Monday, November 28, 2016

Sudo Reiko and NUNO

About a year ago I introduced you to the fiber art of Reiko Sudo and NUNO Corporation of Japan. We currently have an exhibition in the Davis Art Gallery of a Japanese-born fiber artist, Mihoko Wakabayashi, who produces fabulous shibori (tie-dye) and Saori (unconventional weaving techniques) works, and it put me in mind of Sudo. Even more so because we acquired some new examples of her company’s awesome textiles from the Philadelphia Museum of Art and I just had to show them off!

In 1984 Reiko Sudo and Jun’ichi Arai (born 1932) started NUNO Corporation, a company that produces textiles with an emphasis on unusual combinations of materials and techniques. The company was founded in order to produce textiles with traditional Japanese aesthetics in an eco-friendly manner. In 1987 she took over full leadership of the NUNO design team.

Sudo’s designs artistry with the latest technological developments in Japanese industry. The preferred materials at NUNO are silk, polyester, cotton, nylon tape, and hand-made paper. One of Sudo’s earliest personal experiments in novel materials was the exploration of a variety of ways of using plastic. To reduce the company’s ecological footprint, NUNO always uses leftover scraps of materials in unusual combinations to produce new textiles. Many of the technologies used by NUNO are adapted from Japan’s traditional “crafts” culture involving, but not restricted to, salt shrinking; mud-dyeing; rust-dyeing; caustic burning; fatiguing by hand, chemicals, or machine; and graffiti decoration.

Nuno means “cloth” in Japanese. The materials produced by Sudo and NUNO are not mass-produced, but combine hand-manipulation with industrial milling that keeps costs low. The fabrics can serve a variety of uses, from clothing to interior design.

Paper Roll textile, 2002. Nylon tape (chemical lace), width: 32 11/16" (83 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2016 Sudo Reiko. (PMA-7143)
From what I understand, this chemical lace process is basically the weaving of the nylon tape onto a water soluble base material with a pattern (such as corn starch paper?). This leaves only the lace when the base is washed away.

Origami Pleats textile, 1997. Heat-set polyester plain weave, 36" x 23' 4" (91.4 x 711.2 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2016 Sudo Reiko. (PMA-7136)
This beautiful pattern is hand-pleated!

NUNO Kasane textile, 2005. Silk organdy with fabric appliqué and steering-wheel embroidery, width: 41" (104.1 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2016 Sudo Reiko. (PMA-7137)
The NUNO Kasane textile is in a technique called tsugihagi (patchwork). It is made with various silk remnants of NUNO projects.

Kibiso Futsu Crisscross textile, 2008. Double-weave (“futsu”) with criss-crossing raw silk, silk cocoon (“kibiso”), and cotton yarns, width: 31 1/2" (80 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2016 Sudo Reiko. (PMA-7142)
This technique uses the previously discarded outer layer of the silk cocoon that protects the finer silk inside. NUNO created a social network for retired silk weavers who hand-weave the kibiso textiles in northern Japan.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 2: 6.36; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 6.31, 6. 31-32 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 5.27, 5.27-28 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 2.10; A Personal Journey: 3.1, 3.4, 3.5; A Community Connection: 5.2; The Visual Experience: 10.8, 12.4; Discovering Art History: 2.2

Monday, November 21, 2016

The "Things" of Art

I really like introducing you to artists I’ve just begun to appreciate, especially if their work is a breath of fresh air on an otherwise dreary day. That certainly applies to the work of Ufan Lee. As I learned more about him I gained an instant appreciation for his point of view. Like many artists I have learned about, he is far from a one-dimensional spirit.

Lee U-fan (or Ufan, born 1936, Korea), Untitled, 1973. Gouache on paper, 30" x 22" (76.2 x 55.9 cm). Brooklyn Museum. © 2016 Lee Ufan. (BMA-5308)

Lee Ufan (Korean Lee Woo-Hwan) was born in Gyeongsang province, now in South Korea. He is an artist, philosopher, poet, and an art theorist. He was raised in a traditional Confucian-style home where he was given a classical training in what has been considered traditional scholarly pursuits, which includes calligraphy, poetry, and painting. He studied art at Seoul National University, interrupting his studies in 1956 to visit relatives in Japan. There he studied Western and Japanese philosophy. After graduating in 1961, he decided to return to art, preferring visual expression to writing.

His early emphasis was sculpture, and installation in avant-garde, constructed works. He was one of the founding members of a group of modernist artists who form the Mono-ha movement, the first indigenous Japanese example of modernism. Mono-ha emphasized the use of natural raw materials arranged in random ways. “Mono-ha” means “School of Things.” The movement was a contrast to, and critique of, the Western movements of the period (such as Pop Art, Minimalism, and Conceptualism) that were tied to aesthetic manifestos. Mono-ha emphasized a comprehensive experience of media by way of their abbreviated or momentary arrangement. The movement was a pivotal moment in the development of modern art in Japan and South Korea.

Lee’s paintings from the early 1970s through 1984 (called From Point and From Line), similar to this work, were based on the traditional respect for brushwork in Chinese, Korean, and Japanese painting. Many of his paintings are monochromatic, much like traditional landscape painting. There is definitely, in this work, the sense of respect for a particular brush stroke, and the blank background as contrast. In many of his works, Lee broke with tradition in the use of canvas rather than paper.

If this fascinating artist’s work reminds me of anything, it’s the work of a fabulous African American artist who started painting abstract works after she retired from teaching—Alma Thomas: 

Alma W. Thomas, (1891–1978 US), Red Rose Cantata, 1973. Oil on canvas, 69" x 50" (175.3 x 127 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. (NGA-P0641)

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.35; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 5.25; A Global Pursuit: 4.2, 4.5; Experience Painting: 2; Exploring Visual Design: 8; The Visual Experience: 13.6

Monday, November 14, 2016

What type of Balance? You Decide.

I probably shouldn’t be using the word Balance after the latest election. Let’s ignore that by doing some visual exercises. I’m always intrigued with the issue of “balance” in a work of art (one of the Principles of Design, as you know). Everyone has seen a work of art that isn’t the same on one side as it is on the other (asymmetrical balance), but somehow it seems balanced at first glance. The following, except for the first one, are up to you to decide which of the types of balance they are! I’ll give my vote and you decide if I’m wrong.

Ancient Guatemala, Zaculeu, Structure I, 200s–900s CE. Image © 2016 Davis Art Images. (8S-22037)

I understand that the tenets of ancient Greek architecture established the “classical canon” of balance, symmetry, and calm, blah blah blah, but I don’t understand why art history books couldn’t use other examples out there in the world to demonstrate symmetrical balance? After all, what is more “classic” than the classic Mayan period (big circa 250 to 900s CE) in central America?

Zaculeu, about 3.21 kilometers (2 miles) from Huehuetenango in the Guatemala highlands was not as remarkable in architecture and artifacts as the Lowland Mayan cities such as Kaminaljuyú. However, it was the capital for the Mam Maya people (who still inhabit the area), and endured the longest against the Spanish invasion under Pedro de Alvarado (1485–1541) until 1525!

Structure I dominated the Main Plaza in Zaculeu, and is the largest (restored) structure in the city. It is a classical Mayan pyramidal structure with eight superimpositions interrupted by a central ceremonial stairway. It is a splendid example of symmetrical balance. And no, I don’t believe that the ancient Egyptians sailed to Central America in papyrus boats to teach the indigenous people how to build pyramids!


Charles Demuth (1883–1935, US), Boat Ride from Sorrento, illustration for the book Beast in the Jungle by Henry James, 1919. Watercolor and graphite on paper, 8" x 10" (20.3 x 25.4 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-2189)
I totally love the watercolors of Demuth, especially his views of Provincetown, and these sort of mystic illustrations he did for the angst-ridden books of Henry James. Initially trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Demuth had already abandoned his academic training to concentrate on watercolors and gouache before World War I (1914–1918). These were coming into their own as stand-alone media, embraced by artists who experimented with modernism because of their easy fluidity. Demuth ultimately became a master of water-based media on a par with Winslow Homer (1836–1910) and John Singer Sargent (1856–1925).

Demuth's mature style was informed by Cubism he had seen at the 1913 Armory Show of European modernism, and from his group of friends in New York that included Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968), the pioneer Dadaist and Surrealist, and Marsden Hartley (1877–1943), an American modernist who had dabbled in non-objective abstraction after stays in Germany and Paris. Demuth’s filmy watercolor layers in this work approximate the fragmentation of form of Cubism, while conveying the story of the book.

At first look this may seem to be symmetrically balanced, but closer inspection shows many digressions. The woman’s hat makes her figure taller. The volcano on the right is lower than the town on the left. But, there’s a nice pyramid between the two visitors and the oarsman with his oars.


Papua New Guinea, Dance ornament, 1800s. Wood, turbo petholatus opercula (shell), pigment, 7 1/2" x 19" x 2 1/2" (19.1 x 48.3 x 6.4 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-1613)
New Guinea, divided between Irin New Guinea (part of Indonesia) and Papua New Guinea, is the location of the greatest number of dissimilar cultures in Melanesia. It is also the island of the most varied artistic production in Oceanic art. Papua New Guinea is a very prolific region of artistic expression, especially along the Sepik River, located in the northeast of the Asmat region.

Sculpture, painting, or carving adorns almost every object of secular and ritual life.  By decorating each object in everyday life with art, it has been traditionally believed to bring the world of the spirits into active participation with the world of humans.

This ornament is tricky. A first squint would seem like symmetrical balance, just like with the Demuth. Closer inspection however reveals differently. It depicts a bird/animal seated on the fin of an elegantly arced fish. The arc of the plume balances the arc of the fish differently, as does the beak of the creature with the head of the fish.


Seo Taek (active 1700s to early 1800s, Korea), Gibbon Family in Pine Tree. Ink on silk mounted as hanging scroll, 33 1/8" x 15 3/4" (84.1 x 40 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-6884)
The earliest historical record of developed painting in Korea is found on painted baskets from the first 100 years BCE. A more substantial record of ancient Korean painting remains on the painted walls and ceilings of tombs from the Three Kingdoms Period (57 BCE–668 CE). Those paintings reflect Buddhist beliefs. During the Joseon period, Confucian beliefs rivaled Buddhism in popularity, with an emphasis on scholarship and the artist/scholar idea always part of Chinese art.

By the 1700s, peace in China and Japanese isolation brought somewhat better conditions to Korea. Subtle elements of indigenous stylistic variations reflect a greater degree of independence in Korea.

Little to nothing is known of this Joseon painter, but the artist left us with a charming painting. The arrangement of the monkeys leads the eye dead center, but it does not take away from the beautiful contrast of positive and negative space. However, there are many elements in the tree and monkeys that the negative space does not symmetrically balance.


Muhammad Rafi (active 1600s, Iran), Page of natsiliq calligraphy from a dispersed album. Ink, colors and gold leaf on paper, 7 7/8" x 4 3/8" (20 x 11.2 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-565)
The first flourishing of Islamic civilization occurred between the 600s CE and 1600s, a period that saw the collapse of the Roman and Byzantine  Empires (ca. 450 CE and 1453, respectively), and the rise of western European nation-states. By the 900s, many regional Muslim powers had developed their own distinct artistic traditions. Islamic artistic traditions differ from those in the West.

Art forms often considered “decorative” in the West—book illustration, glass, metal and textiles—are the major forms of Islamic art. Writing is particularly venerated as it is the means of revealing God’s word. Its primacy as a decorative motif—calligraphy—in architecture is carried into all art forms.

The Safavid period (1502–1736) in Iran is considered the period of renaissance in all art forms, including calligraphy. Nastaliq developed in Iran in the 1300s and 1400s. It is the most fluid and expressive of the scripts. Nastaliq has very short verticals without any "serifs," and deep curved horizontals. It slants to the right in contrast to all the other styles which slant to the left.

The text reads: "May the world be as you desire, the heavens your aid. May the Creator of the world be your protector. May all that you do be according to your wish May the Lord of the World be your guardian. The poor Muhammad Rafi' wrote this, mercy be upon him." Nothing is known about Muhammad Rafi’.

Because the upper right and lower left corners sort of balance each other, my vote for this page of calligraphy is: APPROXIMATE SYMMETRY.

I guess APPROXIMATE SYMMETRY wins the day for me. As I said before, you decide for yourself!

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 2: 4.19; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 17-18 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 4.Connections, 5.26, 6.36; A Personal Journey: 4.2; Exploring Visual Design: 7; The Visual Experience: 8.7, 13.6, 14.2; Discovering Art History: 4.6, 4.7, 4.9

Friday, November 4, 2016

It’s That Time Again

By that, I don’t mean “it’s November” or “it’s autumn.” I suspect that I’m not the only one who is tired of political ads with mean-spirited denunciations of opponents. Probably, though, each quadrennial election we endure is no worse than any that have gone before, since the first presidential election of 1788–1789. Well, maybe that one was more civilized because George Washington was in it. Voting and elections have not escaped the realm of subject matter in art. Here are three examples from radically different time periods, and, times that were contentious as they are in the present day.

John Sartain (etcher, 1808–1897, born Britain), after George Caleb Bingham (1811–1879, US), The County Election, 1854. Etching, engraving and mezzotint on paper, image: 11 7/8" x 18" (30.2 x 45.9 cm). © American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, MA. (AAS-126)
I’m not certain why John Sartain engraved this George Caleb Bingham painting in 1854. It may have been because the congressional election of 1854 was fraught with conflict in the Midwest over the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed in August of that year, which did away with the Missouri Compromise on slavery of 1820. That allowed Kansas and Nebraska territories to choose to be either slave or free, and led to violent civil conflict in Kansas ultimately called Bleeding Kansas. I’m sure there were many elections fraught with heated rhetoric as the country headed toward the Civil War (1860–1865).

The painting from which this is taken was painted by Bingham in 1852 to commemorate the congressional elections of 1850, in which Bingham unsuccessfully ran for Congress. The opponent, E.D. Sappington, apparently bought votes with liquor. This is Bingham’s wry comment on the foibles of a young American democracy, where, obviously only the men voted (after taking an oath on a Bible, which I did not know). Bingham depicted himself in the center on the courthouse steps probably sketching, ignoring the tomfoolery around him.

Bingham was the first significant painter of genre subjects in American art. Born in Virginia, he was raised in Missouri, and had a solid respect for the hardy frontier people who helped settle the West. His paintings, meant for east coast audiences, elevated frontier people into folk heroes, although the genuine aspects of their hard-living were never glossed over. Like Dutch Baroque genre paintings, his figures are based on real people. Bingham endowed them with a dignity, however, that has sometimes earned his style the name “Missouri Classicism.”

Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000 US), The Twenties—Migrants Cast Their Ballots, from the Kent Bicentennial Portfolio, Spirit of Independence, 1974, published 1975. Serigraph on paper, 32" x 24 7/8" (81.3 x 63.2 cm). Brooklyn Museum. © 2016 Estate of Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (BMA-466lwars)
Jacob Lawrence was a keen observer and documenter of the African American experience. His paintings are a valuable historical record of the progress of blacks in the US after the Great Migration. This painting relates the experience of the southern migrants finding it a lot easier to vote in the North than in the South. Despite the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870, which guaranteed all Americans the right to vote (including African Americans), many southern states passed restrictive laws (such as a land ownership requirement, or a poll tax) to prevent black participation. Unfortunately, aside from jobs and the ability to vote in the North, African Americans still found a lot of discrimination.

The migration (Great Migration) of African Americans from the rural South to northern industrial cities in search of jobs changed the course of history for blacks in America. In cities such as New York and Chicago, the black populations increased dramatically between 1918 and 1925. Cohesive African American communities formed within the cities, and African Americans found a new self-awareness and pride in their heritage. During the 1920s, a significant number of artists were brought together within these large and varied African American communities, something that could not have happened in the rural South. One of the most vital African American communities was in the Harlem section of New York.

The Worcester Art Museum’s copy of this print is currently on view in their exhibit Picket Fence to Picket Line; Visions of American Citizenship.

Zoe Strauss (born 1970, US), Election Day Balloons, Philadelphia, 2008, printed 2011. Digital photograph, Inkjet print on paper, 8" x 12" (20.3 x 30.6 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2016 Zoe Strauss. (PMA-7255)

We certainly know what this photograph commemorates. It was the election of the first African American president of the US. It was a spectacular moment in American history, and, in typical understated Zoe Strauss fashion, she uses the red-white-and-blue as a symbol for a truly landmark event.

Strauss’ work is reflective of the sophisticated evolution of the Snapshot Aesthetic style of photography. Although the style developed late in the 1800s, it flowered during the 1960s in the hands of such artists as Diane Arbus (1923–1971) and Garry Winogrand (1928–1984). The style mimicked the candid, un-posed, spur-of-the-moment pictures taken by amateurs and middle class families. Interestingly, between the 1960s and the 2000s, the style has been refined to subtly reveal psychological investigation by the photographer.

Works by Arbus opened up a type of personal investigation into subjects that most people see on the street and ignore because it may not be “beautiful.” Strauss’ works address the same phenomenon. Born in Philadelphia, she received her first camera when she was 30. She began photographing the not-well-off areas of Philadelphia, and within ten years was documenting the compelling subject of overlooked realities throughout the country.

While largely self-taught, Strauss’s work displays a sophisticated sense of composition. She is particularly adept at suggestion, and a monumental contrast of positive and negative space. Between 2001 and 2010, Strauss would hold yearly exhibitions of her work in the form of Inkjet prints that she sold for $5 in a makeshift “gallery” under the I-95 underpass in Philadelphia.  

Correlation to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 3: intro; A Personal Journey: 1.1, 2.3; A Community Connection: 7.6, Experience Printmaking: 5; Exploring Visual Design: 2, Focus on Photography: 7, Discovering Art History: 15.4, The Visual Experience: 9.5