Monday, July 23, 2018

Art report / England 2


The artworks were somewhat incongruously displayed in the ornate formal rooms of the palace, and our docents didn't seem to know what to say about them -- a few awkward and clueless words, then on to the important stuff: the furniture and the family portraits.  There was no signage anywhere in the palace, nor any brochures to read.  So I suspect 90 percent of the visitors got little to nothing out of their art exposure.  Too bad, because this is world class art!

One of Ai's recurring themes is the problematic status of the individual in the current repressive regime.  Ai himself was under house arrest for a time, and forbidden to leave China for years afterwards, so he worked on the Blenheim exhibit long-distance.  His passport was returned in 2015 and he now lives in Berlin.

Ai typically acquires old stuff and reworks it, as in this sculpture using three-legged stools.  In the past every Chinese household owned at least one stool, but many of them have been discarded, replaced perhaps by plastic chairs?  In some other artworks Ai has taken hundreds of the stools and displayed them in installations.  In this one, he has joined maybe a dozen into a puffball of legs.  I'm not sure about the metaphor -- are individuals stronger when they hang together?  Or have the individuals, forced into formation, been robbed of their ability to stand on their own?






















Ai Weiwei, Wooden Stools

In another room, Ai made hundreds of porcelain crabs to recall a big party he threw for his friends when he was arrested.  He had arranged for the crabmeat before he was hauled away, but the party went on without him.  The crabs come in two colors, red and gray; he has observed that if you're a gray crab, blending into the landscape, you may be safer than the red crab who stands out.  (But don't they all get eaten in the end?)

(Please forgive the photos -- my camera couldn't seem to decide what to focus on and we were hustled away before I could get a better shot.)



Art report / England 3


One of Ai Weiwei's recurring themes is the destruction of China's history and traditional culture by the current regime and its replacement with shallow consumerism.  He has depicted this by finding old things and somehow redoing them for art.  His most infamous such act was to drop a 2000-year-old urn, documenting it in three photos -- holding it out, in mid-fall, and smashing on the ground.  (Critics have understandably given him a hard time over this endeavor.)

At the Blenheim Palace exhibit he wasn't so dramatic.  Here's a table from the Qing dynasty (somewhere between 100 and 350 years old) with legs sliced down to sit askew.

Here's a huge chunk of wood salvaged from the demolition of Qing dtynasty temples, which has been beautifully milled and polished into a map of China.

And here are a bunch of more 2000-year-old urns, painted in shiny automobile enamels. 























I detected puzzlement from the tourists who bothered to look at these artworks.  Ai is an artist who requires an explanation -- if you aren't familiar with his life story, his political opinions, and the materials and metaphors of his work, you won't get much out of looking at the art itself.  I was fortunate enough to know the basics, and the Blenheim show made me want to see more. 


Friday, July 20, 2018

Art report / England 1


Seeing photos last week of the Trumps' gala dinner at Blenheim Palace, outside of London, reminded me of our visit to Blenheim Palace a couple of years ago, during which we saw some Serious Art -- and I never got around to writing about it.  So here's my belated report to you.

NYTimes photo

The fabulously grand Blenheim Palace was built about 300 years ago as a gift from Queen Anne to John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, who led British forces in the Battle of Blenheim, which won the War of the Spanish Succession.  Winston Churchill, whose father was the third son of the current Duke, was born at Blenheim Palace and is buried in the churchyard of the local parish.

When we visited the palace it was the site of an exhibition of work by Ai Wei-Wei, the great contemporary artist from China.

In the palace courtyard, two of Ai's "Pillar" sculptures were installed between the indigenous pillars.  These are tall-man-size vases, suggesting the human form; he has made many of them.



In the huge reception hall of the palace, Ai's crystal chandelier looked totally at home.  He has made many chandeliers, in different forms, to comment on the extravagance of contemporary Chinese consumer culture.   Ai's father, a poet, was one of the victims of China's Cultural Revolution, sent into exile in a labor camp when Ai was one year old.  He grew up without lamps or candles in the home, let alone chandeliers.






















By contrast, you immediately walked down a hallway covered by a carpet that replicates the surface of a dirt road with tank tire tracks.
























More about the Ai exhibit in another post.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Form Not Function 1


Form, Not Function: Quilt Art at the Carnegie, our local annual juried show of art quilts, opened the day after I got home from Europe; I attended the opening reception in a jet-lagged haze and barely remembered what I had seen.  A week later, still jet-lagged, I went to see the show again with my friend Paula Kovarik, who had been one of the jurors but hadn't been able to get here for the opening.  I took a lot of pictures but didn't feel up to writing about the show in the aftermath of my unexpected eye surgery.

Now the summer has slipped away, FNF is about to close and I still haven't told you a thing about it.  My local fiber art group held its monthly meeting at the Carnegie last night and I am reminded about the most striking quilt in the show -- especially urgent and timely in light of this week's political events.

Arturo Sandoval, Covert Affairs: Bright Future (details below)

Yes, it's Trump and Putin kissing, against the Russian and U.S. flags as a backdrop.  In the center, cheerful butterflies; everywhere, money: coins and gold bars make up their hair, bills stand in for the white stripes of the flags.























Lots of gaudy fringe trims the central figure and edges the entire quilt.  At the opening I chatted with Arturo and said "What's with the fringe?  I never took you for a fringe guy."  He explained that every time he sees a picture of a nouveau riche home there's fringe on everything, so what better shorthand for people with more money than taste.

I didn't ask about the butterfly, but I know that Arturo has made a companion quilt called "Dark" something or other, featuring an ominous black moth as the central motif, so I gather the two pieces are meant as yin and yang.

This is a very large and complex piece and I can't identify all the processes.  I think the background image was woven to order with the images of the faces; many other fabrics are raw-edge appliqued on top.  The quilting seems to have been done with "invisible" thread that has a lot of sparkle to it.

The first time I saw the quilt I didn't like it.  Each successive viewing has made me appreciate it more, and last night I was in awe at its prescience as well as its visual power. 

Saturday is the last day for FNF, at the Carnegie Museum of Art and History in New Albany IN, just across the river from Louisville.


Friday, July 13, 2018

Art report / Hamburg 2


The Hamburger Kunsthalle had several pieces of fiber art from well back in the previous century, giving an interesting spin on the days when it was considered avant-garde simply to get some nontraditional materials and display them (gasp!) in a mainstream museum.  Seeing them five decades later makes me realize that fiber art has come a long way.

Robert Morris, Untitled (Felt Tangle), 1967

Robert Morris is an American artist who has worked in sculpture, land art, performance and conceptual art.  One of his favorite materials has been industrial felt, which in this piece is both hung from the wall and arranged on the floor.  I'm not sure this particular installation does much for me; I can't tell whether he's exploring felt's drapability, its firm structure or just its ability to sit there in the gallery looking transgressive.

Reiner Ruthenbeck, Hammock, 1969

Yes, it's a big piece of red cotton, suspended across a corner of the gallery from four skinny straps.  What is it saying to us about cotton-ness, about redness, about hammock-ness?  Beats me.

As I contemplated these two works in the gallery and now at home reviewing my photos, I confess that my major questions had to do not with the materials, not with the formal aspects of the compositions, but with their maintenance.  Do the janitors come in every morning and carefully pick up the edges of the felt so they can dust under the first six inches of the sculpture?  Do they vacuum the whole thing every now and then?  Does the hammock require periodic washing and ironing to keep the drapey folds from getting permanently creased?

I don't suppose the artists wanted viewers to be thinking about such issues, but they didn't give me much else to chew on.  Sorry.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Art report / Hamburg 1


Rosemarke Trockel is a German artist who works in practically every medium and technique that she can think of, but I have always kept an eye out for her knitted works.  Seen in the Hamburger Kunsthalle, this large work from 1986:

Rosemarie Trockel, Ohne Title (Untitled)

In the traditional modernist trope of referring to art in your art, Trockel has cleverly executed the "Woolmark" logo in her wool knitting.  She stretched the knitted fabric over a canvas for rigid display.

Whenever I see mainstream artists use fiber techniques I wonder how much if any of it they did themselves.  A bit of googling gave me this explanation from a London gallery that exhibited some of her knitted works:  "In choosing wool and knitting, a material and technique traditionally associated with the female domestic realm and craft, Trockel explores the negative connotations of these 'inferior materials and skills'.  Distinguishing her practice from traditional craft, Trockel made blueprints for her designs and had them produced by a technician using computerised machinery.  By mechanically producing the knitted patterns, she questions whether the cliche of women's art relates solely to the choice of materials or whether it is also influenced by the treatment of these materials."

Hmmm.  I wonder what was the answer to her questioning -- is the cliche just in the wool, or in how you process it, or in what you choose to depict in your knitting?  And I also wonder what she considers to be "the cliche of women's art."

Do you suppose we'll ever get past being a cliche?  I'm not sure Trockel is helping on that score.  What do you think?

Monday, July 9, 2018

Art report / Sweden


I'm all for recognizing the contributions of women to world history, and it's kind of endearing when scholars and museums earnestly point out how women have traditionally been left out of the story.  But sometimes they try too hard.

Witness this sign in the Vasa Museum in Stockholm.  The Vasa was a huge warship that sank a few minutes after it was launched in 1628 (it was so huge and grand and full of cannons that it was topheavy) and was found and recovered only in 1961, perfectly preserved by the cold dark waters, along with a whole lot of stuff.  If you find yourself in Stockholm, this should be the first place you go, and you should stay a lot longer than our tour guides let us do.

In case you can't read it from the photo, the text says:

"These antler bag handles in the Sami style were found on Vasa.  We do not know who made the handles or who carried the bag.  The answer was lost long ago, along with the leather bag and its contents after all the years in the water...

"Working with bone and antler was seen as a male craft, while leatherwork was seen as a female craft.  Therefore, the handles could perhaps symbolize the presence of males and the absence of females in the writing of history. 

"However, this does not mean that women were invisible or unimportant during the 17th century."

Yes, the handles could perhaps symbolize the presence of males and the absence of females in history.  Or they could perhaps symbolize that reindeer are more enduring than cows.  Or they could perhaps symbolize the silliness that occasionally overcomes museum curators.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Art report / Denmark 3


Before we went to Europe this spring, I read a story in the New York Times about a statue in Copenhagen commemorating a black woman, called Queen Mary, who led an unsuccessful revolt against harsh labor conditions in the Danish island of St. Croix in 1878.  It was described as the first statue of a black woman anywhere in Denmark, and I thought it would be nice to see it in person -- and I did get that chance.

The statue sits outside an 1797 warehouse (Denmark's Caribbean possessions had sugar plantations, and the building, now preserved as very high-end waterfront real estate, originally handled slave-grown sugar and rum).  The warehouse is now a museum of sculpture and a replica of Michelangelo's David has stood outside for many years.

The statue of Queen Mary was made by La Vaughn Belle, an artist from the U.S. Virgin Islands (Denmark sold its islands to the U.S. in 1917) and Danish artist Jeannette Ehlers.  It's placed symmetrically at the other side of the museum and was designed to be exactly as tall as David.

The statue shows Queen Mary sitting on a wicker throne, holding a torch in one hand and a cane-cutting machete in the other.























The statue is installed only temporarily, and in fact the statue itself is temporary -- our guide said it was made of some kind of styrofoam-like material.  Eventually the artists would like to raise enough money to cast it in bronze; not sure if it could stay in this location if that happened.


Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Self-taught bookbinding


In my daily art this year I have had occasions to make little collections of maps, and because I own reams of index cards, I frequently paste the maps onto the cards as I assemble them.  But that leads to the question of how the individual cards can be put together.  The simplest way, of course, would be to rubberband them into a deck, or stash them into an envelope, but I like the idea of making them into a book.

The problem is that bookbinding generally starts with signatures, one or more pages with a fold down the center.  You can then stitch through the fold and the threads hold the pages in place.  But that doesn't work if each page is on a separate piece of paper, as with my index cards.

I've experimented with a couple of different methods of joining cards into books, using techniques such as tape and needle and thread.  But last week I figured out a technique using the sewing machine that I think is turning out quite nicely -- nicely enough to share.

The trick is to use the blind hemstitch, where the machine takes one stitch to the left and then four stitches to the right, and set it to the widest stitch and relatively long stitch length.  You position your card so the left-hand stitch pierces the paper but the four right-hand stitches fall just off the paper, interlocking the threads in the air for a tight little chain.

(Note that you have to stitch with the card upside-down to make the right and left work out correctly.)

If you carefully position your card so you're always starting at the same place, you will end up with the four-stitch chains all lined up along the edges of your cards.  You can then cut a thin strip of paper, thread it through the chains, and paste it down on the front and back covers.























On the inside of the book, you just see the stitching, not the binding strips.

I've used this method for six to eight pages, and the books seem quite sturdy, at least for my purposes of limited display and use.

You might ask why I don't do some research and find out tried and tested binding methods instead of inventing my own.  First, because that's easier said than done.  The other day I spent two hours on google and pinterest trying to find usable directions for one binding method that looked intriguing.  After the two hours of frustration I turned off the computer and decided I'd rather be sewing.

But second, isn't it fun to figure out your own way to do something?


Monday, July 2, 2018

Art report / Denmark 2


Earlier this year I wrote about an exhibit of women painters who studied in Paris during the Impressionist years; one of the paintings I liked was done by Anna Ancher, who is considered one of Denmark's greatest artists.  When we were in Copenhagen in May, buying our tickets to the national gallery, I mentioned that I had seen Ancher's work in the show in Louisville and was looking forward to seeing more of it.  The ticketseller, a young woman who was studying art history and knew all about Ancher, was so excited to hear that we Americans had heard of their national treasure, wanted to know more about the U.S. show, and showed us on the museum map exactly which room to go to.

There were two Anchers on display.

Anna Ancher, Plucking the Geese, 1904


Anna Ancher, A Funeral, 1891

I know that deathbeds and funerals happen in every country and every time period, but it seems that they were an especially popular subject for art in early-20th-century Scandinavia.

In the next room was a funeral scene by a famous Danish painter.

Jens S√łndergaard, The Drowned Fisherman, 1932

And what Scandinavian collection  would be complete without a deathbed scene by Edvard Munch -- one of his recurring themes; I've seen an awful lot of these in museums here and there.


Edvard Munch, Death Struggle, 1915

I like this period of art -- moving gradually past slavish photorealism, but still recognizable depictions of everyday life.  Munch is one of my favorites, but it's always nice to be introduced to other artists famous in their own countries.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Art report / Denmark 1


When I visit a big-time museum I always like to look for fiber.  The fiber art you find in such venues hardly ever looks like any fiber art you would see at a dedicated fiber show in the U.S.; more inscrutable, often more casual in construction.  Many times you'll find fiber constructions made by artists whose major reputations are in other mediums.

Here's a major work from the Statens Museum for Kunst (the Danish National Gallery) in Copenhagen, by Yvette Brackman, a Danish-American sculptor.  It's a series of five cloaks or garments, made in 2014, titled The Troublemaker, Father America, The Chorus, The Good Mothers & Hitler-Stalin.  Inexplicably I have photos for only four of the five, and don't know which is which.









As you can see from the details, the construction is indeed on the casual side.  The pink and green one is drooping, without any interior structure to hold the layers flat.  The blue and white one looks like it was folded into a box for storage or shipping, and put directly on the wall without a touch of pressing.  The red and black one appears to have its smaller shapes fused on, with fraying edges.

To my eye, the way these pieces are slapped together is so distracting that I have a hard time focusing on the meaning.  When I do, I'm still mystified. 

I recognize the fragmented shapes on the red and black one as bits of swastikas and sickles (that must be the Hitler-Stalin cloak) and I suppose the meaning is that totalitarian regimes, whether left or right, are all the same.  I suppose the yellow cloak with the strange maroon joined sleeves is The Good Mother -- are her arms permanently joined to cradle her child or because she's locked in a straitjacket?  I get no clues from the other pieces, and I feel as though each cloak might be stronger displayed by itself instead of in with the others. 

I hate to not like fiber work when I see it in a mainstream museum venue, but this batch left me cold.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Fixing the curvy quilt


I wrote several weeks ago about a quilt that I sold after it had been hanging in a medical office for several months.  I was unhappy to see that it had warped away from the wall, as much as four inches out.  Clearly this was something that needed to be fixed before it went off to its new owners.



Thanks to all my blog readers who made suggestions!

After much thought, I decided to sew three additional sleeves horizontally across the quilt, with slats that extend practically to the edge.  A trip to Home Depot introduced me to a new product that I had not been familiar with -- PVC plastic lattice.  I decided that would be better than wood because it's not acid.  It cut like butter with my little pull saw, but the cut ends, of course, were white, which would be jarringly visible in the sleeves.

I suppose I could have experimented with paint, but my default mechanism for fixing things always involves the sewing machine.  So I stitched one end of the sleeves shut, and made a little flap on the other end to tuck in and conceal the white slat.

The quilt reached its new home yesterday afternoon.  I hope it's happy there, and that its edges will hug the wall in perpetuity.

Monday, June 25, 2018

At the craft store


I was teaching a workshop on hand-stitching over the weekend and had to provide all the materials, so I went to the store to pick up a new supply of embroidery needles.  When I think that centuries ago, a woman might own only two needles in her lifetime, I feel a great culture shock.  I go through needles by the dozens; not that I lose them, but they mysteriously distribute themselves among my various sewing kits, pincushions, pin dishes, embroidery bags and so forth, and occasionally go to live with my friends and family.

I picked up a couple of packs of needles in the sewing department, along with some fabric, and then went toward the yarn/embroidery section to get a new bag of floss.  And to my surprise, found the same embroidery needles in a different color package, with a different logo -- and a considerably lower price.























That's right, in the sewing department, 12 needles for $2.49; in the embroidery department, 16 needles for $1.79!

In the immortal words of Smokey Robinson, you gotta shop around.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Art report / Russia 4


Some people who have heard about my disappointment at the Hermitage have wondered why we got stuck in that bad situation.  Here's more info, which you might keep in mind if you're planning a trip to Russia.

There are two kinds of tourist visas to Russia: a regular visa, which allows you to wander about as you wish, and a 72-hour-tourist visa, available for people who come on cruise ships.  The regular visa costs about $160, so tour operators don't want to buy it for a day stop.  The cruise ship visa comes with the requirement that people must take the official tour offered by the cruise ship, set up as part of the package when the ship arranges its docking.  So you get the tour provided by the official tourist people, visa price included.

Our guide was a former schoolteacher and had good English -- during a longish bus ride he entertained us by reciting poetry in both Russian and English -- and our own tour leader was able to negotiate a few minor changes in the itinerary (we didn't have to stop in the souvenir shop) but we were pretty much stuck with the official plan of two museums, one church inside, one church outside, lunch, and driving around and around St. Petersburg.  That didn't leave much time for any one attraction.
























Our "church inside" was the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, built over the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881.  The inside surfaces are entirely paved with elaborate mosaics; the outside features an array of colorful onion domes.  It was our favorite site of the entire tour and we could easily have spent a lot more time there.

In case you ever find yourself in Russia on a regular visa and get to visit the Hermitage on your own, be prepared for two different admission prices: one for Russian and Ukrainian citizens, and a much higher one for everybody else.  But at least you will have a chance to see some art!!  Give yourself at least one full day, maybe three!

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Art report / Russia 3


I am a lover of cold weather, but on so many of my foreign travels I bring a heat wave with me.  We just about melted in Greece and Turkey in 2008; when we spent a month in Germany in 2010 it was so hot across Northern Europe that 11,000 people died in Moscow and many of us wanted to die in Berlin; when I went to Antarctica with a suitcase full of heavy-duty winter gear it was 52 degrees one afternoon.

The day before we left for the Baltic I checked weather.com to get the forecasts for every city on our route, and didn't find a single one with a high of more than 60 degrees.  Ha ha.  Perhaps once it got below 60 degrees; our jackets and scarves stayed in the suitcases and we wished for shorts.  It was 87 degrees in St. Petersburg, and that is not a city known for its air conditioning.  Fortunately the big palaces were built with plenty of insulation and stayed tolerably warm-but-not-to-die.  But it was kind of unpleasant in the restaurant and as we strolled through the streets and parks .

We were unimpressed by the time we spent standing on line, not just to get in (three separate lines at the Hermitage)  but to get your passport checked on the way off the ship and to get it checked again on the way back to the ship.

There were crowds everywhere.  Fortunately none of us had things to check in the cloakrooms.


In practically every room of the museums you would see a dour lady sitting on a chair in the corner.  Occasionally one would rise and shout at somebody who committed an infraction, but mostly they just sat there looking glum. 

As we waited on line to get back on the ship we noticed that there were two glum ladies sitting together; at least they got to wear semi-sharp uniforms and had somebody to talk to.