Monday, April 30, 2012

Art in Everyday Continued

I think one of the most fascinating areas that reflect aesthetics in everyday objects is furniture design. For a few centuries, furniture design was predicated on accommodating the human form based on social customs and costume of the time. For example, during the Queen Anne period in England (reigned 1702–1714), card playing was wildly fashionable, and chairs for card tables were often designed with a padded rail on the top of the back splat so that a special someone, leaning on the padded rail, could watch the player sitting at the table. In the 19th century, during the height of the crinoline (hoop skirt) period (1850s–1860s), side chairs were often designed with short legs and no arms to accommodate the voluminous skirt and, preserve a woman’s modesty, preventing the hoop from tipping up and revealing a (gasp) ankle. The Arts and Crafts movement (1860s–1890s), which emphasized a combination of fine art and design, signaled the beginning of the period of furniture design where the body was given less gravity in design than aesthetics.

Furniture of the 1970s and 1980s became a new province of innovative artistic design, regardless of whether the resulting item was comfortable or not. What occurred was a swing of the pendulum in the opposite direction, where bold design was more important than accommodating the human body. Isn’t it ironic that what started in the Arts and Crafts movement and the Bauhaus ended up rather far from what those artists envisioned—a grafting of both the comfort of furniture and its artistic qualities? I have actually had the opportunity to sit in an example of this “Experimental Edges” piece, and found myself sliding forward, perhaps because I was so paranoid that the wonderful rhythmic support would collapse!

Frank Gehry studied architecture in southern California, working at first in the office of the architecture firm Victor Gruen and Associates. Gehry opened his own architectural firm in 1962 after a trip to France, during which he was excited by the sculpture of Constantin Brancusi (1876–1957) and architecture of Le Corbusier (1885–1954). He soon became famous for the use of daring, unexpected shapes and choices of materials for buildings. His early buildings were known for Gehry’s use of corrugated tin, wrought iron, netting, and chain link fencing—many of these were often recycled materials to make his structures environmentally responsible. He approaches each building as a sculptural object rather than being interested in appropriateness for the purpose of the building.

Gehry approaches furniture with the same spirit of this philosophy. This piece, as well as others in the Easy Edges and Experimental Edges series, was an attempt to create an environmentally responsible type of furniture, cheap to reproduce and affordable for the mass market. The layers of corrugated cardboard—laminated and supplemented by metal rods—create fluid, roller coaster-like shapes.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 6. 35; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 6.35-36 studio; A Personal Journey: 3.1; Exploring Visual Design: 1, 2, 6, 12; The Visual Experience: 12.4; Discovering Art History: 2.2

Monday, April 16, 2012

Art in Everyday Continued

My abhorrence of the term “craft” has led me to make April “non-craft month.” I aim to show how there is art in everyday life. I started out two weeks ago with the beautiful work of James Prestini. I now wander into the realm in which the artists may not be known, but the objects they’ve created are works of art nonetheless. I begin with a teapot my mother bought me (because she left the previous one on the stove and melted the ceramic off the bottom, but I digress). It is an elegant example of art in everyday life. I became fascinated with this idea (for the millionth time) the weekend of the 31st of March, while viewing a skateboarding competition. (Those folks are amazing: the way they elegantly float in the air. Such an art form!) I chose the tea kettle because it is a universal type of vessel used for pouring. I present you some others:

The Bronze Age in China (ca. 2000–200 bce) produced a large variety of vessels all with intricate incised and raised decoration. The kuei was originally a vessel of earthenware used to store wine or oil for the tomb, which later changed to bronze and was primarily used for ceremonial or symbolic purposes. During the mid to late Shang period, bronze vessels were symbols of status, power, and prestige. Some emperors used nine or ten kueis in a single ceremony while honoring ancestors. 

This is an example of a tripod vessel, which means it has three legs. On each corner of this triangular vessel is a raised taotie pattern. The taotie is an animal or dragon face that is split so that it is presented as two frontal views. Elaborate scroll work usually accompanies the design. Chinese bronze were produced from sectional molds built around a model. The interior of the molds bore the incised or raised decoration. The space between the mold and the model took the molten bronze to form the vessel.

The Aquamanile derives from ancient Roman times. “Aqua” means water in Latin and “manile” comes from “manus” for hands. The vessel was used at dinner tables for guests to wash their hands between courses. The tradition continued in Europe during the Middle Ages (ca. 1000–1400), among the upper classes, particularly in Germany (German rulers considered themselves descendants of the Roman Empire (ca. 27 bce–535 ce). The vessel has a hinged lid on the horse’s forelock, and the water spout is the mouth. This horse is most likely a secular object. The aquamanile also evolved into a liturgical object in the medieval church. The vessel was used during the mass for washing the priest’s hands.

Although China dominated ceramic styles in Asia and Southeast Asia for centuries, Vietnam managed to develop its own distinctive styles. Ceramics kilns date back 2000 years, but the oldest persistent style dates to the 11th through the 15th centuries. It consisted of incised, iron (brown) glazed decoration on stoneware. Such wares were exported as far as the Philippines and Indonesia. Starting in the southern Song dynasty in China (1127–1279) there was extensive export of porcelain to other parts of Asia, and hence an increase in Chinese influence in Vietnamese wares. Porcelain became a strong export item for Vietnam starting in the 14th century. Like Chinese porcelain of the time, many Vietnamese wares have a cobalt blue underpainted design (which sometimes appears charcoal grey). This ewer is comparable to Korean examples from the same period.

Earl Tupper formed the Earl S. Tupper Company in 1938 to design and engineer industrial plastics. He garnered several military contracts during World War II. After the war, Tupper turned his attention to plastic products for the consumer market. In the 1940s, plastic was still in its infancy. The commercial market for plastic products was limited by the common perception that plastic (a petroleum-based product) was smelly, greasy, and brittle. Tupper developed a method for purifying polyethylene slag, a waste produced by oil refinement, into a plastic that was flexible, tough, non-porous, non-greasy, and translucent. Then he developed an airtight lid based on the design of paint can lids. Together these innovations were the foundation for Tupperware. Retail sales of Tupperware initially failed, apparently because the new lid needed demonstration. Based on the Stanley Home Products model of house parties, the Tupperware party was born and remains to this day the exclusive outlet for Tupperware.

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 2: 3.17-18 studio; Explorations in Art Grade  4: 4.24, 23-24 studio;  Explorations in Art Grade 6: 4.22, 4.21-22 studio

Monday, April 9, 2012

Tribute to Elizabeth Catlett

I am interrupting my celebration of the art of everyday objects to salute a truly great American artist who died on April 2: Elizabeth Catlett. Catlett was not only a massively important figure in the ascendancy of African American art, she has also been a pioneering woman printmaker, sculptor, educator, and advocate for women’s rights.

Catlett, born and raised in Washington, DC, originally studied painting. She switched to sculpture after the Regionalist painter Grant Wood (1891–1942) introduced her to wood carving while she was studying at the University of Iowa. Her sculpture style evolved under the cubist/neo-primitivist sculptor Ossip Zadkine (1890–1966). Wood advised her to concentrate on subjects that had personal meaning for her. She thus eventually concentrated on the lives of African American and Mexican women.

Catlett was also a prolific printmaker, influenced by the social realist Mexican muralists whose work she saw while studying lithography in Mexico City.  In 1958 she became the first woman faculty member in the School of Fine Arts at the University of Mexico, Mexico City. In 1946 Catlett moved to Mexico City where she produced prints and taught in the Peoples’ Graphic Workshop (Taller de Grafíca Popular). The workshop produced inspirational prints about revolutionary period Mexico and sought to raise the dignity and knowledge of largely uneducated poor Mexicans.

The iconic image of Sharecropper shows how Catlett followed Wood’s advice. It depicts the hardened and roughened features of an African American woman in the South, working a system of farming that was the result of Reconstruction after the Civil War. The safety pin holding her garment closed emphasizes the fact that African Americans were working in a system that continued to disenfranchise them from mainstream American culture, which was still a problem when she developed the print.

The following are examples of contemporary African American women artists who explore printmaking as a major part of their oeuvre:

Activity: Relief printing from Styrofoam on a subject of personal or social importance. Using the Styrofoam container from the store, clean and trim it carefully so that all the remains is a flat piece of Styrofoam. Using a pen or pencil carve the design into the Styrofoam, understanding that the raised areas are the ones that print. Try to recreate the cross-hatching seen in this print by scratching in fine lines parallel to each other. Use acrylic paint or printer’s ink to coat the surface evenly, and wipe with a cloth to remove excess. Press Styrofoam “block” on the piece of paper and rub over the surface with a wooden spoon to ensure even registration.

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 2: 2.8; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 1-2 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.2; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 1.1, 1.2; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.2, 1.3; A Personal Journey: 6.4; A Community Connection: 8.2; Exploring Visual Design: 1, 3, 10; The Visual Experience: 15.4; Discovering Art History: 9.4

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Guess What? An artist in Wood

Have I ever indicated to you how much I despise the word “craft,” “decorative art,” or “minor art” to categorize something outside of the realm of painting-sculpture-architecture (sure I have)?? Heck, I consider a gorgeously presented plate of food in a restaurant to be the work of an artist. So, you can imagine how excited I got when I looked at this dish by the great artist-teacher James Prestini. I mean, how could anyone look at this fabulous creation and not think “work of art”? Actually, I issue a challenge to anyone to explain to me why this beautiful work of art is the work of a “craftsperson” rather than an artist! A friend of mine in Worcester—a wood artist who works on a lathe—explained to me the complexity and, yes, danger of creating works of art on a lathe. My respect for the medium increased a hundred-fold.

The Arts and Crafts Movement in the West (ca. 1860s–1890s) and then the establishment of the Bauhaus School (ca. 1919–1933, Dessau and Weimar, Germany) were the impetus for a revolution in thought about what had previously been considered “minor” art forms. The germinal idea was that fine art and industrial design could merge and revolutionize the idea of what “fine art” is. This idea spread in a major way to the US during World War II (1939–1945) with the emigration of many artists from Bauhaus. Schools such as Cranbrook Academy in Bloomfield Hills, MI (est. 1932) and the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago (est. 1940) furthered the ideas of Bauhaus, creating a new respect for design.

James Prestini was a practitioner of the Bauhaus philosophy of art combining with “craft.” He believed that craft was the structure of a work of art, and art was the soul of the structure. Like the Bauhaus artists before him, he believed that optimum creativity integrated both. He studied mechanical engineering at Yale and then continued his studies at IIT in Chicago. Between 1933 and 1953 he turned wood in forms that were so refined they mirrored glass and ceramic objects. He preferred the use of straight-grained woods.

Prestini’s simple, sophisticated works suggest the clean certainties of science in his exploration of the grain. While his works cannot be considered simply “craft” or “art,” they speak to the period in which they were designed, where modernism combined utility and beautiful artistic form. He was part of a revolution in thought about what constituted fine art, and the discussion included glass, ceramics, furniture, and metal work.