Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Objects Redux at Santa Fe's Form & Concept gallery

Fifty years ago, a hugely impactful exhibit of studio craft, Objects:  USA, opened at the Smithsonian's American Art Museum.  The work of three hundred craft artists was featured, and the exhibit traveled around the US and Europe.  This show is credited with sparking a wave of craft collecting by both museums and private collectors and a new openness to showing fine craft alongside fine art.  The artists in that show were and are legends in their field, and many of them taught future generations of craft artists.

Now to mark the anniversary of that show, the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft has organized the exhibit Objects: Redux: Fifty Years of Craft Evolution and traveled it to Santa Fe, bringing together work by artists from the first show alongside work by contemporary artists working in craft and mixed media.  I attended the opening of the show in Santa Fe, a gallery talk the next day by Houston curator Kathryn Hall and William Dunn of Form & Concept gallery. . . and I will return for a third visit to study these works some more.  Hall and Dunn emphasized that the Redux exhibit is not intended to present "the best" artists or work from then and now.  Rather, the intent is to present work from both periods that shows artists experimenting with materials and responding to the issues and events of their time.

For me the show is intriguing for several reasons.  First, there are stunning works by renowned weavers such as Hal Painter, Trude Guermonprez, Kay Sekimachi and Chinami and Rowland Ricketts.  There is a gorgeous chest by George Nakashima, three glowing knitted wire collars by Arline Fisch, and a luminous mahogany charger by Bob Stocksdale.  This work responds above all to the limits and possibilities of materials.  All of these works show the fine finishes, expert skill, and elegant unity of, well, form and concept in pure craft media.  These are qualities that I was taught to venerate in fine craft.  (I am the daughter of a woodworker who taught me to appreciate the precise, perfect dovetails and the silky finish of fine cabinetry.)  These works are perfectly executed and visually gorgeous.

Hal Painter, Wedded Rocks, 1980. Handwoven tapestry. 

detail, Hal Painter, Wedded Rocks, 1980. Handwoven tapestry.

Trude Guermonprez, Banner, 1965.  Silk hanging. Courtesy Forrest L. Merrill collection

detail, Trude Guermonprez, Banner, 1965.  Silk hanging. Courtesy Forrest L. Merrill collection

Kay Sekimachi, Ogawa II, 1969.  Nylon monofilament, glass beads, clear plastic tubes.
Courtesy Forrest L. Merrill collection
detail, Kay Sekimachi, Ogawa II, 1969.  Nylon monofilament, glass beads, clear plastic tubes.
Courtesy Forrest L. Merrill collection.  Photo by Sam Elkind

Chinami Ricketts, Noshime Plaid, 2019.  Indigo-dyed brown cotton, plain weave.

detail, Chinami Ricketts, Noshime Plaid, 2019.  Indigo-dyed brown cotton, plain weave.

George Nakashima, Kornblut Case, c. 197o.  Black walnut, maple burl.
Courtesy of Hunt Modern
Bob Stocksdale, Charger, 1986.  Mahoghany.
Courtesy Forrest L. Merrill collection
Nut with Spoon and Dish, 1970, silver, by Robert Ebendorf (left).
Untitled Vase, 1990s, silver by John Marshall (right). 
Just look at the beautiful detail on this silver vase! 

detail, John Marshall, Untitled Vase, 1990s, silver.
photo by Sam Elkind
Arline Fisch, Knitted Round Beads, 2017.  Coated copper wire, silver magnet clasp. 
Objects: Redux includes the work of contemporary artists that is for me at least a little more challenging to love on first sight, though I may eventually come around.  These artists have in many cases moved away from precious materials, away from a focus on a single medium or process, away from perfect finishes and elegant aesthetics toward something rougher, funkier, more mixed-media, ironic and critical.  These works challenge me to move beyond my expectation that work in craft media must be visually appealing above all (which is another way of saying it must please me and conform to my expectations if it wants my approval, right?).  These works pose questions and provoke puzzlement, consternation and conversation.

And yet all of this is of course characteristic of the broader movement in modern and contemporary art on the whole, away from "the beautiful"  toward a fraught engagement with issues other than perfectly elegant form and finish.  These artists whose work is more prickly are offering stories about their own identities and communities and investigating the history and culture around their materials.

Yuri Kobayashi, Curio, 2015.  Ash. 

detail, Yuri Kobayashi, Curio, 2015.  Ash. 
Josh Fought compiled a textile as an imaginative portrait of an ex-boyfriend.  It's meant to be discontinuous, puzzling, and multi-faceted.  It might be tempting to dismiss it as "sloppy" craft,  but there's more to it than that.  Faught is opening up textiles to voices, narratives, and ways of telling a story that haven't been so overtly included before.


Josh Faught, Max, 2014.  Handwoven silver lamé and hemp, nail polish, sequin trim, spill (resin) with broken Cathy mug, giant clothes pin, denim, silk, wine glass, toilet paper on cedar support

detail, Josh Faught, Max, 2014.  Handwoven silver lamé and hemp, nail polish, sequin trim, spill (resin) with broken Cathy mug, giant clothes pin, denim, silk, wine glass, toilet paper on cedar support

The Rickettses, Rowland and Chinami, grow and harvest indigo in traditional ways.  Rowland's work references the complicated role of indigo in American history and the integral part it played in the "triangle trade" that included human trafficking.

Rowland Ricketts, Unbound-Series 1 No. 4, 2016-2018.  Indigo and madder-dyed linen, undyed wool. 

detail, Rowland Ricketts, Unbound-Series 1 No. 4, 2016-2018.  Indigo and madder-dyed linen, undyed wool. 
Jennifer Ling Datchuk, recently awarded a United States Artist Fellowship in Craft, has done a take on macrame plant hangers that repays close examination.  The fibers she uses for the macrame are synthetic brightly colored human hair sourced from China via e-Bay.  The plant containers are blue and white ceramics chosen to reference Chinese and Dutch porcelain.  Datchuk says her use of "handwork, hair and ceramics [is] emblematic of the small rituals that fix, smooth over and ground women's lives."

Jennifer Ling Datchuk, Loving Care, 2019.  Porcelain, fake hair, porcelain beads from Jingdezhen, China, rope, ferns.  Made in collaboration with Marta Francine.
Background:  Arline Fisch, Knitted Round Beads and Silver and Lavender
MJ Tyson makes metal objects and jewelry from jewelry and household goods sourced from estate sales.  The pieces are formed from an unstable blend of metals--she fully expects them to degrade and fall apart over time.  The curator mentioned how disconcerting it was to unpack the crate containing Tyson's work and find bits and pieces that had fallen off the work.  Old stories are subsumed in new ones, and very concept of what is precious is called into question.

MJ Tyson, 102 Garden Hills Drive, 2017, personal objects belonging to the deceased residents of 102 Garden Hills Drive
On wall:  Rowland Ricketts, Drawings, 2019, composted indigo leaves, wood ash, lime, wheat bran, wool felt
MJ Tyson, 16 Summit Road, 2018, personal objects belonging to the deceased residents of 16 Summit Road
Those of us who work in craft media are continually re-assessing our approach to our materials, our subjects, and our methods.  Today we can make and show work that is startlingly raw, rough and confrontational if we choose.  If we are lucky our work contributes meaningfully to the wider conversation always going on between artist and artist and artist and viewer.  Objects: Redux will run through March 17 at Santa Fe's Form & Concept gallery.






Wednesday, January 8, 2020

You Weave You

Happy New Year!  May the year bring all good things to you and yours.  To the weavers out there, may your warps never break and always be evenly-tensioned.

At the end of 2019 I was looking ahead to what I hoped to weave this year, and I found myself with a good problem to have, I think--too many ideas.  Better than no ideas, right?  The hard part was that the ideas were all over the place--some abstract and edgy, some more traditionally pictorial.  Small pieces and large ones.  Improvisational pieces and ones that would definitely require cartoons.  I was not sure which way to go, so I did what I've done in the past.  I looked again at the work of weavers I admire.  I even printed out small reproductions of some of my favorite tapestries and glued them all to a large piece of newsprint.  Then I stuck it up on the wall and looked at it.  A lot.  What were the common threads (so to speak?).  What types of images, colors, and compositions am I drawn to?

I'm not going to share the images I clipped out, because tomorrow I might choose a different set by different artists.  And there are so many more artists I admire than can fit on one piece of newsprint!

I did come up with an interesting list of the things these tapestries have in common.  They:
  • exploit the grid
  • honor or expose the warps
  • translate the hand-drawn line
  • show painterliness and weft blending
  • use flat color (yes, this contradicts the previous item)
  • have a simplicity of composition
  • use pattern
  • have graphic power
  • impart mystery, open-ended meaning
I summed it all up to myself as:  The Technique IS the Image.  Or, The Image IS the Technique.   And I pondered that for a few weeks.  

But I also remembered that as much as I love other artists' work--and I'm seeing artists new to me all the time that inspire admiration and envy--their work is not mine to do.  Their work is theirs, much as I might admire and love it and wish I had done it.  Darn it.   

Then I had an Aha! moment.   Why don't I do the same exercise with my own work?  I've been making fiber work for almost 30 years, and some of it I even still like!  So I went through photos of my work, quilts, embroideries, mixed-media and beaded pieces, handmade paper work, and tapestries.  I selected only the pieces that I am still proud of, happy to look at and to show people.  (There's so much work I feel I've outgrown!)  And I analyzed them for common elements.

These are some of my own favorite pieces, on the day I did this exercise.  Again, tomorrow or next month I might make different choices.



This I what I noticed in my own work:
  • texture
  • graphic power
  • open-ended meaning
  • in some, that elusive union of concept, image and technique
This idea that the best work shows the absolute union of technique, concept and image is the crucial take-away for me.  By this I mean that you can't change the techniques used without doing irreparable damage to the image and concept.  Unpacking and exploring that will take the rest of my life, I think!

I hesitated to publish this post, because I'm sharing an inner struggle that many prefer to hide--the struggle to find one's voice in one's chosen medium.  In this time of carefully-curated Instagram feeds, we hesitate to show our failures, doubts, and herky-jerky two-steps-forward-one-step-back progress.  We want to present the perfect image to the world.

But I know from my students and my fellow weavers that we really help each other when we share it all, the successes and the near-misses.  We are encouraged and take away hints that help us each move forward.  I also know from reading artists' biographies that this kind of struggle pretty much comes with the territory.  We never stop seeking to discover and refine our voices.

January is named for the Roman god Janus, who is pictured with two faces, one looking forward and one back.  I offer my experience in case it might be a useful strategy for you at the start of this new year, as you look both forward and backward.  What have you done that you really love?  How can you do those same kinds of things anew?