Monday, August 28, 2017

American Artists Appreciation Month V

August is “American Artist Appreciation Month” continues. We’ll end the celebration with two unusual interpretations of chairs.

Wendy Maruyama (born 1952), Post-Nuclear Primitive Chair, 1986. Cherry wood, 48" x 15" x 17" (121.9 x 38.1 x 43.2 cm). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. © 2017 Wendy Maruyama. (MFAB-533)

You may not remember the horrific nuclear arms build-up of the 1980s under Reagan, but it really sent the fear of nuclear war through our culture. It spawned such movies as “The Day After” (1983) about nuclear holocaust. I would imagine the terror of the period is what inspired Post-Nuclear Primitive Chair, a piece in which Wendy Maruyama imagines society rebuilding itself from the ruins of war.

Maruyama, born in Colorado, is a third-generation Japanese American whose parents and grandparents faced the brutality of Japanese internment camps during World War II (1939–1945). She is equally affected by that experience as she is by being an American exploring her Japanese heritage. She is reverent of Japan’s “craft” history, although appalled at the materialistic, patriarchal society. Her multi-faceted art work reflects her social activism, which includes advocacy against the senseless killing of wild animals.

Maruyama studied woodworking at San Diego State University (BA 1975), Virginia Commonwealth University, and Boston University (MFA 1976–1978). She was one of the first two women and the first deaf student to complete an MFA in furniture making at the Rochester Institute of Technology’s School for American Crafts (1980). Her furniture design was influential in the early period of Postmodern “art furniture” of the 1980s, when she challenged the male-dominated field of not only furniture making, but also woodworking in general. Maruyama’s furniture used humor, social commentary, and sculptural forms to challenge traditional notions of furniture design.

James Castle (1899–1977), Large Chair. Soot and spit, corrugated cardboard faced with off-white printed paper, gray cardboard faced with yellow paper, torn, cut, folded and wrapped; punched, stitched and tied with thin black and blue ribbons and white cotton string, 30 ¾" x 12" x 1 1/8" (78.1 x 30.5 x 2.9 cm). Image © 2017 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-2766)

I’ve posted about James Castle in the past, and have registered my discomfort with the designation of “Outsider Art.” I’ve now come to embrace the term “visionary art” for artists like Castle. In Castle’s case, his deafness and lack of formal means of communication (like signing) led him to live most of his life in a visual world of his own making.

According to his family, he began drawing and making things out of found scraps of paper and cardboard at an early age. He apparently checked the family trash containers on a daily basis to find materials for his works. He made tools out of broken fountain-pen nibs, apricots, and sticks, and early on discovered he could make ink by spitting into the scrapings of soot from the stove.

Castle created numerous constructions of such common place things as chairs and other household objects, young girls in colored dresses, and animals. The ingenuity and careful attention to structure he paid to these constructions make them truly worthy of being compared to anything produced by the Dada artists or Surrealists who had worked simultaneously in Europe.

In my earlier post, I said I hesitated to compare his work to that of other artists, but I’ve changed my mind. This construction chair reminds me of the work of Margaret Wharton (a Chicago artist). I wonder if she ever saw Castle’s chairs?

Margaret Wharton (1943–2014), Eliyahu, 1975. Disassembled chair, 61 3/8" x 46 1/16" (156 x 117 cm). Private Collection, Chicago. © 2017 Estate of Margaret Wharton. (8S-19319)

Monday, August 21, 2017

American Artists Appreciation Month IV

August is “American Artist Appreciation Month” continues. Here are two artists on the “cutting edge” of their time.

Zoe Strauss (born 1970), Untitled (Mattress Flip), from the series South Philly, 2001/2003. Chromogenic print on paper, 6 7/8" x 10 1/8" (17.5 x 25.7 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2017 Zoe Strauss. (PMA-4059)

I’ve posted my admiration for Zoe Strauss’ work before. There’s so much about this artist that broke the mold when she first started exhibiting Inkjet prints of her digital photos under the I-95 overpass in Philadelphia (2001–2010). The artist has a genuine interest in and empathy for other people’s lives, and it certainly comes through in her work. This South Philly series comes from her first ten years as a photographer documenting the people and scenes of her hometown: Philadelphia.

Strauss’ work does not exploit the poor and working-class people she documents. Rather, her work is an on-going statement about the struggle in everyday life and the beauty that can be found in that struggle. Despite the fact that she focuses on often-bleak aspects of city life in her Philadelphia photos, she is always able to find joy in moments such as this photograph.

Strauss graduated from the Philadelphia High School for Girls and then took courses at Temple University in history and women’s studies. After leaving Temple, she discovered that she had a yearning to make art and began art projects of all sorts. She ultimately found a compelling interest in photography, finding that photographs can have powerful physical and visual effects on people. Her photography represents her desire to present as many of the varied experiences of life as possible.

Louis Sullivan (1859-1924), National Farmer’s Bank, 1907–1908. Owatonna, MN. Davis Art Images. (8S-14319)

If you are from Chicago and an art historian, as I am, Louis Sullivan is one of your heroes. He’s not a “big star” architect like Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959)—who called Sullivan his “master” and “mentor”—but he really did help change modern architecture from high-rise historical revival to unique, exciting designs. Now, I’m a big fan of the Sullivan Center (formerly Carson, Pirie, Scott, and Company) in Chicago, because it was such a breath of modernity when it was designed. However, I am really a big admirer of Sullivan’s smaller designs because it is so easy to see his distinctive touches.

This bank is one of eight regional Midwest banks built by Sullivan as his career was winding down after the Sullivan Center commission. The design of this series of banks has been called “jewel box” by some art historians, because they all bear the similar box-like design with wings. It is basically a large cube-shaped room, flooded with the colors of green, amber, and brown from the leaded glass arch windows. The facades are framed with greenish-glazed terracotta panels with typical Sullivan combinations of stylized floral and geometric patterns.

Sullivan established his own office in Chicago after leaving Adler and Sullivan in 1895. His biggest commission in that office was Sullivan Center in 1903–1904. After that, commissions became fewer and fewer. A banker named Carl Bennett in Owatonna, Minnesota—who happened to be a disappointed aspiring musician—took over his family’s bank and decided to commission Sullivan for the design of a new one. Bennett wanted to combine his family’s business with his interest in art. At one point, Sullivan promised that the interior would be a symphony of color.

Compared to the boring, classical revival style of most banks of the period, Sullivan’s jewel boxes really stand out. Wouldn’t you love to do your routine banking in a lobby flooded with colored light from these big arch windows?

See more proof of Sullivan’s genius, the windows of one of the big arches at Owatonna.

Monday, August 14, 2017

American Artists Appreciation Month III

My series about August as “American Artist Appreciation Month” continues. Here’s some art on the subject of “fish.”

Frank Weston Benson (1862–1951, US), Salmon Fishing, 1927. Oil on canvas, 36 1/8" x 44 1/8" (91.8 x 112.1 cm). Image © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-336)

You might know that I would include an American Impressionist in the American artists’ month. Frank Weston Benson is one of my favorites, because I love his portrait of his daughters at the Worcester Art Museum. Born in Salem, Massachusetts, he studied painting at the MFA School in Boston, and then in Paris. While he did not immediately convert to painting outdoors, he was drawn to the French Impressionists’ interest in the effects of light on local color (the color of the object). His light-struck portraits of the 1880s and 1890s eventually led to his exploration of painting subjects outdoors in full-blown Impressionist mode in 1899.

It may have been his exposure to salmon fishing (of all things) that led him to explore more seriously painting outdoors. His first trip to the Gaspé Peninsula (Québec) in 1895 turned him on to the joys of salmon fishing. During the first thirty years of his career, he rarely painted scenes of people hunting or fishing. After being exposed to salmon fishing in Canada, it even led him to explore the use of the portable medium of watercolors—a medium which he had denigrated as amateurish—because it allowed him to paint during long trips away from his studio.

Salmon Fishing is one of a long series of works—watercolor, charcoal drawing, and oils—of his favorite spot on the Grand River and Bonaventure River in Canada. His paintings that resulted from his manly hunting and fishing pursuits included scenes from Long Point in Ontario, the backcountry of Maine, the Chesapeake Bay, Cape Cod, and fishing trips to the Florida Keys.

One of the most evocative aspects of Benson’s gorgeous en plein air paintings is his depiction of the nuances of light and color in water, and well as reflections in the water. The second most spectacular aspect of Benson’s work is his depiction of dappled light. He mastered this quite early in his career in his portraits of his daughters. 

Preston Singletary (born 1963, Tlingit Culture), Guardian of the Sea, 2004. Glass, 18" x 38 9/16" x 18" (45.7 x 15.2 x 45.7 cm). Brooklyn Museum. © 2017 Preston Singletary. (BMA-5403)

I first showed you Preston Singletary’s work back in 2009. This native of Washington state, a member of the Tlingit Aboriginal group, is one of the most fascinating glass artists ever. He may have been grounded in traditional glass blowing that he learned in the European glass capital Murano, Italy (near Venice), but his work far transcends merely blown pieces. He’s been at it a long time, having started glass-blowing right out of high school. It was the foundation on which his current work is built, which is stunning. He has incorporated Tlingit subject matter, forms, and symbolism into a basically Western medium; and totally made it his own.

This piece beautifully displays one of Singletary’s techniques that I find so interesting. After blowing glass, he applies powdered glass of different color onto the glass bubble he’s blowing. After it cools, the glass is wrapped in rubber tape, onto which a design is drawn. The stencil is cut with an art utility knife and the piece is sandblasted through the different layers of glass to reveal underlying color.

For the Tlingit, the orca (killer whale)or “black fish”is a medicine animal. The Tlingit have never hunted the killer whale because it is considered a protector of humankind. As a clan animal, seen in totems, the orca represents power and strength.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

American Artists Appreciation Month II

My blog series about “American Artist Appreciation Month” continues. Here’s some more wonderful art.
Dr. Samella Lewis is one of the outstanding activists among African American artists starting in the 1960s. She was born in New Orleans, and at an early age she turned to art to help confront inequality. Her early subjects were diverse—from scenes of police brutality against African Americans to images influenced by comic books and movie characters. Like many of the mature artists of the Harlem Renaissance (ca. 1920s–1930s), she came to believe early in life that art was an essential mode of expression of the black community.

Lewis attended Dillard University, a university established in 1935 in New Orleans as an opportunity for higher education for African Americans. At Dillard, Lewis studied under sculptor Elizabeth Catlett (1915–2012), a leading artist of the Harlem Renaissance. Lewis subsequently transferred to Hampton University, the first black university in the US, where she earned her BA in 1945. She earned an MA from Ohio State University in 1948 and in 1951 was the first African American woman to get a doctorate in fine art and art history there.

Lewis became a major figure in the art world of Los Angeles starting in the late 1960s. In 1969, she became the education coordinator at the Los Angeles County Museum, where she established the activist group Concerned Citizens for Black Art. She also published a book in 1969, Black Artists on Art, having founded the first African American-owned publishing company, Contemporary Crafts. This book pre-dated the ground-breaking exhibition Two Centuries of Black American Art at the Los Angeles County Museum in 1976. In that same year, Lewis was one of the co-founders of the Museum of African American Art.

From 1969 to 1984, Lewis was a professor of art history at Scripps College in Claremont, CA. She established a scholarly journal International Review of African American Art in 1976. Her emphasis was educating scholars and others about the many contributions made by African Americans to the arts. She has also been a strident champion of art education for young African Americans.

Lewis has produced paintings and sculptures throughout her life. The dominant theme is reflections on everyday African American life and, particularly during the late 1960s and 1970s, the struggles of everyday African Americans for equality. She is best known for figurative works on paper such as Boy on a Bench. Works such as this stem from her lifetime spent in arts education and her commitment to lifting young people up through education in the arts. In particular, this print was inspired by Lewis’s concern about the growing loss of African American teachers in US schools. 

Jeremiah Paul, Jr. (1775–1820, US), Four Children in a Courtyard, 1795. Oil on canvas, 43” x 54 7/16” (109.2 x 138.4 cm). © 2017 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-3081)

In this work, I am prepared to declare Jeremiah Paul, Jr. as the first major genre artist in the US. Genre did not really get going as a major subject matter in American art until the 1820s. Although in theory it could be a portrait, I think it has “genre” written all over it, right down to the girl on the left who is attempting to draw the portrait of the nervous boy.

Paul was born in Woodbury, NJ, the son of a Quaker minister. He trained under the king of the American art school, Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827). He may also, I suspect, have learned under Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828), because his children have a touch of the English-inspired Grand Manner to them and resemble some of Stuart’s portraits of children. He painted some of the lettering on Stuart’s portraits. Many of his early works were copies of the work of ex-patriate American Benjamin West (1738–1820).

Four Children in a Courtyard is based on a print by the English artist Richard Morton Payne. Copying British prints was virtually the only way for American artists to improve their technique before the establishment of the first American academy, the ill-fated Columbianum founded by Peale in Philadelphia in 1794. This painting was exhibited in the first and only exhibition at the Columbianum in 1795. By 1796, Paul had moved on successfully to portraiture. He also advertised that he could take on any type of commission, from portraits to signs, fire buckets, and coffin plaques.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

American Artists Appreciation Month I

August is “American Artist Appreciation Month,” so I’m rolling out some artists you may never have thought about, or seen for that matter. 

Jim Drain (born 1975, US, designer) and Fabric Workshop and Museum (collaborator, Philadelphia), Pleat Construction Sweater, 2011. Wool and synthetic knit, beads, metallic vinyl. Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2017 Jim Drain. (PMA-7871)

The breadth of the body of work of Jim Drain is astounding. You have to marvel at the joy with which he uses color!

The range of his artwork—from installations to paintings and sculpture to fiber arts—is perhaps explained by his background studying at the Rhode Island School of Design in the late 1990s. While living in a factory building in Providence populated by artists, he was part of a group of cartoonists, printmakers, painters, and musicians who held shows in the building, called Fort Thunder. He also formed the art/performance/music collective Forcefield, which collaborated on videos, comics, totems, costumes, kinetic sculptures, and experimental electronic music. After graduation, he gravitated toward fiber arts—specifically knitting, which he had learned from his grandmother—which gave him an interest in discarded materials.

His wearable art is the culmination of this interest in fiber art. Not surprisingly with a BFA in sculpture from RISD (1998), his sweaters, extensions of his anthropomorphic sculptures, are exhibited with sculptures that echo the pleats. In his collaboration with Philadelphia’s Fabric Workshop, he produced beautiful sculptural sweaters for the Opening Ceremony store. Drain created two prototypes of knitted sweaters with the Fabric Workshop that were sculptural in form. He used every fabric possible to embellish these sweaters, which included beading along the many folds.

Drain’s sweaters are knitted with wool from a company in Maine. Born in Cleveland, Drain now lives and works in Miami. He considers knitting to be like painting, because the artist never knows how the materials and colors will eventually work out together. 

Sister Gertrude Morgan (1900–1980, US), Church Fan: Missionary Sister Gertrude Morgan, ca. 1970. Opaque watercolor and graphite on thin tan cardboard, punched, stitched, and tied with thread, 14 3/8" x 13 ¼" (36.5 x 33.7 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-5099)

The visionary art of Sister Gertrude Morgan reflected in this church fan is a perfect complement to Drain’s pleated sweater. As a self-taught artist, her inherent sense of color balance enlivens her painted works. Her artwork most often records visions she experienced or passages from the Bible. She instinctively understood how different strong colors reflected mood or ideas such as hope, humility, and optimism.

As an artist, Morgan’s art came from her spiritual life—a means of expressing her faith. Born in Alabama, she moved to New Orleans in 1937 to become a street preacher. It was there that she established a storefront church in 1939. This church also contained a day care center and an orphanage. When she established the Everlasting Gospel Ministry house in the Lower Ninth Ward in 1956, it was there that she began painting in earnest.

Morgan’s fans were handed out to friends and people who visited the Prayer Room of her ministry.  Many of her other painted works were given away to congregants, and many others were sold from the E. Lorenz Borenstein Gallery in the French Quarter. Although her focus was always on her ministry, Borenstein was Morgan’s connection to the wider art world, including Lee Friedlander and Noel Rockmore. Although her art sales supported her spiritual work, she stopped painting in 1973 to concentrate on her ministry.

Check back throughout the month of August as I feature more amazing American artists.