Archive for September, 2009

Singular Gems—El Anatsui’s Hovor II

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Mixed Media, Sculpture, Textiles with tags , , , on September 30, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

El Anatsui—Hovor II, 2004

El Anatsui, Hovor II, 2004
Woven aluminum bottle caps and copper wire.
de Young Museum (all pictures ©Liz Hager)

From its spot hanging, appropriately enough, between the textile and African galleries, El Anatsui’s large sculptural textile, Hovor II, ripples and shimmers seductively under the spotlights. It is a brilliant example of the way in which mundane objects (in the hands of a clever artist) can transform our notion of what art is.

El Anatsui—Hovor II (detail), 2004

El Anatsui, Hovor II (detail), 2004.

I stood transfixed by the overall patterns flowing through the tapestry. Upon closer examination, I was utterly captivated by the structure of the piece. Using copper wire, the artist has strung together tens of thousands of flattened metal bottle caps (the twist-off variety found on certain liquor bottles) in basic emulation of a textile weave (some log cabin, some stripes). He purposely molds the finished flat “cloth” into  forms, folds and wrinkles that emulate a billowing textile. While the piece is extremely large, it isn’t implacably monumental.

Stepping in close, I noticed the large and subtle array of colors that actually comprise the piece—not only golds, bronzes and coppers, but blacks, reds, blues, yellows. These fragments of metal are akin to the paint strokes of a painting—step in close and you see the true skill and constructive ingenuity of the artist.

El Anatsui—Hovor II (detail 2), 2004

El Anatsui, Hovor II (detail), 2004.

El Anatsui has lived and worked in Nigeria for nearly three decades, but his metal tapestries attest to his Ghanaian roots (where he was born in 1944, when it was still a British colony). In the case of Hovor II, they echo the structure of the emblematic Ashanti ceremonial cloth, Kente. In this case, the title derives from Ewe tribal words for “cloth of wealth.”

El Anatsui—Hovor II (detail 3), 2004

El Anatsui, Hovor II (detail), 2004.

The artist uses all manner of found objects, though mostly metal these days, to highlight Africa’s heritage. His work speaks to the adverse effects on Africa of globalism, consumerism and waste. In some West African cultures, metal and liquor have supernatural associations:  glittering metal signifies the presence of spirit and liquor is poured as a form of prayer. But a darker element too is present in these tapestries, for spirits (rum in particular) constituted one leg of the colonial slave trade triangle.

Adinkra symbols: Left—humility with strength; Right—bravery and valor

El Anatsui is one of Africa’s most influential artists. After being trained in his youth in Western art traditions, the artist found that he longed for a mode of expression more African and turned to African ideographs. Beginning with adinkra and working in clay, the artist gradually developed his mature style, in which consumer cast-offs are reconstructed into proud reminders of Africa’s rich cultural history.

The artist has exhibited on five continents and was in the Venice Bienale in 1990. And still it’s safe to say he’s not as well known as comparable American or European artists. An accident of birth?  Or is it also that he references textiles, still not fully accepted as an art form in today’s Western-dominated art culture?

Having said that, all might change. Beginning in 2004 through the traveling exhibition Africa Re-Mix, El Anatsui’s work has come to the attention of a wider audience.

Detail of a man’s kente cloth, called Adweneasa, i.e. “my skills are exhausted.” Collection of the Fowler Museum of Cultural History, UCLA. (Photo by Don Cole.)

Wider Connections

El Anatsui —GAWU exhibition

History of Ashanti Kente Cloth

Hovor, 2003

Dark Day Picks

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Liz Hager, Mixed Media, Painting with tags on September 28, 2009 by Liz Hager

On Mondays Venetian Red celebrates the day of the week when most galleries and museums are traditionally closed. “Dark Day Picks” highlights current exhibitions, new installations, books, and art world tidbits. Get a jump on a week filled with art.

Ratio 3—Mitzi Pederson, I’ll Start Again. New work from this 2008 Whitney Biennial artist, whose work explores the formal qualities of abstract sculpture. Pederson manipulates materials such as wood, paper, sand and string to create sculptures and drawings, which further explore states of permanence, tension, and chance.  Sept. 11 – October 24.

Hespe GalleryKim Cogan, Inside Out. Kim Cogan specializes in dreamy urban (SF) landscapes. Kenneth Baker observed  Cogan practices “realism with an abstract painter’s feel and taste for rich surface detail and color nuances.”  Through September 30.

Catharine Clark—Sandow Birk, American Qur’an.  Birk spent 2001-2004 studying the complexities of Catholicism and Christianity by translating Dante’s Divine Comedy into contemporary vernacular. That period corresponded to the growing preoccupation by Americans with Islam. After visiting four Islamic countries, Birk began work on an authentic English version of the Qur’an illustrated by hand in the manner of illuminated manuscript tradition with scenes from American life. Several dozen pages are on view, October 3 – 31.

Bay Area FAVs: Alice Aycock’s Functional & Fantasy Stair

Posted in Architecture, Bay Area Art Scene, Female Artists, Liz Hager, Sculpture with tags , , , on September 25, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

In these recessionary times when most Bay Area museums charge entrance fees in the double digits and scores of galleries have closed,  we highlight San Francisco’s commitment to art in public spaces in our ongoing feature—Bay Area Free Art Views (FAVs).

Alice Aycock—Functional & Fantasy Stair, 1996 SFPL

Alice Aycock, Functional and Fantasy Stair, 1996,
Aluminum and structural steel with painted steel sheathing,
approx. 24’ high x 32’ long x 20’ wide. San Francisco Public Library
(all photos © Liz Hager 2009)

Alice Aycock is a member of the group of artists (Laurie Anderson perhaps a better-known member) who came artistic age in the early 1970s, grappling with the stylistic transition from modernism to postmodernism.  Although her pieces feel architectural, they are not, as Aycock has said:  “… functional architecture, but architecture as an umbrella from which you could hang many things—psychology, history, or culture.”

Aycock has held a life-long obsession with the nature of reality;  that is to say, her work deals with various states of mind and body, sometimes real, but often fictional, sometimes downright peculiar. But always complex. Typically, her work mines a vast array of references—physics, psychoanalysis, literary, computer programming, mental disorders, even ancient languages.  This subject matter makes for intensely psychological environments.

Alice Aycock—Functional & Fantasy Stair (3), SFPL

Robert Morris, Donald Judd, Louise Nevelson, and even her father, a construction engineer, have been Aycock’s inspiration. She was drawn to the “land art” movement from early on, making site-specific works from earth, wood, stone, and other natural materials. In the 1980s, Aycock began to employ industrial materials like steel, with allusions to the growing presence of machines in our lives.

Alice Aycock—Functional & Fantasy Stair (5), SFPL

Aycock designed a spiral stairway between the fifth and sixth floors of the library, just off the suspended, glass-enclosed reading room that projects into the library’s great atrium space. A functional staircase is nestled inside an askew cone structure (it mirrors the shape of the atrium skylight).  Cyclone Fragment, suspended above, is its companion piece.
Alice Aycock—Functional & Fantasy Stair (2), SFPL

Stair contains some hallmarks of an Aycock work. The stairwell is an intriguing, if confusing, architectural space. Proceed up or down the functional stairwell and glimpses of the fantasy stairs (leading nowhere) are revealed through fragmented openings in the cone. (Multiple views of a parallel universe?) Overall the cone structure envelops, but the environment it creates (its materials complement those of the library) is sleek, shiny and cold, very cold. Further, the whole sculpture is hermetically sealed by the glass encasement of the reading room.

Alice Aycock—Functional & Fantasy Stair (1), SFPL

Stairs are a central and sustaining motif for Aycock. As early as 1974, she began incorporating them into her work with These Stairs Can Be Climbed.  As the (man-made) vehicle by which man ascends or descends, stairs signify movement, even progress. It’s the reason most monuments (to impressive men) are placed at the head of a set of stairs. In dreams, stairs are often interpreted as the states of consciousness—the lower levels equivalent to “facts,” the upper levels with higher consciousness. One set of the Library’s stairs do allow progress;  the other just ends in thin air. Is Aycock asking us to think about power versus impotence?

One is left puzzling the connection of this piece to the Library environment, indeed even whether there needs to be one.

Wider Connections

Alice Aycock

Land Art

Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art

Artists in Conversation: Stephanie Peek’s Uncertain Riches

Posted in Artists Speak, Bay Area Art Scene, Christine Cariati, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Flora & Fauna, Painting, XC with tags , , , , on September 23, 2009 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

This is the first in an occasional series in which Venetian Red interviews a contemporary artist about recent work.

PeekGlimmering,jpgStephanie Peek, Glimmering, 2009
Oil on linen, 30″ x 30″

Venetian Red: What was the inspiration for the paintings in Uncertain Riches, your current exhibition at Triangle Gallery?

Stephanie Peek: When I was looking for ways to add color to my Dark Arcadia series (night garden paintings done at the American Academy in Rome and during a Borsa di Studio in the gardens of La Pietra in Florence), an old friend emailed me images of Dutch still lifes he had recently collected, which I have dropped into the dark atmosphere of the night gardens.

I have floated tulips, roses and other flowers from 17th century still life paintings through the dark smoky atmosphere of my earlier paintings of night gardens. The dramatic light and rich colors refer to the work of Dutch painter Rachel Ruysch. The softer, lighter paintings reflect the melancholy of early 18th century French painter Jean-Antoine Watteau.

Peek, Watteau IIStephanie Peek, Watteau II, 2009
Oil on panel, 20″ x 20″

Venetian Red: Why are you painting flowers at this time in your career?

Stephanie Peek: I find that painting can be a site of meditation, suspending time, making time irrelevant, and can put me in touch with that which does not decay. Suspended in silence, flowers speak for me—of fragile beauty and the ephemeral nature of worldly delights.

Venetian Red: This work creates an extremely elegiac, contemplative mood.

Stephanie Peek:  These paintings refer to the tradition of memento mori (falling flowers being more subtle than skulls), The Embarrassment of Riches by Simon Schama, and our contemporary version of “tulipmania.” Materiality cannot be trusted—and yet, how beautiful, even luscious, painting can be. Vita brevis, ars longa.

Venetian Red: Can you talk about the source material for these paintings?

Stephanie Peek: Referring to the hybrid nature of our culture, I used as sources not only photographs of paintings of flowers, but also photographs of flowers in my neighborhood, actual live flowers in my studio, artificial flowers from roadside memorials—and a few invented ones too.

Peek, RequiemStephanie Peek, Requiem, 2009
Oil on panel, 30″ x 30″

Venetian Red: In your work you return again and again to nature and the garden. Tell us about how these themes have evolved over recent years.

Stephanie Peek: After working with the idea of the garden as a refuge for several years, it was natural for me to return to that safe place after 9/11. I “protected” this space by camouflaging the garden, dissolving the edges of the forms and bringing the background to the foreground, going simultaneously flat and deep. Thus an overall pattern of marks developed on the surface which became increasingly complex.

This led me to the study of the history of military camouflage in a series called Uniform Language. At the beginning of the 20th century, American painter Abbot Thayer had introduced his studies of the “concealing coloration” of animals and birds in nature to the United States military for use in concealing ships, weapons and soldiers. Governments throughout the world hired artists to design a wide variety of camouflage depending on the environment.

My intent was to reclaim these patterns of concealment by re-contextualizing the camouflage of countries in the news into abstract paintings, translating these patterns from military usage to a more peaceful purpose.

PeekSurvivalTacticsStephanie Peek, Survival Tactics, 2002
Oil on canvas, 80″ x 70″

Venetian Red: I’m very interested in the way you explore nature as pattern, can you talk a bit about that?

Stephanie Peek: For years the subject central to my art practice has been nature: from gardens as refuge, camouflage patterns and the complex compilations of fragments of color seen in leaves.

A spray of dried eucalyptus leaves in my studio was my subject for three years, and heightened my attention to the most minute of differences and variations in shifting viewpoints with each painting.

In revisiting the classic genre of still life my project was to translate light into color.

These leaves provided the occasion for a study of the subtle shifts of hue from dusty roses to cool green. Analyzing colors in these leaves, in their shadows and reflections, in the grounds, resulted in multitudinous color patches which formed patterns of brush marks on the surface of the paintings.

When I pulled back from a concentrated focus on the color relationships, I was surprised to see a kind of joy in these paintings. The melancholy quality of evanescence implicit in the subject of dried leaves was transcended through attention to the colors right in front of my eyes.

Peek, Dark LightStephanie Peek, Dark Light, 2005
Oil on canvas, 45″ x 45″

Stephanie Peek’s current show, Uncertain Riches, is at Triangle Gallery in San Francisco through October 17, 2009.

Dark Day Picks

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Contemporary Art, Film & Video, Liz Hager, Mixed Media, Sculpture with tags , , , , on September 21, 2009 by Liz Hager

On Mondays Venetian Red celebrates the day of the week when most galleries and museums are traditionally closed. “Dark Day Picks” highlights current exhibitions, new installations, books, and art world tidbits. Get a jump on a week filled with art.

The California Academy of Sciences—Maya Lin, What is Missing, permanent installation at the entrance.  This sculpture, which joins Lin’s other piece at the Academy, Where the Land Meets the Sea, consists of an 8′6″ x  10′8″ x 19′2″ bronze “Listening Cone” lined with reclaimed wood. A 2′ 4 ¼” x 4′6″ screen, located within the cone, features more than 20 minutes of compelling video footage that links extinct as well as threatened and endangered species to the habitats and ecosystems that are vital to their survival.

Brian Dettmer—Book of the Dead

Toomey /Tourell—Brian Dettmer, New Mixed Medium works, through September 30. Brian Dettmer is a master at repurposing books. Carving one layer at a time—nothing is added, only discarded—he transforms a book into a “readable” sculpture, replete with new meaning.

Alan Callander—Grey to White

Ampersand International Arts—Recent video works by Alan Callander (frame from Grey to White above) and Mexican artist Emi Winter, through October 3. Through different media, both artists deal with abstraction. Form and color reign.

A Different Canvas: Series Prologue

Posted in Embroidery, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , on September 18, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

This is the first in a number of inter-related posts, in which Venetian Red explores aspects of artist-designed textiles.  For all posts in the series, click here.

May Morris, Embroidered Coverlet

May Morris, The Orchard, 1896, embroidered wall hanging, silk thread on silk ground.

Generally, Western society  places greater value on the fine arts—i.e. paintings, sculptures—than on the decorative (or applied) arts—i.e. furniture, ceramics, books, textiles. The Giotto painting below is magnificent. The singleton Morris hanging above is equally evocative and finely worked. One imagines each required a similar level of skill and number of people hours to complete.

Giotto—Preaching to the Birds 1295

Giotto, Preaching to the Birds, 1295-1300
Fresco. St. Francis, Upper Church, Assisi, Italy.

If art is the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions, then the world might agree that the Giotto and Morris pieces are both fundamentally works of art. How then did Western cultures come to assign greater value to a painting than a textile?

In this particular case, one might observe that greater value has accrued to Giotto paintings because they were produced by a man. One cannot discount the fact that many of the textile arts started out as, and remained for a long time, women’s work.  Still, gender can’t be the entire explanation for classification of “high” versus “low” art, otherwise all work by female artists, regardless of form, would be valued similiarly.

The elevation of the fine art form can be traced to the Renaissance, when the hand of man replaced the hand of God in the creation of art, thus begetting the concept of individual and assignable “genius.”  The distinction was bolstered in the 18th century by Immanuel Kant, who philosophically subordinated the “mechanical” (applied) to the “aesthetic” (fine) arts.

Raoul Dufy, block printed fabric for Paul Poiret, 1911.

A simple economic view of the disparity might suggest that fine art has historically had higher utility (i.e. the relative satisfaction from, or desirability of, consumption of a good or service), because a privileged class has consistently desired these scarce goods (artists turn out a limited supply of unique works) and has been willing to pay highly for them. Simply put, paintings are like diamonds, scarce and in high demand.

It may be enough to say that fine art has been scarce historically and therefore in demand. But that doesn’t get to the more interest question of why.

John Berger provocatively suggests in his Ways of Seeing that creating a highly-valued fine art form was in the best interests of ruling classes. He observes that oil painting as a technique (mixing pigments with binders) has been around since ancient times. It wasn’t until the Renaissance that “oil painting” as a distinguishable art form, which could be purchased, emerged.

Sonia Delauney—Large cellular motif with dots, 1928

Sonia Delauney, Textile design, 1928.

Reflect on pretty much any painting from the Renaissance on and you’ll realize that it celebrates someone’s possessions: family, animals, fine clothes, household objects, food, land. Among other purposes, possessions (and beliefs, also depicted in fine art) serve to set one people apart from another. Considered in this light, the whole of painting from 1500 to the present amounts to a visual record of the acquiring classes, a glorification of their lifestyle.

Thus, Berger conjectures that the exaltation of certain art forms (possessions in their own right that celebrated the possessing of things) was a clever way for a ruling minority to justify their their role in society. The rest attached themselves to this history and general agreement was reached about the high value of works of fine art.

(Photographic reproduction techniques have allowed the masses a peek into the fine art tent. Through reproductions and museums—temples to the lives of the privileged Berger might say—the masses reap a reward of fine art, although it is altogether different from the utility experienced by the class that can afford to purchase the works.)

Henry Moore—Barbed Wire 1946

Henry Moore, Barbed Wire (serigraphy on rayon), 1946

In the meantime, over the centuries the applied arts have maintained their utilitarian and predominantly anonymous nature. Society still assigns lower status to utilitarian pieces (terming them “craft” or  at best “decorative”), although they appear no less thoughtfully made or aesthetically pleasing. (Stand in front of a Gee’s Bend quilt and see how it compares to a Hans Hoffman or Sean Scully painting.) Nevertheless, even the most luxurious silk or finely-wrought lace could never have quite the immediate power as a painting to tell the story of the ruling classes.

(“Diamonds” exist in the textile world:  antique Persian rugs sell for upwards of $10,000;  $450/sq. foot fabrics are not within the reach of the masses. And, in their own form of mechanical reproduction, many textile producers and fashion designers have made a business out of reinterpreting high-end designs for the mass-market, which engenders some interesting thought on the utility of “knock-offs.”)

Lucienne Day—Day, tea towel, 1950s

Lucienne Day, Day, Provencal tea towel, 1950s.

In this series we explore what transpires when the fine and the decorative arts gently collide, when the world of assignable genius meets the world of anonymity, when “high” artists stroll in the land of low culture.  Not all artists consider the two art forms as separate and unequal. Specifically we’ll examine the output and motivations of many fine artists for whom textiles were simply a different canvas.

Wider Connections

Walter Benjamin—see “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in Essays and Reflections

TextileArts

The Textile Book

Dark Day Picks

Posted in Book Review, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Sculpture, Textiles with tags , , , , , on September 14, 2009 by Liz Hager

On Mondays Venetian Red celebrates the day of the week when most galleries and museums are traditionally closed. “Dark Day Picks” highlights current exhibitions, new installations, books, and art world tidbits. Get a jump on a week filled with art.

Frontpiece, Darwin—Origin of Species, 1859

Rotunda Gallery, Bancroft Library, University of California, BerkeleyDarwin and the Evolution of a TheoryAugust 13-December 13, 2009.

With its 600,000 volumes of rare books, an equal number of manuscripts, and loads of artifacts, The Bancroft Library might qualify as the book-lover’s paradise in the Bay Area. Though non-circulating, works in the library’s collections may be viewed by members of the public (by request), which is reason enough to visit to the Library. Short of that, the current exhibit on Darwin in the first-floor gallery provides a small but fantastic sampling of the Library’s first-edition collection.  All the books Darwin would have had (though not his copies) are here, as well as photographs, models, and specimens from University’s zoological collections.

Asian Art Museum—Lords of the Samurai. Closing Sept. 20. The samurai culture and code of conduct, bushido, have long captivated the imaginations and aspirations of young and old in the Western world. More than just professional warriors, Japanese samurai of the highest rank were also visionaries who strove to master artistic, cultural, and spiritual pursuits. More than 160 works from Japanese museums—including paintings, textiles, laquerware, and musical instruments—are included in this exhibition.


Erickson Fine Art, Healdsburg, CA—
Summer 2009, group show of gallery artists including the unusual and evocative work in wood and concrete by sculptor Paul Van Lith.

A History of Lace in Seven Portraits: Gloria Swanson

Posted in Fashion, Fine & Decorative Arts, Lace, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 9, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2009. All Rights Reserved.

Editor’s Note: This is the eighth and last installment in VR series on lace in portraiture. Other chapters include: Prologue, Beatrice d’Este, Elizabeth I, Nicholas Tulp, Louis XIV, Clement XIII, and the Duchess of Alba; or click here for all posts in the series.

Edward Steichen—Gloria Swanson, 1924Edward Steichen, Gloria Swanson, 1924
Silver platinum? print
(Museum of Modern Art, NY)

Steichen and the Starlet

Edward Steichen already enjoyed an international reputation as an artist/photographer, when, in early 1923, he was offered the most prestigious and lucrative position in photography’s commercial domain, that of chief photographer for Condé Nast’s flagship magazines, Vogue and Vanity Fair.

Over the course of the next 15 years, on assignment with Vogue, Steichen established the look of fashion photography that still influences the way fashion is shot today.  (Consider what the work of George Hoyningen-HueneHorst P. HorstRichard AvedonRobert Mapplethorpe and Bruce Weber would have been without Steichen’s trailblazing.) In the process, he swept away the pre-War fussy and fuzzy style of fashion photography replacing it with a crisp, detailed and highly-theatrical presentation that would better serve the emerging modernist couturiers. Unlike Man Ray or Erwin Blumenfeld, the two other art photographers of the period who lent their talents to the fashion and glamour industry, Steichen eschewed high-art stylistic features in his commercial photography, preferring a pragmatical approach that wasn’t overly high-art.

Steichen—Cartier earringsEdward Steichen, Kendall Lee, Cartier Earrings, 1925
©Condé Nast

In many respects Steichen’s images of “Hollywood” for Vanity Fair are not altogether different from his work as a fashion photographer. And why wouldn’t they be? Celebrities, like haute couture, function on some level like luxury goods, visually consumed at least by lovers of fantasy. Steichen’s approach to celebrities was also detached and slick, not unlike Art Deco, the reigning style of the time.

Edward Steichen—Poiret fashions, 1911Edward Steichen, Poiret Fashions, 1911
from Art et Décoration

Vogue was not Steichen’s first foray into fashion. In 1911, he had produced what may have been the first series of fashion shots—gauzy images of Paul Poiret couture for an article in the French magazine Art et Décoration. They are pure Steichen of the period, perfectly in keeping with the Pictorialist style, for which he was then famous. But Vogue propelled him to a an entirely new stylistic pinnacle as the first truly-effective communicator of the essential (and largely unattainable) glamour embodied by haute couture.

In the wake of WW1, the integration of industrialization into all aspects of life was profound. With mechanization came high-rises and urbanization, consumerism and mass market advertising. The glorification of the machine had ramifications throughout the fine and decorative arts; most underwent radical transformation. The stylized floral motifs of Art Nouveau became the hard-edged and pseudo-erotic Art Deco. Cubism, Futurism, de Stijl, and the Bauhaus were all inspired by notions afloat in the “Machine Age. “ Steichen was at the forefront of the transformation in photography.

By 1914, when he was commissioned as first lieutenant in the Army Signal Corps, Steichen had already abandoned the Pictorialist style so emblematic of the pre-War era. Throughout his war career, he would favor greater realism, which he expressed through strong light-dark contrasts, attention to detail, and sharply-focused effects. When he resumed his own photography after the war, he pursued this new direction.

Edward Steichen—Pastoral Moonlight, 1907Edward Steichen, Pastoral Moonlight, 1907
photogravure, from Camera Work.

By the time of his appointment to the Condé Nast publications, Steichen had come to believe that photography was the modern means of communication, even though this belief meant a break with his mentorAlfred Stieglitz (and the Photo-Succession group), who clung to the view that photography should strive to attain fine art status.  For Steichen, the consummate promoter, the pages of Vogue and Vanity Fair provided an irresistible platform to fully realize his artistic goals.

Edward Steichen, Across the Salt Marshes, Huntington, 1905
oil on canvas
(Toledo Museum of Art)

In regard to his fashion work Steichen recognized the need for greater realism: “My first contribution to the fashion photograph was to make it as realistic as possible…I felt that, when a great dressmaker like Vionnet created a gown, it was entitled to a presentation as dignified as the gown itself, and I selected models with that in view.” (Edward Steichen—A Life in Photography) Given the studio circumstances under which he shot and the constraints inherent in reproduction at the time, this meant a move to artificial lighting, which required large assisting crews. Steichen was no longer a single artist, he was an enterprise.

In a break from existing norms of fashion photography which featured the couture in the limelight,  Steichen staged his models in elaborate scenarios. Their fictional personalities took center stage;  the lines and contours of their bodies artfully set off by pieces of furniture or accentuated by the backdrops. The actual costumes were often treated as a secondary detail.

Edward Steichen—White, 1935Edward Steichen, White, 1935
(Museum of Modern Art, NY)

Steichen had always recognized the value of networking. He started his Great Men series in the early 1900s and continued making portraits of well-placed people—business- and statesmen—for much of his life. His assignments for Vanity Fair in Hollywood opened a different, and in many ways, a more important door for his career. In the early years of his contract, Steichen traveled annually to Hollywood, where he networked with an entirely new group of celebrities, stars who were recognized by millions of people. Steichen was already well-known as a fine-art photographer; Vanity Fair would introduce his work to the masses.

Edward Steichen—Fred Astaire, 1927Edward Steichen, Fred Astaire—Top Hat in “Funny Face,” 1927
(Museum of Modern Art, NY)

In these portraits, Steichen established the visual language of glamour that is fused to this day with celebrity. Not surprisingly, he utilized the very same techniques that he had developed to so effectively sell fashion. The theatricality of dramatic lighting and poses reinforced the fantasy that was emblematic of Hollywood—men were dashing; women liberated. Here too his legacy lingers. Consider Annie Liebovitz.

Edward Steichen—Ah Wilderness, 1933Edward Steichen, Eugene O’Neill and George M. Cohan—”Ah Wilderness,” 1933
(Museum of Modern Art, NY)

By 1924, Gloria Swanson was a leading screen actress. On screen, Swanson cultivated the image of an exotic, mysterious, and, at times, slightly dangerous, woman. Off-screen she was stunningly frank, outrageous, and a shrewd business women. In all her worlds, Swanson was the embodiment of the modern, liberated woman. Though “different,” Swanson always connected emotionally with her audience, a key reasons for her long run in Hollywood.

Gloria SwansonGloria Swanson in her monkey fur cape.

The actress was Hollywood’s first “clothes horse,” and audiences flocked to her films to view her wardrobe as much as her performance.  Her fashion ensembles, hair styles, and jewels were legendary (her annual budget for jewels was reported to be $500,000). The actress had been oft-photographed, mostly in full costume for studio publicity shots.  Steichen’s was not the the first formal portrait of the actress. But it must surely be the most provocative.

Gloria Swanson in the 1920s.

The session that produced this portrait was a long one, with numerous changes in costumes and lighting. At the end of the session, Steichen seized a piece of a black lace and hung it playfully in front of Swanson’s face. The actress grasped the concept immediately. She instantly dilated her eyes and became the leopard camouflaged by leafy shrubbery, watching her prey.

With its dark foliage perfectly aligned against the triangle of Swanson’s eyes and forehead, the lace veil is central to the provocative effect of the portrait.  One can’t imagine that such an arresting effect —the mysterious, the lethal, the glamorous and the savage—would have emanated from a portrait without the veil.  Was the portrait a covert statement about what Steichen really saw in Swanson—in Hollywood?  (Curiously, though the one aspect of all his other portraits missing here is overt glamour, though perhaps this is exactly why the picture, among Steichen’s many celebrity shots, connects so well with the viewer.)

The Lace

Quaker LaceQuaker Lace (machine-made) inspiration for Demakersvan chain link fence below.

Given the date of the portrait, unless the piece of lace Edward Steichen held up in front of Gloria Swanson’s face  was antique, it was most-likely machine-made, perhaps by a company such as Quaker Lace (now defunct).  And in this, the Swanson portrait is emblematic of the final chapter in our history of lace—mechanization.

Lace making machines existed as early as 1805, when Joseph Jacquard (of mechanized loom fame) made important adjustments to the “lever machine.” Jacquard paved the way for full-scale mechanization of lace production. The actual death knell was sounded in 1841, when further improvements allowed lace—both gimp and motifs—to be made entirely by machine. The market was soon flooded with inexpensive lace, which was well-within the purchasing range of the middle-class. Drawing widely on the fine and decorative arts of past ages, some of the better machine lace producers replicated hand-made laces exceptionally well.

Demakersvan, Chain link fenceDemarkersvan Studio, Chain Link fence inspired by Quaker Lace Company design.

The advent of machine-made lace at first pushed hand lace-makers to come up with more complicated designs beyond the capabilities of early machines. Eventually, however, it pushed them out of business almost entirely. Further, on the consumption side, by the 1920s, the traditional cultures that still made lace by hand were disappearing in the wake of increasing urbanization. As the demand for handmade lace ornamentation on traditional costumes and haute couture died out, the textile was relegated to household goods, such as napkins, table cloths, and curtains.  And even then machines provided the bulk of the production.

Though nearly extinct by the early decades of 20th century, today hand-made lace endures in small pockets largely in Europe. With the exception of a tiny amount of high-end couture, the customer base for hand-made lace is predominantly the curious tourist, purchasing a tablecloth or set of napkins.

Though a decorative ornament, lace has left an indelible mark in the world of fine art. As this delicate textile has jockeyed its way through the annals of fashion, its use has been captured and preserved by many a prestigious artist. From its origins as a luxury good, enjoyed by the privileged few, through the mechanization of its production and resulting dissemination to a mass consumer market, lace is inextricably intertwined with the march of human civilization. A just legacy for a textile made by the intricate twisting of threads.

Tord Boontje—Grass Hair pieceTord Boontje, Grass Hair piece inspired by Quaker Lace Company pattern (©Tord Boontje studio).

Wider Connections

Edward Steichen: High Fashion
Lace in Transition (contemporary designers interpret Quaker Lace Company patterns)
Patricia Johnston—Real Fantasies: Edward Steichen’s Advertising Photography
Decorating with Lace
Pat Earnshaw—How to Recognize Machine Laces

Venetian Red Turns 200

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Lace, Liz Hager, Painting, Textiles with tags , , , , on September 5, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

matisse-interior-in-venetian-red-1946

Henri Matisse, Interior in Venetian Red, 1946
Oil on linen, 36 1/4 x 25 1/2″
(Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique)

Before we launched Venetian Red, one trusted blogmeister advised us that it would take at least 200 posts before we’d really get noticed. Back in May 2008, that seemed like an impossible goal, nearly unfathomable in its abstraction. And yet, by the miracle of passion and diligence, here we are. Of course, 200 is just an arbitrary signpost; it’s what’s behind the number that’s most important.

As two working artists, we conceived this blog as a vehicle to share our perspectives on the collective creative endeavor. We wanted a forum to dig more deeply into what influences and inspires us creatively. We wanted to delve into the mysteries and commonalities of creating art. We wanted to explore the connections, big and small, between the art and design worlds. We wanted to think out loud about the issues that concern us. We decided to do this in a public realm, because making art, like being human, is more richly experienced as a collaborative process.

We’re proud of our work to date, which, true to our interests, is wide-ranging. Venetian Red has tackled Old Masters and kuba cloth; painters and lace makers; photographers and Russian windows; site works and artists writing about art. In places, we’ve gone deep—over the past 14 months we’ve devoted a lot of space to the Victorians and the Ottomans. (Well why not? They’re a fascinating lot.)  On other topics, we’ve only skimmed the surface. Thankfully, there is so much more to discuss.

And while pondering and writing have been fulfilling in their own right, our biggest reward has been finding you, our group of loyal readers. When we posted our first entry, A Crimson Fez, we had no idea whether what we had to say would interest anyone else. Miraculously, though, you showed up. In numbers (some of you from half-way around the globe) and with feedback. For that, we thank you!

Venetian Red is blessed in turning 200. Thank you for being here to celebrate this milestone. We hope that you will stay with us—there are still many places to go on this enduring journey of mystery and discovery that is art.

Venetian Red Notebook: The Guardians and Gargoyles of New York

Posted in Architecture, Christine Cariati, Fine & Decorative Arts with tags , on September 4, 2009 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

doorway guardian

New York is a paradise of architectural ornamentation. As a child wandering the streets I was endlessly fascinated by the gorgeous scroll work, animals, birds, angels, demons, beautiful faces, grotesque gargoyles, flowers and garlands that bedecked the facades of even the most modest brownstones, apartment houses and office buildings. I loved the visual richness, the textures, the crazy mix of styles and the sense of living surrounded by mythological creatures. New York was a visual encyclopedia of natural history—real and imagined—forged in terracotta, limestone, cast iron and metal.

face

The Woolworth Building, Rockefeller Center, Grand Central Terminal, Radio City Music Hall, the Chrysler Building—all these Art Deco, Beaux-Arts and Gothic Revival masterpieces were very impressive and I never tired of looking at them, but what really intrigued me were the everyday delights—walking down a street and glancing up to see a parade of gazelles below the second floor windows of a small apartment building or the monstrous gargoyles that protected my school.

demon

Following the non-ornamental Federal style of the late 1700s-early 1800s, many buildings put up through the 1930s were highly ornamented, including the tenements built quickly to house the influx of immigrants arriving in New York. Much of the ornamentation, while striving for elegance and beauty, also served, or concealed, important functions, from providing needed structural support to deflecting rain water. Capitals, cornices, keystones, corbels, brackets and anchors could all serve a purpose as well as delight the eye.

Capital

Owl

design

head

man's face

green man

anchor

scholar

leaf

dog & rabbit

roof

Much of the ornamentation of the period contained Gothic revival, Neo-Classic, Art Nouveau or Beaux-Arts elements. Decorative detail reached its formal, very stylized height with the Art Deco movement.

deco

deco griffin

The rise of the International style and Modernism in the 1920s and 1930s put an end to New York’s golden age of ornamentation. While many of the cornices and keystones are crumbling from the effects of age and weather, there is still plenty to see. Next time you are walking around New York, especially on Wall Street, the Lower East Side, Chelsea, the Upper East Side, the Upper West Side—be sure to look up.

angel

Recommended reading:
New York Detail
, A Treasury of Ornamental Splendor by Yumiko Kobayashi and Ryo Watanabe
Details, The Architect’s Art by Sally B. Woodbridge, Photographs by Roz Joseph
Grand, Wasn’t It? by Constance Rosenblum. New York Times, August 20, 2009
Animals in Stone, Architectural Sculpture in New York City by Robert Arthur King
Faces in Stone, Architectural Sculpture in New York City by Robert Arthur King

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