm Security Administration, a government agency set up by President Roosevelt to aid farmers in despair. "It's the first professional image I ever made," Parks says, "created on my first day in Washington." Roy Stryker, who led the FSA's very best documentary photographers—Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Carl Mydans, etc.—told Parks to go out and get acquainted with the city. Parks was amazed by the amount of bigotry and discrimination he encountered on his very first day. "White restaurants made me enter through the back door, white theaters wouldn't even let me in the door, and as the day went on things just went from bad to worse." Stryker told Parks to go talk with some older black people who had lived their entire lives in Washington and see how they had coped. "That's how I met Ella," Parks explains.
Ella Watson was a black charwoman who mopped floors in the FSA building. Parks asked her about her life, which she divulged as having been full of misery, bigotry and despair. Parks's simple question, "Would you let me photograph you?" and Ella's affirmative response, led to the photographer's most recognizable image of all time. "Two days later Stryker saw the image and told me I'd gotten the right idea but was going to get all the FSA photogs fired, that my image of Ella was 'an indictment of America.' I thought the image had been killed but one day there it was, on the front page of The Washington Post ." At the time, Parks couldn't have realized that the image would go on to become the symbol of the pre-civil rights era's treatment of minorities. "

An article in the Boston Globe looks at the image and our identity:

"American Gothic could not work as parody if the original did not have power of its own. Biel is not an art critic, and he hesitated to comment on the painting, apart from the myriad understandings others have had. But when pressed to do so, he gazed up at it over his desk and mused, 'It's haunting -- creepy in a lot of ways. Look at those faces. They're disturbing. Why isn't she looking at us? He is -- why isn't she? What does he want, peering into our souls? He is holding a pitchfork, but there's no dirt on it. Is he posing with it because this is Sunday afternoon and this is one of the tools of his trade? Or is there something -- more sinister?'"

Posted by sfenton at 08:42 AM

Art - a better way to learn?

How should art be taught? Ellen Lupton (educator, designer and curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum) makes some shocking proposals in her AIGA article, The Re-Skilling of the American Art Student. Her recommendation is that students be taught a set of skills:

"The idea of skill has come to seem woefully outdated in an art world that emphasizes conceptual innovation, and making the right statement at the right time, with the right media. Gone are the days when life drawing was the backbone of any artists’ skill set. The term “skill” carries not only an academic connotation, but a working-class one. The skilled worker is one who knows something about a particular process (which puts him or her a step above the unskilled worker), but is not part of the professional class. Plumbers, auto mechanics and short-order cooks are skilled workers.
I’m arguing for the re-skilling of the American art student across the disciplines of fine and applied art...."

The skills list:

  • Conceptual skills: how to get ideas
  • Technical skills: how to realize ideas
  • Critical skills: how to build the discourse
  • Social skills: how to work with people and make things happen
  • Professional skills: how to make a living

Interestingly, Critical skill focuses on an understanding of history and style:
"We help students place their work in a historical and social context. Why do the fields of art and design function the way they do? What issues are artists and designers currently confronting in their work, and what’s the tradition against which contemporary practice takes place? This critical understanding helps students engage the world in a relevant way. The highest level of success for a designer or artist is, in my view, to create work that influences others in the field (or better yet, people in other fields). Such work contributes to the discourse. "

Posted by sfenton at 08:22 AM

May 12, 2005

Too much copyright??

Brooklyn Street Art Initiative - copyright artHave we all gone too far in copyright insanity? Bouncing around the blogging community is a discussion about street art with a copyright symbol that has appeared in Brooklyn. At the right edge of the image photo (left) you can catch a glimpse of the drawing that is being copyrighted.

Stay Free is of the opinion that the copyright is part of the art experience. Hard to say, but it does make me reflect that the sense of profitable ownership in art may have gone a bit too far.

UPDATE: May 16,2005
A response from the folks at Stay Free: I think you've got our take at Stay Free!'s backwards, Serena.

At the time that I wrote the post I thought the idea of copyrighting chalk street art was laughable and invited him to come after me for posting a photo on the Stay Free blog. On reflection, I think the copyright is INTENDED to make the work stand out so that people talk about it and reproduce it.

-Charles
http://blog.stayfreemagazine.org

Posted by sfenton at 08:21 AM

March 15, 2005

Critical Overview of Art Dealings

If you ever suspect that the rarefied world of fine art seems more like a street corner shell game than a pursuit for truth, wisdom and beauty, then the (U.K.) Telegraph has an article for you. 'It's not like selling socks' provides background on the upcoming Art Task episode of BBC2 series The Apprentice. The Art Task requires the candidates to sell an entire gallery of contemporary art in a single evening. A short clip from the article:

"The era from the Renaissance through to the mid-19th century was one of patronage. But then the capitalist intermediary, the dealer, took over. And as early as 1871 the prestigious periodical the Art Journal was lamenting their part: 'The influence of the dealer is one of the chief characteristics of modern art… to him has been owing… the immense increase in the prices of pictures.'

...But dealers are anxious to explain that this is a game properly played by experts unmotivated by the fast buck. Wigram prides himself on having a 'good eye' and being able to pick a winner; marketing instincts, he says, are irrelevant. His words chime with those of David Risley, a dealer now with his own flourishing gallery after making his first sale out of a bookshop, off the Charing Cross Road: 'I never think about what's going to sell, I just think about what I like.' Leslie Waddington, who has been running blue-chip galleries in Cork Street for four decades, warns of 'the great danger that people start seeing with their ears instead of their eyes.' Only Maureen Paley, the founding of whose gallery Interim Art in 1984 spearheaded the London art world's shift to the East End, is happy to think of herself as an entrepreneur. She describes art dealing as 'a life's work', in which she is ultimately 'promoting a cultural position'."

Posted by sfenton at 08:31 AM | Comments (0)

March 07, 2005

NY Public Library Digital Image Archive

poster by Arthur Wesley DowNew York Public Library has opened its digital gallery to the public. So far, about 275,000 items are online, "digitized from primary sources and printed rarities in the collections of The New York Public Library, including illuminated manuscripts, historical maps, vintage posters, rare prints and photographs, illustrated books, printed ephemera, and more."

A New York Times review complains of the old fashioned organization of the collection: "The digital gallery is modeled on an old-fashioned card catalog, with all the attendant creaks. Doing a search is like going into a library and opening file drawers." Yet this is also a great charm of the collection: the sense of exploration and discovery.

Browsing can occur through the archive's front page collections list, or by subject, or name/title.

Some collections that will be of interest to fiber artists are:
Ornament and Pattern: Pre-Victorian to Art Deco (including several books - 256 pages - by Seguy)
The Floating World: Japanese Color Woodcuts by Kitagawa Utamaro (56 color plates)
Turn of the Century Posters
Anyone up for creating a work exploring the inhumanity of slavery and the dreams of freedom and a better life? There is the log of a slave ship and The gospel of slavery: a primer of freedom..
On a lighter note and reminiscent of Wayne Thiebaud's paintings, there is the book of Ladies' dress shoes of the nineteenth century or The history of the feminine costume of the world, from the year 5318 B.C. to our century.

Note that images prior to 1922 are not subject to copyright fees. The library has a thoroughly considered pricing schedule for all other images.

Lots of inspiration. Drop by for a visit!

Posted by sfenton at 09:14 AM | Comments (0)

November 11, 2004

Pretty Impressive Stitch Dictionary

stitch example by RissaEmbroiderers in search of new stitches now have an illustrated online stitch dictionary that they can turn to for inspiration. standard stitches are there, illustrated with high quality graphics and solid directions. There are also some more unusual stitches, such as the Tête de Boeuf and some fun combinations, such as the Tête de Boeuf + Sheaf Stitch. A number of the stitches include beaded variations.

The site, Pretty Impressive Stuff, is the creation of Rissa Peace Root. Rissa's also home page includes links to a number of other needlework articles and resources that Rissa has put online: Blackwork, Crewel, Punch Needle, Redwork, Shadow Work, Stumpwork, Tassel-making, and more. A great resource for days when your energy is high and inspiration is low.

Posted by sfenton at 02:47 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 11, 2004

Art versus Design

Scott Burton, Two Curve ChairThe New York Times reviews the show Design Is Not Art: Functional Objects From Donald Judd to Rachel Whiteread, at the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. There are some new and interesting quotes in the first half of the article on the "what is art / what is design?" question: "Donald Judd intones that art and design fulfill two entirely different purposes. Scott Burton seems to argue against the distinction, stating that contemporary art is taking an increasingly 'relative,' or physical, relationship to the viewer: 'It will place itself not in front of but around, behind, underneath (literally) the audience in an operational capacity.' Richard Tuttle states sagely that 'a great designer has to know everything while an artist doesn't have to know anything.'"

Finally a conclusion is reached: "Artists can do whatever they want in their art; such liberty is the point of the activity. Design involves a kind of selflessness and a complex awareness of the givens: the human body and its needs, social space, the laws of gravity, the means of production and the demands of the marketplace."

Sadly, from the web view, the review is more interesting and thought provoking than the actual exhibition. The artists invited to submit an object are all "well-known Minimalists, Post-Minimalists and post-Post-Minimalists". The work appears like a reunion of international style groupies who are trying to keep up impressions for in their declining twilight. The chair pictured (right) is supposed to express 'sculpture in love with furniture'. Maybe. But I wouldn't want to sit on it on an icy January night.

I think I'll skip the art and stick with the quotes: "As a designer, however... he can be authoritarian and even sadistic."

Posted by sfenton at 09:06 AM | TrackBack

August 15, 2004

Eye-Placement In 500 Years Of Portraits

Tyler:  depiction of one eye as compositionally dominant over the other with the head in a variety of posesSomething that we never discussed in Art History, and I am feeling the urge to search through my books and check this hypothesis: that in paintings the dominant eye (rather than the nose) is centered within the painting. Christopher W. Tyler of Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute studied 282 portraits created over five hundred years and reached an interesting conclusion: "The eye centering with an accuracy of ~1 eye width is barely mentioned in art criticism, suggesting that unconscious functions operate in our aesthetic judgements."

Tyler offers several hypothesis for his discovery and even has some statistics to prove his theory. I can't speak to the statistical validity, but his theory of eye placement is a great reference to keep in mind when planning a composition!

Posted by sfenton at 03:24 PM

May 11, 2004

Beauty : Silence : Solitude : Serenity : Joy

 ©1989 tim street-porter,In 1980, Mexican architect Luis Barragan won the Pritzker Prize for architecture. This is an considered architecture's Nobel Prize. His acceptance speech is as moving today as it was then - and relevant to fiber or any other art. Barragan's complete acceptance speech and photos of his work are published in on the Pritzker Prize web site. Here are some excerpts of his speech:

"It is alarming that publications devoted to architecture have banished from their pages the words Beauty, Inspiration, Magic, Spellbound, Enchantment, as well as the concepts of Serenity, Silence, Intimacy and Amazement. All these have nestled in my soul, and though I am fully aware that I have not done them complete justice in my work, they have never ceased to be my guiding lights.

Religion and Myth. It is impossible to understand Art and the glory of its history without avowing religious spirituality and the mythical roots that lead us to the very reason of being of the artistic phenomenon. Without the one or the other there would be no Egyptian pyramids nor those of ancient Mexico. Would the Greek temples and Gothic cathedrals have existed? Would the amazing marvels of the Renaissance and the Baroque have come about?

And in another field, would the ritual dances of the so called primitive cultures have developed? Would we now be the heirs of the inexhaustible artistic treasure of worldwide popular sensitivity? Without the desire for God, our planet would be a sorry wasteland of ugliness. "The irrational logic harbored in the myths and in all true religious experience has been the fountainhead of the artistic process at all times and in all places " These are words of my good friend, Edmundo O'Gorman, and, with or without his permission, I have made them mine.

Beauty. The invincible difficulty that the philosophers have in defining the meaning of this word is unequivocal proof of its ineffable mystery. Beauty speaks like an oracle, and ever since man has heeded its message in an infinite number of ways: it may be in the use of tatoos, in the choice of a seashell necklace by which the bride enhances the promise of her surrender, or, again, in the apparently superfluous ornamentation of everyday tools and domestic utensils, not to speak of temples and palaces and even, in our day, in the industrialized products of modern technology. Human life deprived of beauty is not worthy of being called so.

Silence. In the gardens and homes designed by me, I have always endeavored to allow for the interior placid murmur of silence, and in my fountains, silence sings.

Solitude. Only in intimate communion with solitude may man find himself. Solitude is good company and my architecture is not for those who fear or shun it.

Serenity. Serenity is the great and true antidote against anguish and fear, and today, more than ever, it is the architect's duty to make of it a permanent guest in the home, no matter how sumptuous or how humble. Throughout my work I have always strived to achieve serenity, but one must be on guard not to destroy it by the use of an indiscriminate palette.

Joy. How can one forget joy? I believe that a work of art reaches perfection when it conveys silent joy and serenity." Luis Barragan; Pritzker Architecture Prize Laureate; 1980

image: From the book "CASA MEXICANA" ©1989 Tim Street-Porter, published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang, New York.

Posted by sfenton at 05:34 PM | Comments (1)

April 24, 2004

Cultural Inspiration versus Appropriation

 Human raven Mask, Bella Coola people, Pacific northwest coast, mid-19th century A.D., wood and pigmentFor the past week on RaggedClothCafe, we have been discussing when it is ethical to use another culture's artwork as inspiration for one's own, and when it is simply copying (And often not very interesting at that.) My 2 cents worth was about Bill Holm, a white guy from Montana who so thoroughly documented Northwest Coast Indian Arts that he became the link passing the knowledge on to a new generation of Native Artists.

After a week of respectful discussion, I was surprised to find an article in the New York Times, Artifacts for Art's Sake: An Eclectic Array, about a collection of Pacific Northwest Coast Indian art from the collection of a New Yorker. But the question of this article seemed to be, 'is this really art?' A quote from the article: "In their eyes, there is no difference between the aesthetic and emotional pleasures derived from European and American art and that of Native Americans. And they are spreading the word." And the conclusion: "What it does do is affirm the distance we've come toward understanding that historic Native American art — particularly object-making — has a worthy aesthetic place in world culture."

Huh? Almost a century after Picasso validated African art to the Western eye, we are still debating the value of the indigenous vision? Or is this a move aimed at the art valuation market. The article has some beautiful images, but the context is so sadly xenophobic that I am still shaking my head.

image: Human raven Mask, Bella Coola people, Pacific northwest coast, mid-19th century A.D., wood and pigment (Smithsonian Institution)

Posted by sfenton at 10:01 AM | Comments (2)

April 20, 2004

No Copyright for Quilt Techniques

There is an odd misconception in the quilt world that a technique can be one quilter's private (copyrighted) property. You may have a very cool way of doing borders, yet you cannot 'copyright' this and force all others to pay homage to you as supreme border maker. (But wouldn't it be cool if you could?)

Basics: patents, copyrights, trade secrets and trademarks are all part of a larger entity called "intellectual property".

Copyright protects an artist's right to expression. If you create and original picture, poem, or song, it is protected by copyright.

Patents cover process or techniques.

Here's the official U.S. Government's explanation:
Copyright - An Author's Expression:
A copyright is an exclusive right to reproduce an original work of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, to prepare derivative works based upon the original work, and to perform or display the work in the case of musical, dramatic, choreographic, and sculptural works.

Copyright protection does not extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, or embodied. Rather, copyright protection is limited to an author s particular expression of an idea, process, concept, and the like in a tangible medium.

"The kinds of works covered by copyright include: literary works such as novels, poems, plays, reference works, newspapers and computer programs; databases; films, musical compositions, and choreography; artistic works such as paintings, drawings, photographs and sculpture; architecture; and advertisements, maps and technical drawings."

"Patents: Article 27 of the TRIPS Agreement provides that WTO member states shall provide patents for any invention, either a product or a process for creating a product, 'provided that they are new, involve an inventive step, and are capable of industrial application.' In other words, to be patentable, an invention must be novel, useful, and nonobvious..."

To summarize, copyright covers artistic expression; patent covers a process.
- Making a border is a process;
- Sewing a curve is a process;
- Doing embroidery is a process.

If a stitch artist believes that they have invented a "novel, useful, and nonobvious" way of sewing a border, they can apply for a patent to protect the process.

If that same stitch artist writes up a sheet on how to make their favorite type of border, they can copyright that sheet of instructions and the way they have phrased it (some folks have a gift with words) or illustrated it. But the process itself is not protected copyright.

So - the question remains - what is uniquely yours and how to protect your expressions? Knitty has some further explanations and ideas: " We've already discussed the notion of a sweater as a copyrightable work of artistic craftsmanship. If we accept that this store sweater is such a thing, then yes, it's protected by copyright. And yes, publishing instructions telling other people how to replicate it may be a form of authorizing or counselling infringement.

By the way, copyright aside, there are other ways to protect a sweater design. It could be the subject of an industrial design, also known as a registered design or a design patent. Such registered designs can offer more definite protection than copyright, and there's no fair dealing or fair use defence. However, registered designs are more expensive to obtain than copyright, and of shorter duration. A sweater design could also be protected through unregistered design or trademark rights if the designer could prove she was known for or associated with a certain style of design"

Notice - what Knitty is addressing is a design, not a process!

Posted by sfenton at 02:19 PM | Comments (0)

April 13, 2004

The Magic of Images - What Endures?

The Magic of Images by Camille Paglia is a serious academic article, which provides a challenging assumption of where we (as a society) are now in image-making and visual communication. This is an issue not frequently discussed by quilt makers, but essential to our vitality in the larger arts community:

"Young people today are flooded with disconnected images but lack a sympathetic instrument to analyze them as well as a historical frame of reference in which to situate them. I am reminded of an unnerving scene in Stanley Kubrick's epic film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, where an astronaut, his air hose cut by the master computer gone amok, spins helplessly off into space. The new generation, raised on TV and the personal computer but deprived of a solid primary education, has become unmoored from the mother ship of culture. Technology, like Kubrick's rogue computer, HAL, is the companionable servant turned ruthless master. The ironically self-referential or overtly politicized and jargon-ridden paradigms of higher education, far from helping the young to cope or develop, have worsened their vertigo and free fall. Today's students require not subversion of rationalist assumptions—the childhood legacy of intellectuals born in Europe between the two World Wars—but the most basic introduction to structure and chronology. Without that, they are riding the tail of a comet in a media starscape of explosive but evanescent images."

But, unlike most (myself included) Paglia goes beyond citing the problem and grumbling. She proposes a solution in understanding the historic image making that can still involve the contemporary viewer (no, it's not Picasso or Pollock):

"At the Castillo cave complex in Santander, Spain is the so-called Frieze of Hands, a series of forty-four stenciled images—thirty-five left hands and nine right. In some cases, as at the Gargas cave in the French Pyrenees, mutilated hands appear with only the stumps of fingers. It is unclear whether the amputation was the result of frostbite or accident or had some ritual meaning of root, primal power.

These disembodied hands left on natural stone 25,000 years ago would make a tremendous impression on students who inhabit a clean, artificial media environment of hyperkinetic cyber images. The hand is the great symbol of man the tool-maker as well as man the writer. But in our super-mechanized era, many young people have lost a sense of the tangible and of the power of the hand. A flick of the finger changes TV channels, surfs the web, or alters and deletes text files. Middle-class students raised in a high-tech, service-sector economy are several generations removed from the manual labor of factories or farms." (Scroll to the bottom of Paglia's article to view the images)

The Magic of Images by Camille Paglia

Posted by sfenton at 09:44 AM | Comments (2)

April 09, 2004

Judy Chicago - The Dinner Party

Since Judy Chicago's Dinner Party is considered one of the most significant art pieces of the 20th Century - and one of the few created by a woman, it seemed proper to revisit the work. The work was created in 1979 and reflects the first wave feminism of that era. It also is a work of the 70s - birth control pills, wife-swapping and disco; its a celebration of woman as represented by their genitalia. "Sometimes beautiful, sometimes provocative, sometimes downright ugly in design, the plates evoke or blatantly resemble vulvas, flowers and butterflies, sometimes in relief several inches high. Each is paired with an often sumptuously embellished cloth runner to form a symbol-laden portrait of a mythic, legendary or historical woman, beginning with a generic Primordial Goddess and ending with Georgia O'Keeffe"

It is interesting to me - and perhaps a bit contradictory that Ms Chicago supervised over 400 women in the making of this work, yet hers is the only name credited with the piece. Most of Chicago's works have the commonality of this nameless collaboration. Chicago has identified that woman's art is largely anonymous, but unfortunately, she has continued this tradition, using the labors of 'volunteers' to create her vision.

Judy Chicago should have put fiber art on the map. But what she has done instead seems to be an exploitation of the quilter, embroiderer, ceramicist to build her own reputation. The work is extraordinary. But it would be easier to celebrate if we were doing it with the creators themselves, not just the director.

Posted by sfenton at 10:26 AM | Comments (5)

Top 100 of 20th Century Art

The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago, 1979Matthew White has undertaken an atlas of the Twentieth Century. As part of his effort, he has created "The 100 Most Important Art Works of the Twentieth Century"

White explains his methodology, "To determine the 100 most important art works of the Century, I simply counted up the number of times a particular work of art was reproduced in the following history books. For example, the fact that Grant Wood's American Gothic illustrates three art history books, while Edward Hopper's Nighthawks illustrates five books is a pretty good indication that the experts consider Nighthawks to be the more important of the two. I also gave a work a few bonus points if it was displayed more prominently than its peers, such as on the cover, or in color among mostly grey scale illustrations."

I don't think that my old statistics prof would accept this as scientific, but the results are worth pondering, and probably as valid as any 'top hits' listing. My knee-jerk complaint would be about the books that White chose to consult. Most of them were written by men. I'm hoping this would explain that paucity of women artists. I found Georgia O'Keefe (#51) and Judy Chicago (#87).

On the other hand, White redeems himself and his list with some humorously glib asides like: "Giorgio de Chirico, Song of Love (Surrealist: 1914): mask of Alexander the Great and rubber glove. I'm afraid to ask what this has to do with love."

image: The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago, 1979

Posted by sfenton at 09:44 AM | Comments (0)

March 12, 2004

Whitney Biennial 2004

Whitney Biennial websiteNY Times review of the 2004 Whitney Biennial has been published. As an explanation to the uninitiated, the Whitney Biennial is one of the biggest events in the contemporary art world. It's the anointing of who's cool and interesting in the art world right now.

This Biennial seems to have focused much more on drawing that any that I can remember, which is good in my view. In the past, there were years where huge self-indulgent photographs and conceptual art were the main viewing options. (review of the 1993 biennial). The inclusion of David Hockney, creator of colorful representational paintings, seems to indicate a lightheartedness may be creeping into the New York Art world.

The Whitney's web site for the Biennial, offers a chance to look at the works from afar. While we miss the experiential light room, we can read snippets of information about each artist and their influences as we view the pieces. The site offers the opportunity to view tiny thumbnail images of the works (see image left) and then view increasingly larger images with more information at each level. Warning: this being New York Art, some of the art works are intentionally offensive and/or shocking.

Posted by sfenton at 08:59 AM | Comments (2)

March 06, 2004

Gauguin's Paradise from the NY Times

Arearea (Joyousness) by Paul Gauguin A New York Times article by Holland Cotter has exposed the myth that Gauguin found paradise in Tahiti and lived in paradise happily ever after. It seems that there was much more to the traditional story of Gauguin as the banker who abandoned his family and home, driven to paint a primitive beauty and retreat from "everything that is artificial and conventional."

There are some head-turning revelations in this article: "Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) thought of himself as a questing hero. He may even have imagined himself a saint, though he wasn't. In fact, he was in many ways a dreadful man, a bully, a whiner, a conniver, a sexual opportunist who would hit on your wife or your daughter or your son the minute you left the room." Nope, that is not the man that we studied in art history class (though I did wonder why everyone in paradise was young and beautiful.)

Most surprising and possibly most instructive is the revelation that Tahiti was not a pristine paradise in Gauguin's time, but rather was a colony repressed by Westernization. "Tahiti was Europeanized, visually unspectacular (at least what he first saw of it) and expensive. Scant traces of indigenous religion remained; Christian missionaries had seen to that. But what could he do? Turn around and go back? Go back to what? So he stayed and set about creating the Tahiti he wanted in his art."

What we see is not the Tahiti of the late 19th century, but rather the Tahiti that Gauguin sought. He never found it, so he created it. The article professes that Gauguin invented this Tahiti for commercial reasons, but what if he invented it just for himself? What if an artist creates paradise just because they need it?

This tale reminds me of the author Anne Dillard, famous for her Pulitzer Prize winning book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Dillard has managed to focus on the beauty and wonder of her surroundings, to the degree that most folks never guess that she has written about a small, now polluted, creek that wanders through suburban Roanoke, Virginia. How much, as artists, do we create our own reality?

Posted by sfenton at 02:53 PM | Comments (1)

February 25, 2004

Depicting the Inexpressible

tile relief from Babylon - Dragon of MardukHow to show the unviewable (and unknowable) has been one of the obsession of man since the beginning. Early religions dealt with the notion of representing God by dividing him up into aspects and then creating earthly representations of those aspects. These could be made into statues, paintings, mosaics and worshipped as if it were the genuine article.
Most modern religions refrain from depicting God. Perhaps man has finally gotten clever enough to acknowledge when a concept is too immense to be dealt with in one image.

The exception to this, however, is the portrayal of Christ. Since Jesus was God-made-man, he should be able to be depicted (in theory, anyhow). For at least 1700 years, people have been doing just that. Prior to that, they were content to use the the fish symbol. Perhaps they should have just stuck with fishes, because every portrayal of Christ has to deal with some skeptic saying, "do you think he really looked like that?"

A recent New York Times article looks at the latest portrayal of divinity, Mel Gibson's "The Passion of Christ", which features Jesus-as-hunk. The article states: "archaeological evidence that the average man of Jesus' day was about 5 feet 3 inches tall and a bantamlike 110 pounds. Given the harsh conditions, especially for working stiffs like the members of Jesus' family, combined with Jesus' ascetic lifestyle, which included walking everywhere, scholars agree that he was most likely a rather sinewy peasant, as tough as a root and about as appealing." Hmmm. The article goes on to give a fascinating overview of how we have remade Christ's imagery to fit our moods for all these thousands of years. It offers some insight into our gods and our notions of what is god-like appearance, as well as some paintings based on archeological evidence. It would seem that the root of the issue though might not be "Did Jesus have blue eyes", but rather how does one capture the immensity of divinity in without being abstract?


The First Elegy by Rainier Maria Rilke

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels' hierarchies?
and even if one of them pressed me suddenly against his heart:
I would be consumed in that overwhelming existence.
For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.
Every angel is terrifying....

Posted by sfenton at 01:54 PM | Comments (0)

February 14, 2004

Color Forecast

spring 2004 color forecastEver wonder who picks the colors for everything? Or names them? Every June, Graphic Arts magazine reports the color forecasts for the upcoming year. The colors to the right are their forecast for the fashion colors for spring 2004. Those are not my vision of colors that scream "spring fashions!! Easter bonnets!"

These color forecasts aren't just restricted to clothing. The industry predicts colors for cars, home furnishings, school notebooks - anything that comes in a color. These predictions come from several places, but the most influential color forecasters are The Pantone Institute, The Color Marketing Group, and The Color Association of the United States.

The Color Association of America offers national meeting and seminars to discuss color related issues. Meeting notes from their fall 2003 meeting:

"Topics that elicited the most comments were the role of texture in replacing or accentuating color; aquamarine or 'mist' green-blue as the color of the future; the aesthetic of 'white' and 'clean'; dealing with the perception of color as an indulgence; and the impact of plastic and candy colors on American culture.

The second day of the symposium focused on effective color presentations. To illustrate, the Color Association staff reviewed the past 90 years of the Association's forecasts and presented innovative new formats for paper, fabric, yarn and photographs. Working in teams, the attendees then had a chance to evolve their own presentations based on fun topics that included creating a pet line of animal day beds, an eco-friendly drink and a line of guitar straps."

I am simultaneously repelled and intrigued by this commercialization of color. I am also pondering, as an artist, and as a crafts-person, how involved I should be in this societal investigation of color. Seems like, at the least, artists should be aware to check ourselves for the authenticity of our vision against the pressure from the commercial color palette.

Posted by sfenton at 11:05 AM | Comments (2)

February 11, 2004

E.A. Seguy - Resource Gallery

E.A. Seguy's BeesI am beginning a new feature: a gallery of out-of-copyright images that are relevant or inspirational to fiber artists. Needless to say, because of the copyright issues, these will be older / antique / historic images (or possibly some from the Library of Congress collections.)

Pochoir prints by E.A. Seguy is the first gallery of these works. Have a look and check back. I hope to add more.

Also: I know the green on the first page is a bit much, but right now I have not been able to override they system default with anything that is more appealing (though I did find several worse schemes). The software is an open source product called Gallery, running on ibiblio's Linux servers. It's a very cool product and pretty easy to install and manage!

Posted by sfenton at 09:56 AM | Comments (1)

February 05, 2004

Landscape Meditations

sketchbook: 1-26-04 by Serena FentonRight now I am working on a series of landscapes using thread painting. That's from my sketchbook (left). I'm trying to extend a painterly vision into a new realm. This has me struggling with the basics: how to create a realistic landscape within a hard-edged medium. To be specific: how to get the distant hills to move into the background and stay there (where they belong!) and at the same time, how to create some crisp edges (my piece is looking a bit mushy)

The Smithsonian has two resources:
first - a tutorial on landscape painting that they created for use in the classroom. (see below)
second - a virtual tour through American landscapes, giving lots of insight of how these principles are applied.

From Landscape Painting: Artists Who Love the Land
1. A winding path.
A path or river that winds through the landscape from foreground to background can make us believe that the picture describes a deep space.

2. Changes in size.
A tree that is close to us appears much larger than a tree of the same size that is far away.

3. Overlap.
A boulder that is close to us overlaps and partially hides a much larger cliff behind it.

4. Changes in clarity.
A distant mountain range appears more hazy and less distinct than a mountain that is closer.

5.Diagonal composition.
Land that moves away from us on the diagonal appears to move back into space.

Posted by sfenton at 08:28 AM | Comments (2)

November 13, 2003

Early Renaissance Painters

Jacopo Bellini's PietaSimone Martini, Vitale da Bologna and Jacopo Bellini
I admit it, I am a fool for the early Renaissance painters. All that gold, the stiff, symbolic gestures, the embellishment on every surface - all of it used to tell a wordless story. Vivian Vakili has written an accessible history of these painters. But better yet, it is posted on the web with magnificant illustrations of the works.

The Simone Martini portrait of a duke, riding on horseback from these prefect Italian Hilltown city-states while tiny armies camp in the corners, is such a wonderful summary of the era in which he lived. Some folks were rich. They got the horses and nice clothes. Everyone lived in beautiful walled cities. War was constant. Another favorite that she has displayed is the Annunciation. This version is not namby-pamby. The angel and Mary are livid and throwing visual daggers at each other. This is not a quiet woman who was jumping on the opportunity.

Don't stop scrolling before you get to Pieta by Jacopo Bellini. The anguish is palpable. The hilltowns in the background of this image are rich with fertile fields and quiet, safe roads. But the tree is chopped down in midlife as Mary weeps over her son. Pretty heady stuff.

image: Jacopo Bellini's Pieta

Posted by sfenton at 09:07 PM

November 05, 2003

Glossary of Textile Terms

An Introduction to Textile Terms is a short, four page pdf document produced by The Textile Museum in Washington D.C. It's a solid glossary of most of the terms that one will encounter in the world of textiles (note: the world of 'fiber' may be a good bit broader than this.)

Entries run the gamut from batik to yarn. It covers not only the basic concepts, but gets into some deeper detail. 'Dyeing' takes up a little over half a page and describes the basics about several processes and resists. 'Couching" explains both what the stitiching is: "An embroidery stitch in which threads are laid on fabric and sewn down with another thread," as well as why it was done: "Decoration with metallic or metallic-wrapped thread is often couched both for economy (no precious metal is wasted on the back) and practicality (the metallicwrapped thread is not fine or flexible enough to be easily pulled through cloth).

A good beginning resource or classroom reference to textiles!

Posted by sfenton at 08:54 PM

November 04, 2003

Quilt Show Entry Dates

where to show
Lyric Kinard has a list on her web site of quilt show entry dates, show dates and a link to the web site with the show information. An invaluable resource for keeping up with opportunities to get one's art seen!

Posted by sfenton at 08:37 AM

October 22, 2003

the pain & pleasure of an Artist’s Statement

Writing an Artist’s Statement It is slow, laborious and feels like walking outside in a bikini on the first days that the pools opens with 30 extra pounds of flabby white skin showing. Unlike walking around in a bikini, writing an artist's statement is something that has to be done. At least if you want to be in art shows, it has to be done.

The Contemporary Quiltart Association and Molly Gordon have produced a sheet on how to write an Artist's statement. What's unique is that Gordon's technique actually makes it sound fun. She wants us to ask questions that might be interesting to answer:

" - What is your favorite tool? Why?

- What is your favorite material? Why?

- What do you like best about what you do?

- What do you mean when you say that a piece has turned out really well?

- What patterns emerge in your work? Is there a pattern in the way you select materials? In the way you use color, texture or light?

- What do you do differently from the way you were taught? Why?

- What is your favorite color? List three qualities of the color. Consider that these qualities apply to your work."

Those sounds more like play than pain. And those are just a few of her ideas! Next time you are sending something off to a show, pull out Molly Gordon's Writing Your Artist’s Statement and reflect.

Posted by sfenton at 02:12 PM

History of the Art Quilt

A History of the Art Quilt
Excerpted from the book, The Art Quilt, this history covers the discovery of the quilt in the 1960s as a form of art and self expression through the late 1990s and the establishment of quilt art shows. Best of all is that there are hyperlinks to all of the major figures and several important shows involved in the rebirth of this traditional art form. This history is a good refresher of the movement's roots, but also the links are invaluable for tracing the growth and understanding where the art quilt movement is today.

Writing about the Quilts '76 show in Boston, Jane Holtz Kay in the alternative Real Paper noted, "[The show is] a real mixed bag--there are single creators and communal ones, designs that are syrupy coy and some as stunning as any of the abstractions of the hour. Quiltmaking is not simply design in fabric, but a new art form; the needle is no quick substitute for the brush and the quilt for all its charms no facile switch from the canvas. With all the drama and decorative strength here, then, there are perhaps only a dozen quilts that connect in quite the right way or linger in the mind long enough to define themselves as a fusion of fine art and fine craftsmanship. But that is probably enough for now. There is a takeoff if not a soaring here."

Posted by sfenton at 08:33 AM

Timeline: Quilts Pre-History - 1800s

Quilt History Timeline

Often the discussion erupts of how long quilting has been around and what it was used for. The assumption is that quilting was born of necessity; that it grew out of patching, mending and utilizing small scraps of leftovers. This may very well be the beginnings of quilting. What is known however is the presence of quilts that were fine enough to be interred with a significant figure (royalty?) and have come to us, preserved in the burial artifacts.

The first one, 5,500 years ago: "35th century BC An ivory carving, found in Temple of Osiris at Abydos in 1903 and currently in the collection of the British Museum, features the king of the Egyptian First Dynasty wearing a mantle/cloak that appears to be quilted."

Posted by sfenton at 08:20 AM

October 21, 2003

Linking Web Images

EFF: Web Linking Need Not Cause Copyright Liability

Monday, July 7, 2003

San Francisco - A federal appeals court today changed course in a closely watched case on the legality of linking on the World Wide Web, issuing a revised ruling siding with search engine Ditto.com against photographer Leslie Kelly. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) had filed a brief urging the court to permit Web linking to copyrighted images.

Posted by sfenton at 03:07 PM