Monday, October 31, 2011

Photography in 21st Century

With the Davis Art Gallery doing a show of contemporary photography coming up on November 3rd, I decided to introduce you all to a photographer whom I’ve come to appreciate in the last year or so: Zoe Strauss. I believe she is Philadelphia-based, but takes her subject matter from far and wide.  What’s fascinating to me is how photography, as an art medium, has basically come full circle from the earliest period. It was originally conceived of as a method of recording reality—i.e., documentary— but subsequently went through convulsions of format, style, and subject, because it was not considered a fine art. Well, in the 21st century, we consider do photography a fine art. The medium has an immense range now, and ironically, documentary photography is back as one of the primary styles.

There are currently a variety of photographers who shoot the American scene, some in the “snapshot aesthetic” and others in a more pictorialist way. Strauss’ photographs are definitely in the snapshot aesthetic. This style emerged in the late 19th century as cameras became more commonplace among amateurs and middle class families. The style is characterized by an unposed, candid, spur-of-the-moment photograph of an event or place. In the 1960s, interestingly, the idea became refined into a style of photography that, while mimicking the off-handed shots of amateurs or “mom photographers,” it revealed a deeper psychological investigation by the photographer.

Nothing could have interested photographers more than Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The vastness of human suffering and property damage begged to be documented, if only so that the breadth of the catastrophe could have an impact on those viewing the photographs. Strauss went to Gulfport and Biloxi in Mississippi in late September 2005, spending her time with a group of doctors and nurses distributing ice, water, and generic medicines. While there she took dozens of photographs with her digital camera.

Strauss was born in Philadelphia and received her first camera when she was 30. She began to photograph life around her in the less well-off areas of Philadelphia, and then broadened her scope to the circumstances of everyday life among the under-privileged around the world. While largely self-taught, her photographs display an amazing monumentality and formality that play on elements of design such as positive and negative space, symmetrical balance, and emphasis. Her image of a devastated MacDonald’s sign speaks volumes to the destruction of Americans’ comfort zone with the material life, and how quickly it can be swept away by the power of nature.

Correlations to Davis Programs: A Personal Journey: 4.1, 6.1; A Community Connection: 7.2; The Visual Experience: 9.5; Discovering Art History: 14.5

Monday, October 24, 2011

Aizuri-e = Wonderful

Aizuri-e means “blue printed picture.” Traditionally, the blue was derived from the dayflower. However, via the Dutch in Osaka, Prussian blue was imported from Europe as early as the 1790s. It did not appear in woodblock prints until the 1810s. By 1829 it is visible in several artists’ work. Having dabbled in woodblock prints, I find the nuances in the values of the blue to be extraordinary. Looking at landscapes such as this, it’s hard to believe that the artist was better known for his actor and courtesan prints! If one did not have an eye for the grain of the wood (visible in the pale blue on Fuji), this could easily be mistaken for a painting.
Utagawa Toyokuni III (Kunisada I) was in his own time was the most popular and successful print designer in Japan, ahead of Hokusai and Hiroshige. He was born in Edo in 1786, and his was an amateur poet of some note. After showing a predisposition for art (copying prints of actors), he was accepted as an apprentice around 1800 by one of the great masters of the Japanese woodblock print, Utagawa Toyokuni (I) (1769–1825), and became one of his chief pupils.

Kunisada started out doing actor prints, the initial specialty of the Utagawa school, but eventually branched out into prints of beauties, and even dabbled in landscapes. The Utagawa school was the most prolific of the ukiyo-e (ca. mid-18th to mid-19th centuries), founded by Utagawa Toyoharu (1735–1814). Toyoharu became most famous for landscapes done in Western-influenced one-point perspective. Although Kunisada’s landscapes (in the 1830's) showed real promise, he never did many. This work comes from a series of designs for fans, and is in the traditional layered recession.

Fan-shaped prints became a popular during the Edo period. Since they were often cut and glued to fans, few of these designs have survived. Kunisada excelled at fan-shaped prints and designed works that capitalized on the unusual shape. He produced relatively few landscape designs during his career, and this one is particularly unusual for its avoidance of outlines.

Activity: Create a monoprint that imitates a woodblock print landscape in different values of one color. Put paint on a smooth surface such as plastic, metal or waxed paper. Paint the main shapes of the landscape then wipe or daub away some of the paint to create different values. Put paper over the whole design and rub it to press it into the paint. (Explorations in Art Grade 4)

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 1: 4.21; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 1.4, 1.5; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.5, 4.22; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 4.23; A Global Pursuit: 7.3; A Community Connection: 4.3; A Personal Journey: 3.3, 5.1; Exploring Visual Design: 3, 4, 5; The Visual Experience: 3.5, 9.4, 13.5; Discovering Art History: 4.4

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Chromolithograph Magic

Although women were restricted from where they could learn how to be an artist up until the late 19th century in America, many women became professional artists. One of the media in which an increasing number of women participated was printmaking. Printmaking was seen as an extension of painting, but was not appreciated as a “fine art.” Actually, it took until the 20th century for printmaking techniques to be considered fine, stand-alone works of art (this despite the “renaissance” in etching that took place in the 1860s). Primarily, throughout the nineteenth century, printmaking was seen as a way of copying paintings for mass consumption, for advertising, and for illustration. Interestingly, many women took up printmaking as a way of artistic expression within the narrow confines of what was deemed “appropriate” subject matter. What we in the 21st century do not often think about is how these women, deprived of the gallery, academy, and museum network that men had, persevered and have left us a glorious body of work.

Chromolithography, like color woodcuts, involves the use of multiple surfaces with the same design, in lithography’s case a stone, on which the various colors are printed on the paper containing the original neutral design. Like color woodcuts, the printer had to be careful to line up the base print with each color so that registration of the colors would be exact.

Ellen Thayer Fisher was the older sister of American Impressionist/Tonalist Abbott Henderon Thayer (1849–1931). Although it is theorized that Fisher “learned” art from her younger brother, it is most likely that she was a self-taught artist. Her father was a country doctor, and while her brother went to New York to study art, she remained in remote New Hampshire, studying landscapes and flowers as subject matter.

While Fisher’s primary medium was watercolor, she, like many of the women artists in remote areas of the Northeast, succumbed to the numerous recessions in the American economy that occurred between the 1870s and 1890s. With demand by patrons decreasing for original watercolors that could cost five dollars, they resorted to either coloring other artists’ prints, or having their own work lithographed. Fisher supplemented her income by producing beautiful works such as this for greeting cards, place mates, and other items that could be bought for as cheaply as twenty-five cents.

Nonetheless, this beautiful color lithograph shows all the sophistication of fellow nature artists such as Fidelia Bridges, Elizabeth Lyman Boott, Sarah Wyman Whitman, and Bertha Jaques. When she moved to Brooklyn after marriage, Fisher continued to produce watercolors of flora and also gave artistic instruction from home through the mail.

Activity:   Using color pencils, pastels, or markers, recreate this still life by using simple geometric shapes and primary and complementary colors. Remember that the basic geometric shapes are the circle, the square, and the triangle.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 2: 1.2, 1.3; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 4.1, 4.20 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Art Deco Magic

Being born and raised in Chicago (but living in New England the last 15 years), my mind often wanders back to the many wonderful walks I took while living in the city. As an art historian, I was fascinated with the architecture, not only of downtown, but of the neighborhoods.  Wandering the side streets of Chicago’s neighborhoods reveals a rich architectural history. I used to love walking around at night in my neighborhood (Wicker Park) and look at all of the grand old turn of the (20th) century mansions and see how people had renovated/updated them.  Apparently, though, no period in art history is immune from “updating” existing buildings.

Chicago experienced a boom in architecture during the 1920s because of the artificially raging stock market (sort of like today). One aspect of that boom was the “updating” of buildings that had either fallen into disrepair or had been abandoned because families had dissolved. A similar “modernization” occurred in American interior design and architecture during the 1950s, ironically affecting the work done in the 1920s! 

Sol Kogen and Edgar Miller met and both studied briefly at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1917. They both quit and Kogen subsequently went to Paris, where he mingled with the avant-garde artists of the time, including Pablo Picasso. While there, he was impressed the way old buildings were renovated to not only accommodate modern taste, but also fill the need for (relatively) cheap artist space.

Kogen bought a Victorian mansion and he and Miller reconfigured it into artists’ spaces. Miller is credited with most of the design work as well as the interior design. They erected a brick wall over the existing mansion, took out the windows and put in stained glass and lead glass windows. They scoured Chicago for architectural remnants such as mosaics, carved lintels, fireplace mantles, etc, and made each apartment unique. The design is not only a tribute to Art Deco aesthetics, but also the aesthetics of Bauhaus (in Germany) that espoused combining art with everyday design.

The place is still a landmark, and, ironically, for sale. I visited it in the 1980s and was completely wowed by the combination of mosaic, leaded glass, angled walls, and just plain being so close to downtown (it’s in the Old Town area).

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 1.1, 2.12; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 6.31, 6.32; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 4.20; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 3.18; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 2.11, 2.12; A Personal Journey: 8.1

Monday, October 3, 2011

Meet a Mezzotint Master

I’ve tried lithography, woodcut, linoleum cut, and etching (on a plastic plate, yuck!), but have never succeeded as a printmaker. I would gladly do color lithography if I could have a press in my living room, but then I couldn’t paint. I have to say that intaglio printing was the hardest medium to master; I don’t know how many times I inked and wiped, inked and wiped, and sent it through the press before producing an acceptable print. Well, when I see accomplished printmakers, then I bow down in humility, because works like this just make me GREEN with envy.

The key element of intaglio printmaking (including etching, engraving, drypoint, aquatint, and mezzotint) is that the ink rests in incised lines in the metal plate. After inking the plate, the excess ink on the surface must be wiped away. The plate is then put through a roller press which has great pressure that forces the paper into the incised lines thus creating the print.

The mezzotint process begins by texturing a metal plate in such a way that it will hold a great deal of ink and print a solid black field. This is done with a tool called a "rocker." A rocker is essentially a large curved blade with very fine teeth along its edge. This blade is rocked back and forth, putting courses of fine dots into the metal plate. After this has been done repeatedly the plate will be covered with fine stipples that can hold ink. The next step is to scrape away the stippled texture where lighter passages are needed. The more the plate is scraped in certain areas the less ink it will hold and the whiter it will print. Mezzotint differs from other intaglio methods because the artist works from black to white rather than white to black.  

Hamaguchi Yozo (view more works here) is considered one of the masters of the mezzotint. He was born and studied art in Japan. After studying painting and sculpture in Tokyo, he abandoned that in 1930 and went to Paris where he studied printmaking processes. His skilled use of the rocker in his mezzotints creates a synthesis of Japanese and European art. While using an ostensibly western medium, he infuses it with the Japanese reverence for nature in his still life works, giving them an insubstantiality that suggests the transience of life, while also suggesting western surrealist compositions.

Activity: Create an image of an individual object imitating the visual effects of a mezzotint. Using dark colored (black, brown, grey, or any dark color) construction paper, draw an image of a single object with one light color using chalk, pastel, or colored pencil. Make sure that the image is worked in the opposite from on white paper – establishing highlights with the light color and using the dark paper for shadow. Blur the edges of the medium lines using a blending tool to imitate the soft quality of mezzotints.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 2: 5.27; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 2.7, 2.8; Exploring Visual Design: 3, 9.