Monday, November 29, 2010

19th Century Abstraction?

Did you ever suddenly stop one day and ponder a word that is commonly used/over used in art appreciation texts? I just started thinking about the word “abstraction.” We all know that the term is used to describe art from the twentieth century. The basic definition of abstraction is any art that does not represent observed aspects of nature or transforms visible forms into a stylized image. Well, in my mind, that sort of describes art that is labeled “naïve” or “primitive” (we all know how much I despise that term). In my mind, “abstraction” could pertain to any of the art that is produced by self-taught, so-called “naïve” artists. If that is the case, then we can talk about abstraction existing in art from around the world that does not strictly follow observed reality.

Emily Eastman was most likely one of the early American women artists who learned drawing and painting as a “lady-like” past time. She was born in Louden, New Hampshire, and was active as a watercolorist during the 1820s and 1830s. Her body of work consists primarily of watercolor “portraits” of women’s heads adapted from fashion prints. Consistent with traditional Folk Art, Feathers and Pearls displays an interest in accurate detail in costume and hair, particularly in the feathers, while the face is flattened and stylized. The boldly arched eyebrows; porcelain-like, expressionless face; and corkscrew curls of her hairdo is an accomplished if naïve characterization.

The simplicity of the work of such artists as Eastman influenced women artists during the twentieth century. They were not only seeking to honor the earliest American women artists, but were attracted to the simplicity and stylization which was easily translated into abstraction in the twentieth century. Most of the watercolors attributed to Eastman are of this same pose, head slightly tilted to the side, with elaborate “Grecian” style headdress and hairdo that were part of the Neoclassical movement so popular in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Check out these other examples of nineteenth-century American “abstraction.”

Correlations to Davis Programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 2.8; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 2.8, 5.25; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 1.2, 1.3; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.2; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 1.1; A Personal Journey: 1.2, 6.1; A Community Connection: 3.1, 6.2; The Visual Experience: 9.3

Monday, November 22, 2010

American Art Pottery Pioneer

I’ve told you all about American Art Pottery in a previous blog. It’s a fascinating topic, because it is evidence of the major impact of women artists on the American art scene, one of the earliest instances. If we look at the number of women involved in ceramics in Cincinnati alone, we realize what a craze art pottery became between the 1870s and the first decade of the 1900s. Not only did these artists form ceramic clubs and societies, many women were founders of major art pottery firms. Many museums at the time were buying art pottery the year it was made, as is the case with this Mary Louise McLaughlin piece. This is evidence of how highly esteemed an art form “art pottery” was, and still is today judging by the prices such works fetch in auctions.

Mary Louise McLaughlin was a pioneer in art pottery. She studied furniture carving during the late 1860s in a studio in her native Cincinnati, and was also introduced to pottery painting in the same class. Ceramics thereafter dominated her interest. Her book entitled “China Painting: A Practical Manual for the Use of Amateurs in the Decoration of Hard Porcelain” (1877/1911) sold 23,000 copies, indicating the growing popularity of art pottery in the US.

In the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, McLaughlin exhibited her work and sold more pieces than fellow exhibitor Mary Longworth Nichols, the founder of Rookwood Pottery. At that exhibition McLaughlin was greatly impressed by an exhibit of French faience (a glaze with high glass content) ceramics and decided to go about finding a way to imitate that glaze with slip underglaze decoration. This technique involves a colored slip (clay mixed with water to a creamy consistency) applied to a vessel in combination with a colored silicate glaze over it. She experimented with combinations of colors and what resulted was the “Cincinnati Faience” glaze. She formed the Cincinnati Pottery Club in 1879, and the enthusiasm with which the “Cincinnati Faience” was received nation-wide helped spawn the craze for art pottery in the United States.

This ovoid form with Art Nouveau decoration is typical of the period when McLaughlin experimented with glazes that imitated metal. These glazes on porcelain were the start of what McLaughlin called “Losantiware.” In this particular piece she was imitating the patina of oxidized copper. Typical of most glazes that came from many pottery firms in Cincinnati, the glaze is thickly and evenly applied, with yellow underslip painting added to give the color a warm richness. This imitation of metallic effects won McLaughlin a medal at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 3: 6.35, A Global Pursuit: 5.4, A Community Connection: 5.1, The Visual Experience: 10.6

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Color, Color, Color

I just love cultures where art forms are considered more valuable than gold (let’s tell that to Wall Street). I find it especially interesting when what is considered valuable in non-Western European aesthetics is what has been denigrated in Western art history as “decorative arts.” Gosh, I hate that term – it always conjures up notions that the art form is somehow less valuable or aesthetically worthwhile than “fine arts,” such as painting and sculpture (the old Western Europe/US standard). Fortunately, since the 1970s, fiber arts have become more appreciated in the West as fine art, especially since the feminist art movement of the 1970s. As I’ve said in previous posts, I consider everything ART that is produced by an ARTIST, no matter what medium (and this includes chefs, fashion designers, etc., I could go on and on).

In pre-conquest Central and South America, textiles were considered the second greatest commodity after gold. Weaving in pre-conquest American cultures was an art form passed down for mother or grandmother to young women, usually between the ages of seven and eight years. During pre-conquest times, woven material was used as a means of exchange, tribute, payment, and gift. The tradition persists to the present day. Central and South American textiles are now sold internationally.

Weaving is comprised of a warp (the vertical threads) and the weft (the horizontal threads). To this day, traditional weaving in Central America is done on the backstrap loom. It is comprised of several parallel sticks between which the warp threads are stretched. The front rod holding one end is tied to a tree or pole. The back rod holding the other end of the warp is secured to the weaver’s waist with a leather strap wrapped around the body.

The common width of the loom, and therefore the cloth produced, is usually 30 inches (76.2 cm). Most large pieces of clothing are made of several lengths of cloth joined together. Tzute is a general word used to refer to a wide variety of square or rectangular utility cloths that are village specific. The cloth is used as basket covers, baby carriers, and carriers for bundles of goods. Pattern often indicates function of the cloth. Tzutes are not only used for carrying but are also worn over the shoulder or folded on the head, according to regional tradition. They are worn by both men and women.

The fiber arts of Central and South American aboriginal cultures continue a tradition that is thousands of years old (from c2000 BCE). They pre-date the hey-day of western cultures such as the periods of ancient Greece and Rome (c700 BCE to 5th century CE).

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 2: 6.36, Explorations in Art Grade 3: 6.31; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 5.27; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 2.10; A Global Pursuit: 5.3; A Community Connection: 1.3; The Visual Experience: 10.8, The Visual Experience: 14.4; Discovering Art History: 4.9

Monday, November 8, 2010

Contemporary Colorist

Since most autumn foliage colors are waning, I thought I’d provide you with some eye candy of color in the form of a gorgeous painting, and an artist I just recently learned about. I’ve become a big fan of Sheila Isham since we acquired images of several works of hers from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo. Being primarily a colorist myself in my own painting, I always appreciate artists who celebrate the joy of pure color in their work. What a nice way to celebrate autumn!

Sheila Isham’s life is almost as colorful as her paintings. After receiving a BA at Bryn Mawr College, she became the first woman to enroll in the West Berlin Academy of Fine Arts. While in Berlin, she encountered German expressionist painting for the first time. After four and a half years in Berlin she and her career diplomat husband moved to Moscow. In Russia, she immersed herself in traditional Russian art, as well as that of the avant-garde artists of the early twentieth century. Check out the work of these two early Russian modernists and see if you can’t note the aspects of their work that inspired Isham.

Natalija Goncharova, Rayonism: Blue-Green Forest. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, © Estate of Natalija Gocharova/ARS, New York.




Mikhail Larionov, Rayonist Composition: Domination of Reds. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, © Estate of Mikhail Larionov/ARS, New York.


After Moscow, Isham and husband moved to Washington, then Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, Isham studied classical Chinese culture and calligraphy. She appreciated the abstract possibilities of calligraphy and has incorporated that sense into many of her paintings since. Later, she also went to India to study sculpture. When Isham returned to New York in the late 1960s, she immediately began producing abstract paintings. At the time, Op Art and Pop Art were the fad in the art world, and her abstract, colorful paintings were not appreciated by critics. However, like the abstract expressionists, Isham focused primarily on color. While inspired by the spiritual ideals of eastern art, she does not consider color to be intellectual, but rather intrinsically emotional.

This work reflects her Chinese experiences. In essence, the fire in heaven helps a person curb evil and further good. In many paintings after this, Isham features animals. The receding and advancing fields of luscious color remind me of the wispy clouds in Chinese traditional painting from which dragons appear.

Correlations to Davis Programs: Explorations in Art Grade 3: 2.12; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 3.14, 6.35; A Personal Journey: 7.1, A Community Connection 9.1; A Global Pursuit: 9.1; The Visual Experience: 5.8, 7.2, 9.3, 9.11, 16.7; Discovering Art History: 3.2, 17.3

Monday, November 1, 2010

Empathetic Photographer


The creative impulse is universal; I think we can all pretty much agree on that. I think we can also all agree that photography is fine art. It’s always neat when photographers document other creative people, especially in little-known, overlooked locales. Such is the intention of Marcela Taboada’s series “Women of Clay.”

Photography studios appeared in Mexico only a few years after the development of the Daguerreotype in the 1830s. As was true in Western Europe and the US, early photography in Mexico was primarily used for portraiture and documentation of specific places. After the Mexican Revolution of 1910, many Mexican artists traveled to Europe and were exposed to modernist experiments in all art media, including photography. Since that time, Mexican photography has been in the vanguard of contemporary art.

Marcela Taboada is an established independent photographer who lives in Oaxaca, Mexico. With a degree in graphic arts and design, Taboada’s photographs have appeared in various newspapers and magazines from Mexico and around the world. She has taught photography, and coordinates yearly photography workshops in Oaxaca with American photographer Mary Ellen Mark. She has won awards and stipends from institutions around the world as well.

Women of Clay is a photographic series that chronicles the lives of the women of the small Indian town of San Miguel Amatitlán, in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. It belongs to the Mixteca Baja people. The town is high in the Sierra Madre Mountains, where water only lasts about four months a year and must be carried from great distances for basic needs. The women of the town build their own houses, using the water to make clay bricks. In order to support themselves, the women sew footballs. Taboada hopes that by focusing on the character of these hard-working women, it will open the door to possibilities of even greater help in their daily lives.

Correlations to Davis Programs: Explorations in Art 1: 2.7, 2.8; Explorations in Art 2: 2.8; Explorations in Art 4: 1.2, 2.7; Explorations in Art 5: 1.1; A Personal Journey: 2.1, 6.1, 8.3; A Community Connection: 1.3, 7.2, 9.3; A Global Pursuit: 5.3, 9.3; The Visual Experience 9.5, 16.8