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

Advertisements

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.

%d bloggers like this: