Thursday, April 26, 2018

Pitch Black: A Graphic Novel

Just by chance, since it was sitting on the front hall table and checked out by someone else in my household, I picked up a slim, powerful book that shook me up. It told a story sparely and artfully, simply and subtly. It had a message that sunk in gradually. This was the graphic novel, or short story, Pitch Black by Youme Landowne and Anthony Horton. Perhaps because of the pictures it is classified as a teen or children's book.

It is the powerful true story of a woman artist who meets and befriends a homeless man, also an artist and of similar age, and the story of his life and how he began living in the subway tunnels of New York City. The subtitle, shown on the title page, is "DON'T BE SKERD."

Assumptions are questioned. As you might expect of a city, it contains an explosion of printed matter: street signs, billboards, store signs, warnings, and paper ephemera, all fitly rendered in black and white. Instead of simply repeating what they see, they use each sign as a catalyst for commentary: a "no parking sign" says "ever"; a "no standing" sign says "find an alternate." You have to be alert and willing and interested in searching for these. "Uptown train on downtown tracks" is another. A poster with a face and just "Diallo" reminds us of the shooting of Amadou Diallo by NY police. The woman and man meet at a sign: "Buy Your Self: at participating stores."

On the train when he asks to see her art and she shows him he says, "Hey. This is a black person." She answers, "Yup." It's a strong, nearly wordless moment. Since she is white, he is confused. 

The book only takes a few minutes to read, but leaves an impression for days. It welcomes us in and shines the light on homelessness, friendship, and injustice. And hope, too. It is a call to action, to activist action. First we reveal the problem. Then we spread the word. Next we look for ways of getting the power so we can make changes. We've had womens' marches and political rallies which heighten our awareness of certain situations. The marches by the high school students against gun violence is probably the closest to aiming at power; they are not just marching, but are asking for changes in the laws, very specific demands. 

Pitch Black is a rally in a quieter way (Landowne, in an interview says that it became "softer" as she wrote it). It is asking us to look around, pay attention, question the structure of how we treat people who are homeless, examine the "services" we provide that don't really serve, and how we treat people of color. These are hard problems, still pressing. In the end, the book is "Dedicated to LOVE." 

Be kind to someone and that kindness radiates outward as they may feel inclined to be kind to someone after. Translate that kindness into the society we want to live in by voting for those who believe we are responsible for each other. The ultimate power is in the vote.

Pitch Black was published by Cinco Puntos Press and the description and more information of the press and story is here. You can read more about Horton at the press here and a 2012 NYTimes article/obituary is here.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Miriam Schapiro: Femmages and Seamlessness at MAD

We recently returned from several days in New York City. If there is such a thing as flash travel, like flash fiction, that is what we do; we compress our expeditions ("expotitions" if you are Winnie-the-Pooh) into three days, packing in a variety of museums, eateries, odd shops, and so forth. One museum, that had not been on our radar previously, was the Museum of Arts and Design. Like many things in NY, it was a small museum with rich exhibitions. Surface/Depth: The Decorative after Miriam Schapiro was one of four shows that caught our attention and provoked discussion and thought.

In 1975, Schapiro organized the first meeting of the Pattern and Decorative Arts Group, which became a movement. (I wrote previously about Judy Chicago in a post here.) Her work creating self-described "femmages" are the launching point for the exhibit.

I asked my friend Celeste, who had been a student of Schapiro's, if she had any impressions or memories she would like to share. She said: 
"Miriam Schapiro taught courses at UCSD before and just after her collaboration with [Judy] Chicago on WomanhouseWhat I remember most vividly was that she revitalized my childhood love of cut'n'paste with a method she called FemmageShe got our class engaged in feminist issues and using stereotypical 'feminine' materials like sensuous, gypsy-patterned fabrics, crochet and lace bits and girly 'things': objects that women are associated with, even now, like lipsticks and their embroidered cases, mirrored cosmetic cases, and even women's undergarments as potential bricolage materials to combine and paint over.  As a young woman from New England who only knew about the existence of two or three women artists at that point (Cassatt, O'Keeffe, and Rosa Bonheur) this was radical and heady stuff. I owe her and her student, Suzanne Lacy, whose work Mimi evoked in lecture, a lot."
I wish the exhibit had had Celeste's statement, statements from her other students, or at least quotes from Schapiro, perhaps from her books Women and the Creative Process (1974) or Rondo: An Artist's Book (1988) on the walls, but the exhibition was fairly spare with wall text.

 Mexican Memory, 1981

Schapiro used traditionally and/or historically feminine shapes for her works: the fan, the heart, the house standing in for the hearth. What is so interesting to me is how all the disparate objects come together so seamlessly. It's not just cut'n'paste, but it creates a seamless whole new artwork.

 Baby Block Bouquet, 1981
You can see the traditional tumbling block quilt pattern used as pattern in this one.

House of Summer's Night, c. 1980
This house is appealing for its shape, but also for its elegant, minimalist treatment.

 Ephemera from her studio

Apparently, she would have an annual sale of objects she wasn't using in her work.
That sale would have been fun to explore.

 Flying Carpet, 1972
acrylic and collage on canvas

 Curtains, 1972
acrylic and collage on canvas

 These two, above, and the following two are from the series "Anonymous Was a Woman," 1976
Collotype on paper

These were created most likely by the actual lace or crocheted piece laid on top of a photosensitive plate and exposed, then the plate was inked up, paper placed on top of it, then put through a press under pressure to print the image. One of the textile pieces was on display in the case of ephemera from Schapiro's studio. The series elevates women's work in a straightforward fashion: these are printed impressions from the actual (most likely) woman-made objects.

Some open copies of issue 1.4 of a feminist collective's magazine Heresies were also on display, with the article, "Waste Not Want Not: An Inquiry into What Women Saved and Assembled--FEMMAGE" by Schapiro and Melissa Meyer describing the term "femmage," on page 68. You can download a pdf here. (You can choose a topic and read all the issues here.) I also found the complete article and more in the tome that was right there on my bookshelf when I got home, Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings edited by Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz (1996, p. 152).

Out of fourteen criteria, Meyer and Schapiro write that a work could be considered a femmage if it contains at least half (seven) of these (direct quote): 
1. It is a work by a woman. 2. The activities of saving and collecting are important ingredients. 3. Scraps are essential to the process and are recycled in the work.4. The theme has a woman-life context.5. The work has elements of covert imagery.6. The theme of the work addresses itself  to an audience of intimates.7. It celebrates a private or public event.8. A diarist's point of view is reflected in the work.9. There is drawing and/or handwriting sewn in the work.10. It contains silhouetted images  which are fixed on other material.11. Recognizable images appear in narrative sequence.12. Abstract forms create a pattern.13. The work contains photographs or other printed matter.14. The work has a functional as well as aesthetic life.
Curious, and just for fun, I wondered if my pin cushion eggs fit this description and started down the list. 1. By a woman; 2. made of something saved or collected; 3. contains scraps; 4. refers to women's life (if we are applying traditional gender to sewing, yes); 6. addressed to "an audience of intimates" yes?; 14. is functional as well as aesthetic, yes. Score: 6. Seven or eight and yes, if you count hand sewing a kind of 9. drawing or handwriting and the egg as 5. covert imagery. Interesting.

While there were these numerous stellar examples of Schapiro's work, overall they seemed to be used as the context for work by contemporary artists: Sanford Biggers, Josh Blackwell, Edie Fake, Jeffrey Gibson, Judy Ledgerwood, Jodie Mack, Sara Rahbar, Ruth Root, and Jasmin Sian. While I would have liked to have seen a more in-depth analysis of Schapiro's work, it was good to see how concepts continue to be investigated, reinterpreted, and revitalized. I think it is important to show older work with younger work; there is always a new audience for it. Sometimes it helps us see one or the other works more clearly. For this reason, it would have been interesting to see Schapiro's work in its historical context as well, to trace the artistic lineage further back.

You can see a connection to Schapiro with this work by Sanford Biggers. He incorporated the tumbling block quilt pattern that Miriam did in her heart piece, above. It has embroidery stitching, sequins, and velvet, all scraps working together to create a new whole.

Ooo Oui, 2017
Sanford Biggers
textiles, fabric, antique quilt fragment

This work, in its own way, is seamless in the blending of materials to make one overall pattern referencing the tumbling blocks.


The quilt fragment he incorporated looks a bit like the one I just acquired.
I'm not sure I can bring myself to incorporate it into anything just yet.

I was particularly inspired by and felt the "call to action" from the energetic wrapping and stitching in these colorful woven pieces by Josh Blackwell. The wall text says Blackwell "uses recovered plastic bags and colored fibers such as wool, yarn, silk thread, and patterned cloth to create his Neveruses" linking them with marginalized objects, craft, and marginalized people. The work ties in intent, theory, and concept to Schapiro's work. 

Blackwell describes them in theory as "queer" or "androgynous" as, for one example, they subvert hierarchies and use stitching as mending rather than as surface "embellishment." The works call our attention to craft and materials, things that may be overlooked or not taken seriously, and are made with the flavor that Schapiro intended in her works, elevating them, placing them in a new context and new light.

All of these works point to seamlessness, asking us to question and rethink the notion of craft and "decoration" and "patterning." From them we can explore their perceived meanings,  and the constructed hierarchies of high and low art. What work gets marginalized and why? The exhibit provides continued inspiration for exploring textiles and fibers and our place as makers in the world.

Miriam Schapiro died June 20, 2015, aged 91.

It's hard to stop there. Upstairs, MAD has an arts studio, where in one glass-fronted room a school group had been making things, and in another, the jewelry artist Emiko Shinozaki was in residence. She called us in, and we talked with her about her new work making jewelry on which you could play music. Emiko had been a violinist for many years, but after studying fashion fell into jewelry-making and loved it. The new work of wearable sounds bridges her worlds and adds computer programming and working with arduino to the mix. Her website is here.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

A Couple More Eggs

I made two more enchanted egg pin cushions and posted them at nevermindtheart. I'm out of the stuffing, the garnet emery, so that's it for the moment. Projects are backing up, so I'm not sure when or if I will make any more. If you like, get one now. They are about 2 inches and 2 ounces and feel nice nestling in your palm. Added: Power of Pink and Deep Purple here.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Book Arts as Egalitarian Practice

We like to name and sort, it helps us make sense of the world. One of the earliest stories of naming is in the Bible when Adam is asked to name each animal. It would have been cumbersome to say "the black one with wings that hops around" or "the one with four legs that comes up to my knees and barks." 

But in some cases, we don't have to agree on the names or properties of things. Is weeding also gardening? You aren't growing anything, you're pulling it up. But, of course weeding is necessary to enable the plants you want to grow. With many activities, we don't have to codify and standardize what they are and are not. They just are. Bureaucracies organize and reorganize/rename to gain power or money, among other things. Historians tend to classify and create movements and groups that may or may not have existed formally. It helps organize theories and timelines, and may make a more coherent story.

What I've always liked about book arts and the book arts community is the open and inclusive nature. So many different practices work side by side under the umbrella of the book. Papermaking, printmaking, letterpress printing, bookbinding, boxmaking, painting, drawing, textiles, sculpture, and more—you can make any kind of book in your own quirky way. We share some common terms in order to understand each other, but overall, the boundaries are loose.

The community has no king or queen, no hierarchy. There are no book art police. Sure, people judge, but that happens no matter how you live your life.

Part of this fluidity comes from the wealth of talent and creativity from a variety of media, each with its own focus. There is some codified information, mostly that derives from longstanding traditions of craft guilds and apprentices. But in making a hard cover, for example, one teacher may teach the application of glue to the boards, another may suggest applying glue to the paper or book cloth. 

Another part of the openness is from the generosity of the makers and the sharing of information. We don't keep secrets; we are excited to pass along what we have learned, created, and discovered.

We know that naming can be powerful. But occasionally structures and techniques are invented simultaneously and named differently. Once taught and over time, structures and terms also may be renamed. 
The structure many of us learned as "Secret Belgian Binding" for example, was actually named "Criss-Cross" by its creator, Anne Goy, but many people continue to call the binding by the name they first learned. While it helps to have names that we all understand, it doesn't take long to discover one person's X-book is another person's O-book. In this case, the diversity of practice and of naming can open a conversation, and it may actually inspire new ways of seeing.

Thank You