Thursday, February 28, 2013

Plan D progress report

I am happy to report that Plan D worked and I have finally finished sewing my found pennies into a grid.  As so frequently happens, by the time you just about finish a project with lots of repetitive fiddly process, you have figured out how to do it right.  At which point you wish you could go back and re-do everything you did in the first two-thirds of the project.

The front of my pennies look pretty simple and classy.  But the back is a lot more complicated, holding those spokes of thread in place so they don't slide apart and allow the penny to escape.  It took me about ten hours to stitch the grid, which I ordinarily wouldn't feel bad about but this week I am on deadline and I begrudged every minute of it.

The hot glue did hold the pennies in place while I stitched, and to make sure the thread stayed where it was supposed to, I gave each penny an additional shot of glue after I was finished stitching.

Now all I have to do is attach the grid to its armature and the piece will be finished.  Thank heavens for heavy-duty staple guns, a useful addition to my weapons collection.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Monday, February 25, 2013

Plan D...

I've been trying for several weeks to make a piece of art consisting of pennies I have found on the street while I walk.  My vision is clear -- the pennies are suspended from a grid of thread that hangs from a wood piece.  But executing that vision has turned out to be a flaming pain in the butt.

Plan A was to stitch the grid by hand onto a foundation of Solvy.  I put dots on the Solvy to show where the pennies should go, then I sewed around the pennies with blanket stitch.

After I did a dozen or so I became disillusioned.  The stitching seemed messy and I wasn't sure it would actually hold the pennies in place after the Solvy was washed away.

I cut the pennies away and moved to Plan B.  This time I would switch to the sewing machine and make a base grid on the Solvy, then stitch around each penny.  That seemed to work just fine, until I dissolved the Solvy and realized that several of the pennies had slipped out of their cages.  Besides, I didn't like the way the Solvy was behaving -- it didn't want to totally dissolve, and the pennies and the thread were decidedly slimy no matter how many times I rinsed.

Plan C.  I decided to stitch the grid out of a sturdier cord, without Solvy.  At each intersection I would sew a little square of tulle, just barely smaller than the pennies.  Then I would hand-stitch a cage around each penny, stitching into the tulle behind it to hold the shape and prevent the cage from slipping around and the pennies escaping.

I didn't even get one penny stitched on before I realized this wasn't working.  Despite the tulle, which was supposed to serve as a foundation, the cage wouldn't hold its shape as I stitched.

Plan A was looking pretty good by this time.  Why had I abandoned it anyway?  But I had a lovely base grid finished, and it seemed way too late to go back.  I need the piece finished in the next couple of days for a show that opens on Friday.

Plan D.  The DIY slacker's friend: the hot glue gun.  Last night I glued the pennies to the grid.  I guess a true slacker would just declare victory and attach the grid to its armature.  But I'm not sure the glue will hold, and besides, I have always wanted the look of the pennies "tied up" to the grid with some kind of stitched cage.  

Today I will return to the general concept of Plan A and attempt to hand-stitch them more securely.  If that doesn't work, I guess I'll think about Plan E.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Back in school -- liberated from history

This week in art history class we read about the dividing line between "modern" art and "contemporary" art.  It falls somewhere around 1970 and its distinguishing feature is that contemporary art, unlike modern art and all earlier movements and genres, is not part of a continuing narrative of art history, not part of a grand trajectory of styles that change over the centuries, each one emanating from the ones before.

Instead, contemporary art has been liberated from art history.  Contemporary artists can do any damn thing they please, borrowing from any source they wish and combining ideas and motifs from many different periods, styles and sources.  They have also been liberated from those pesky concepts of standards and criteria for judging value.  Where once it was legitimate and appropriate for critics to identify "good art" or "bad art," that's no longer true.

My paper this week reflects on what has been lost in the crossing from the old world of formal standards into the anything-goes world of contemporary art.  If there are no commonly accepted standards of what constitutes art, let alone what constitutes good or bad art, then the only mechanism that can fill the vacuum is the marketplace.

Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild (detail) -- sold in October for $34 million, the most ever paid at auction for work by a living artist.  The painting had extra cachet because the seller was rock star Eric Clapton.

I find it ironic that the (usually French) philosophers who hold capitalism in such passionate contempt are complicit in this abdication of value to the crass philistines of the big-time art market. The philosophers apparently like to think of contemporary art as being untethered from daily life, gloriously liberated from the stultifying traditions and history of art, able to do whatever it wants without consequence.  Yet no human endeavor is truly separable from life.  If artists wish to be supermen soaring above petty rules and regulations, they will be disappointed when it's time to pay the rent.  Those who glory in the freedom to appropriate from all sources, to give new meaning to established images, may be rudely awakened when they are sued by the makers or corporate owners of those images.

In flushing the concept of standards down the drain, the philosopher-kings of contemporary art may face unintended consequences.  If the art world is to exist without standards, what will be taught in schools of art; and if schools of art wither away, what will become the feeder system for the pro leagues of the big-time gallery/market complex?  Perhaps Yale will offer a joint MFA/MBA to reflect the realities of art production.

With no standards and criteria to be learned, who will staff the galleries and museums?  Perhaps the ideal gallerist or curator will no longer be an art history major but a marketer fresh from an apprenticeship at Disneyland.  This is already happening in the museum world, with its emphasis on blockbuster shows, but at least so far the blockbuster is seen as the necessary cash cow to support the other elevated (and worthier) missions of the institution.  In the absence of standards and traditions of high art, perhaps the cash cow will take over and the other shows and objects will be divested as hamburger.

With no standards and criteria emanating from the art world, how will galleries, collectors and auctioneers decide what is valuable?  Instead of the educated taste of a community of artists and art connoisseurs, we will have only the trendy taste of rich people for luxury goods.  Perhaps Gagosian will be acquired by LVMH, with the Hirsts displayed and marketed alongside cognac, champagne and luggage.

In inventing and/or identifying a world freed from the burden of standards, the champions of contemporary art may find themselves regretting what they wished for.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Recurring motifs 9 -- spirals

I'll wind up my reflections on the motifs that appeared over and over in my daily art project last year with the spiral, which has turned out to be probably the most important discovery of the year.

I hadn't realized that I loved spirals when I started my stitching project, although the first one showed up very early, on January 4.  This was not a motif that I had ever used much in my work, nor did it ever appear in my doodles.  If I had to make a free-association with spirals in fiber art, it would be to the quilts of Jane Lloyd or the hand-stitching of Judy Martin and Christine Mauersberger.

Jane Lloyd, Whirlpool

But guess what -- the spirals kept coming, in many different stitches.  Here's one from early in the year with an awkward curve.

The shapes improved with practice.  And I used several different stitches to make the spirals.

Finally near the end of the year I decided that my favorite was an interlocked running stitch, in which you start with one color, then go back and fill in the blank spaces with a second color.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Daily collages

I mentioned on January 1 that my new daily art project for 2013 is to make a collage every day, and now that it's well into the second month of the year I thought I would bring you up to date.

I decided to set few rules for this project, because I had no idea where it would go and didn't want to constrain myself before I realized what was happening.  Because I was away from home the first week of the year, I decided to take the minimum of supplies and to work small.

I am blessed with a huge supply of library card catalog cards, gleaned when two local libraries pitched their paper files and went all-digital, so I grabbed a handful and stuck them in my bag with a scissors, tweezers and glue stick.  I also brought a date stamp and stamp pad, thinking that this would be a good way to keep track of the collages as they accumulated.

As it turned out, I really like the 3x5" card format.  It's small enough that the collages can be simple, and not take a long time.  Not sure I am ready to amend the rules for the whole year, but at least through February I am going to stick with the cards as my supports.  Sometimes I paste onto the blank back side; other times I like a bit of the catalog info to peek through.

And I like the date stamp.  So far I've used it on the face of every collage and I plan to stick with that practice at least another month.  I wish I had a smaller stamp, one like the librarians used to use back in the ancient days when they actually stamped a book card and the empty envelope pasted inside the back cover, but at my local stationery store the stamps come in one size only.  Date stamps are clearly on their merry way toward obsolescence.

I'm finding most of my images in the newspaper, although some of them have been cut from the catalogs and junk mail pieces that have showed up on our table.  The matte finish of the newspaper seems to work best in the crude, hasty compositions that I'm making, even though you do get annoying showthrough on some of the lighter areas.

Last year I allowed myself a day's grace period for finishing my daily stitching, since sometimes I was too busy to work on the project.  Upon reflection I realize that I prefer to work without a grace period.  Since my collages are taking less than half the time that the stitching did, I have decided to enforce the strict rule: make the collage that very day, even if that means just before I go to bed, after the heat has been turned down.

I'm a real beginner when it comes to collage so I'm regarding this year's daily art project as more a learning experience than a cumulative work of art, as I have tended to think of past projects.  I think that by the end of the year I will be a lot closer to finding my voice in this new medium.  Meanwhile I'm just enjoying myself.

If you want to see all my daily collages, I'm posting them to my new blog, Kathy's Daily Art.   That blog also documents many of my previous daily art projects, as well as my continuing weekly photo posts.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Friday, February 15, 2013

Back in school -- originality

Here's the paper I wrote recently for my art history class:

After spending a day reading about originality, I reflect on Shakespeare's title/phrase: "Much Ado About Nothing."  The critics point out that art (or by extension, any aspect of thought or science) comes either from emulating existing knowledge or practice, or from some alteration or re-direction of existing knowledge or practice.  Or perhaps both.

Either the artist works from his own self-image, his own feelings, his own experience, or he channels the ancients, reworking communal themes and images.  Or perhaps both.

This is hard to argue with.  What are my other choices?

First I reflect on the possibility that anybody can work entirely from his own self.  Once you get to kindergarten, you have already internalized a body of knowledge that comes from others.  By age five you have learned a language, and a sub-language that marks your ethnic origins and your socioeconomic status.  You have learned a family history, perhaps complex: sisters, half-sisters, stepsisters; relatives by blood vs. those by marriage; which ones you like, which ones you stay far away from.

By age five you have learned a culture.  Within your family, you know that everybody comes to the table at dinnertime, or gathers around the TV, or fends for himself; that you go to church on Sunday or root for Michigan State; that you read books or have dogs or wash the car every weekend.  Within your community, you already know whether people in the neighborhood are friendly with one another and are welcome in each other's homes; whether they go to work faithfully, are unemployed, or play tennis every day; whether they demand that their children do homework and get good grades; whether they respect or fear the police.

If you were to drop out of kindergarten and move to a cave, you would still be marked with those early exposures to culture and history, and no matter how religiously you were to pursue artistic originality, you could never escape those memes.  And every year that you stick with the program, learning more facts about your history and becoming more nuanced in your culture, reduces the possibilities that you could be totally original as an artist.

If freedom from history and culture is the hallmark of the "modern" artist, then it seems that the only true "modern" artists are those who were raised by wolves or those who are profoundly retarded.  Perhaps the most well-known example is the late Judith Scott, who was deaf and mute and had Down syndrome, and made "art" by obsessively wrapping yarn and fabric strips into bundles.  She was embraced by the art world as an outsider artist and her work sold for as much as $15,000 and is found in the permanent collections of many prominent museums.

Judith Scott

The rest of us have no choice but to bring our culture and history to our artmaking.

If nobody comes to the studio without history and culture, then where can true originality come from?  Artists can copy others and/or, having come up with some idea that works, copy and repeat themselves.  This is no different than it was 500 years ago, but today, artists are made to feel inferior if they are not "original," whatever that means.

One of the nastiest remarks one can make about art is that it's "derivative."  The frequent response, it seems to me, is to say "I didn't want to be original, so there."  Call it appropriation, call it sampling, call it quotation -- it's a preemptive defense against accusations of lack of originality.

In the end, I believe artists must walk a fine line between being influenced by their surroundings, their culture, their history (otherwise they would be brain dead) and outright plagiarism.  Too far over the line and they may find themselves in court, but currently it's a lot more difficult to be found guilty in the public opinion of the art world.

Andy Warhol, Flowers, 1964 -- Patricia Caulfield, who made the original photo, sued and won a settlement

Richard Prince, Canal Zone (right) -- Patrick Cariou, who made the original photo (left), sued and won in federal court; all of Prince's images had to be destroyed

Shepard Fairey, Hope -- Mannie Garcia, who made the original photo, sued and won a settlement; Fairey pled guilty to contempt of court in the case and was fined

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Zoe sews a skirt

Just before Christmas, Zoe was spending the day with us because school was closed, and she mentioned that she would like to learn to sew some garments.  So we rooted through some drawers and found a suitable piece of fabric (at least 30 years old, I think), then checked the internet to find a skirt concept that she found fashionable (I no longer do fashionable, especially for 14-year-olds, so she's going to have to come up with her own ideas).  We cut the skirt out the old-fashioned way, holding the fabric up to the body, and got it pretty well sewed together before she had to leave.

Since then I put in the zipper and the elastic waist and serged the yoke seam, but she learned to sew a hem by hand, braid a belt, turn a tube to make belt loops, and stitch them on.

Although Zoe has sewed three quilts and a quilted tote bag, this is her first garment.  I'm proud of her, and hope she'll want to come back for a second (and more).

Here's the first time to model the new skirt.  We liked the leggings, but in subsequent wearings we think the denim shirt will have to go.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The eyes have it

As I was writing yesterday's blog post about eyes, I mentioned that I thought I needed to work more with the eye motif.  Since I'm making daily collages this year, I resolved to seek out some eyes.  I've made several eye compositions so far and think I'll stick with this theme for a while.

One of the great benefits to a daily art project is that it offers a perfect opportunity to explore the same ground over and over.  After a while you start to understand the motif or the technique or the theme, whatever it is that you are repeating.  Perhaps after some time it can become yours, perhaps not, but you'll never know until you try.

I'm posting all my daily collages on my daily art blog in case you want to check out this project.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Recurring motifs 8 -- eyes

I wish I could remember which artist's work I was looking at when I became enamored of the recurring all-seeing eye.  As with spirals, I'd never noticed this symbol either in my work or in my doodles, even though it has powerful mojo and is very easy to execute.

The eye showed up as a standalone.

(I think this is an eye, too.)

And I got adventurous in putting interesting eyes onto my faces.

But I don't think I have internalized this symbol yet.  Maybe I need to do a month of eyes and see what happens.  As somebody who has worn glasses since kindergarten and whose father was legally blind at the end of his life, I need to harness any magical power available to keep my poor weak eyes from getting any worse.