Monday, June 28, 2010

Fancy Paint Box

I always look for artistic beauty in everyday objects, and I have shown you many that really caught my eye. But this piece has got to be the high point of this concept. Actually, this Wedgwood piece almost takes the “looking for beauty in everyday objects” idea beyond ridiculous! I don’t know about you, but even a crusty old art historian like I am, whose seen a lot of unusual works of art, can have a weekly “What the ----?” moment, and this piece is mine for this week. I mean really, a watercolor paint box made out of Wedgwood’s Jasperware? Jasperware was just about a half-step down from porcelain; in fact many art historians consider it an English variation on porcelain. Okay, I’ll admit it: I don’t see how anyone could use this fancy box for actual painting. Jasperware is unglazed stoneware; wouldn’t the paints stain the little cups?

Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795) was born in Staffordshire, long a center of ceramic production in England. Ceramics in England up to the 18th century lacked the stylistic and technical sophistication of other European ceramics, such as in Spain, Italy, and France. Wedgwood was the son of a potter and was apprenticed to his potter brother at the age of fourteen. He became skilled in all aspects of the trade, recognizing the need for more sophisticated wares in England. His career coincided with the period during which numerous porcelain factories developed in reaction to imported wares from China and Japan. Up until this time, high society primarily used silver or pewter tableware.

Relying on the traditional Staffordshire stoneware as a base, Wedgwood’s first success was his “Queen’s Ware,” a cream-colored stoneware fired to the temperature for earthenware. The lead-glazed creamware was so popular that Queen Charlotte of England and Empress Elizabeth of Russia commissioned huge amounts of dinner service. Having royal patronage helped his business, and Wedgwood was the first ceramic artist to produce a catalog illustrating his wares. Between 1773 and 1775 Wedgwood perfected a combination of ingredients to produce his most famous ware: Jasperware. Jasperware was so named because it resembled the semi-precious stone jasper in texture and color. It was hard, unglazed stoneware achieved by adding carbonate and sulfate of barium to a semi-porcelain clay and then using a metal oxide for the desired color. Blue, like that of this paint box, is by far the most famous color.

Most Jasperware objects were for display: vases, medallions, plaques, pitchers, and urns. Tea sets, paint boxes, and plates in Jasperware were most likely also for display. Jasperware appeared at a time when the Neoclassical style was all the rage in Europe. This beautiful little paint box has numerous classical motifs such as rosettes, putti, and garland. As a painter, I would be really hesitant to actually use this beautiful piece to paint. I have a beautiful Jasperware plate, a present from my brother, which, of course, is on display.

The Wedgwood website displays stunning examples of Jasperware.

Monday, June 21, 2010

What's Old is New Again

One of my greatest treats is to show you art that is a little bit of a surprise, whether it be subject matter, style, period, whatever. It tickles my art history bone to be able to show you works of art that are totally fresh, and yet produced by an ages-old process. I really have to love when contemporary artists use old processes and come up with something so awesome and individual. Such is the work of this artist: Barbara Ess. And, need I add, that Ess’s work is proof that photography is a fine art!

Much of Ess’s work is produced with a pinhole camera. The simplest type of pinhole camera is a light-proof small box or container with a hole in the middle of one side and a black interior. On the inside of the box, opposite the pinhole, a piece of photographic, light sensitive paper is placed to receive the image. Earliest mention of the inverted image resulting through a pinhole was in the 5th to 4th centuries BCE in ancient Greece and China. Study of this phenomenon led to the development of the camera obscura, basically a pinhole camera fitted with a lens over the pinhole to magnify the image. During the Renaissance and Baroque periods, the camera obscura was used by artists to aid them in capturing perspective and landscape details accurately for their paintings. The camera obscura led to the development of photography.

For two decades, Barbara Ess has become renowned for her pinhole camera photographs. She uses a simple cardboard box with a minute aperture. Because of the limited available light and short depth of field, her photos are always dark and misty, often silhouetted around the sides. Everything is slightly out of focus except for the very center of the subject. The photographs are made on black-and-white negatives and printed on colored papers, whose tones become delicately nuanced by the scant light afforded by the camera. Ess focuses less on technique rather than on unique subject matter, such as this view of a dog’s front legs. The extremely limited field of vision creates a stark, dreamlike print in which Ess explores the ambiguity of perceptual boundaries in often intimate compositions.

Does anyone teach using pinhole cameras? I would love to hear about your/your student’s experiences.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Sōsaku hanga

It never fails to amaze me how certain “facts” in the history of art are true no matter what culture we examine. Fact: up until the early 20th century certain art forms, subject matter, and styles were not considered “important,” “acceptable,” or even “fine art.” If we ponder this concept, the first thing that springs into our Western minds is the prejudices of the megalomaniacal, conservative academies of art of Europe and the United States. Not only did those institutions regulate which artists got exhibited and accepted, they also had “standards” on what appropriate media and subject matter could be considered fine art. Oddly enough, when Westerners were first exposed to woodblock prints from Japan, they considered such prints Japanese fine art. In Japan, woodblock prints (I’m talking Ukiyo-e style now) were considered an inferior art form suitable only for the lower classes because they were mass-produced.

Sōsaku hanga (creative print) was a movement that had its origins in Japan as a reaction to the rapid industrialization of the country after its “opening” to Western powers. At the turn of the 20th century, there was a great debate in Japan in artistic and literary circles about expressions of “self.” This was in part influenced by the Japanese exposure to European modernism: many Japanese artists travelled to Europe during the 1890s. Another factor was the reaction by young artists during the first decade of the 20th century to stifling cultural strictures and the establishment in 1907 of the Japan Fine Arts Academy, which looked upon printmaking as a “minor art.” The Creative Print movement artists differed from ukiyo-e artists in that they designed, cut, and printed their works themselves. Traditionally printmaking in Japan consisted of the artist, the woodblock cutter, the printer, and the publisher each contributing to the final print.

Artists of the Creative Print movement primarily considered themselves painters. Many of them emulated modernist movements in the West, and were not broadly accepted among an established art hierarchy that still considered painting the highest of “fine art.” It was only in 1927 that printmaking was accepted by the Japan Fine Arts Academy as art. By that time, however, many Japanese artists were experimenting with modernism. Only after World War II did Japanese modernist prints gain worldwide recognition, thanks in some part to American patronage of works that reflected Western abstraction, a perception of the blending of East and West.

Keiko Minami was a painter and printmaker who followed her husband Hamaguchi Yozo to Paris after World War II. Both were sōsaku hanga artists. Minami’s lyrical, fairy-tale like images were eventually commissioned by UNESCO and UNICEF. This lovely print demonstrates many of the elements and principles of art: line, asymmetrical balance, and positive/negative space.

This gallery features more of Minami’s work. She was primarily interested in young female figures, animals, and nature.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Tradition Meets Contemporary

Art history geeks like me often like to ponder some of the conundrums of art history as pertaining to cross-cultural phenomena. The US effectively quashed Native American cultures during the 19th century, even going so far as to send Native children to boarding schools so that they could “learn” how to be “American.” That aberrant policy lasted until the 1930s, but already in the late 19th century there were people in the US who realized the valuable contributions First Nations people could make to American society as a whole. It was at that time that certain groups began to encourage native peoples to produce art in traditional forms (I spoke about this in a previous blog). That leads us to the 21st century, when many aboriginal artists are producing work that reflects traditional themes and symbols in contemporary western media and styles.

Two factors led to the production of aboriginal art as a saleable commodity rather than for community or ceremonial purposes: the widespread seizure of First Nations lands and severe reduction in hunting and farming capability, and the late 19th century Arts and Crafts Movement. That movement was a reaction against industrialization and mass-produced “art.” Native art was valued (and romanticized) by non-native patrons as something authentic and sharing in the anti-modernist sentiment. The same assimilationist policies that threatened their cultural survival led to the establishment of “Indian” schools, such as the Studio School in Santa Fe, which taught native artists western materials, styles, and techniques. These factors led in the mid- to late-20th century for the development of a full-scale emergence of a native tradition in contemporary art.

The general consciousness of the importance of self-determination that characterized the 1960s may have helped lead to the establishment of the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe in 1962. Native educators incorporated indigenous ways of teaching contemporary art, promoting ideas of individual artistic freedom. Many of the most prominent native modernists of the 1970s and 1980s came from that school. During those decades, many native artists, such as Emmi Whitehorse, developed broader interpretations of Native art to move away from figurative and representational forms.

Whitehorse received her MFA from the University of New Mexico in Santa Fe. She has described her paintings as “personal diaries.” They are brilliant abstractions that suggest landscape in the atmospheric washes, and evoke traditional Navajo symbols in the shapes resembling seeds, pods, and roots of plants. Born and raised on the Navajo reservation, she lived with her grandmother and grew up surrounded by Navajo tradition. In Fire Weed, it is obvious that the southwestern landscape is Whitehorse’s inspiration. As a child she collected plants with her grandmother, who hung them on the wall to dry. That is the origin of the floating vegetal forms. Whitehorse’s work is a bridge between the contemporary art world and the world of Navajo tradition.

Visit the artist’s website to view Images of other works.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Another Vanishing Tradition?

Nigeria, Length of material with light bulb pattern, 2004. Wax-resist printed cotton, 36" x 46 7/8" (91.4 x 118.1 cm). © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-607)

What do we in the West think of when the word “African art” is mentioned? masks? ancestor figures? In most African cultures, textile arts are considered THE finest of the fine arts. In pre-colonial times, standard widths of cloth were used like money in many regions of Africa. A regular number of standard units were required to make a woman’s wrap and thus served as a unit of value. Today, the myriad patterns seen in woven, resist-dyed, tie-dyed, and painted textiles of numerous African cultures are popular throughout the world. The textile art tradition of Nigeria, and other African textile centers such as Sierra Leone, is so rich and multi-faceted it deserves to be my “holy cow!” moment of the week. 

The wax-resist process of decorating cloth is an ancient art form. Textiles were decorated with wax-resist technique certainly as far back as Ancient Egypt. The technique flourished throughout Asia, flowering in Southeast Asia (where it is called “batik”), especially in Indonesia, which is perhaps best known for “batik” fabrics. The process came to Africa in the nineteenth century via Dutch traders. Africans traditionally loved colorful fabrics and the process was adapted, customizing it with designs and colors that reflected local traditional culture.

The basic process for wax-resist printing is to paint or stamp a design or pattern in molten wax on a length of fabric. When the fabric is dyed, the wax resists the dye and forms the pattern. The wax is then removed in boiling water. One of the most treasured aspects of wax-resist is the “cracks” patterns that occur due to the fact that the wax cracks while the fabric is being dyed and the dye seeps through the cracks onto the cloth. In West Africa, indigo, mud and kola nut dyes are very popular. In Nigeria, wooden or calabash stamps are often used to stamp the molten wax onto the cloth. 

Nigeria currently holds 63 percent of West African textile manufacturing. Nigerian wax-resist textiles are found in almost every marketplace in sub-Saharan Africa. African wax-resist designs fall into several categories: women’s lives, town life and its effects, nature, and rhythm (music and drumming). This bolt of cloth displaying light bulbs would fall under the “town life” category. Interestingly, in the last five years there has been a major effort in Nigeria to make that country more energy efficient through the use of energy-saving light bulbs.