Sunday, November 19, 2017

My favorite things 47

In the olden days, toys were from a different planet than they are now.  For one thing, there weren't so many of them, and for another, they weren't made of plastic.  I have only two really old toys, which I suppose belonged to my dad and his brother.  They're small, just two inches tall, and now they live on top of the type case in my living room in a prime display spot.

The three monkeys are made of ceramic, stamped "Made in Japan" on the bottom, which probably means they were produced between 1921 and 1941 -- I suspect closer to 1921 because the boys were little then.  Remarkably they are still bright and unchipped after decades of being played with.

The painted metal dog, made in Germany (appropriate, because he appears to be a German shepherd), has an extra attraction: his head bobs on a spring.

I don't have many things from my parents' childhoods -- a doll quilt from my mother, these two toys from my dad.  So these are special.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Christmas is coming

My longtime faithful readers know that every year I make personalized Christmas ornaments for my family and friends.  Often the task of actually making the ornaments is less onerous than the task for figuring out what to make, because after 40+ years of this project, when every year has to be different from the ones before, it gets harder and harder to come up with new ideas.  But this year I was fortunate to be browsing around in the craft store when I found some raw materials that suggested their own finished product.

This week I got down to business, found all the necessary tools and supplies -- and didn't even have to go to the store to buy anything new -- and started work.

So far, things are proceeding smoothly.  I did have a near-disaster over the weekend, when I reached for a tube of paint and was dismayed to find that it had spurted a leak at its base and there was a huge blob of yellow on the front of my shirt.  I raced to the sink and scrubbed and scrubbed with a vegetable brush, and I think got it all out (haven't run it through the wash yet).  But at least it didn't spring its leak in its previous position, on the carpet.

Many little beads have escaped onto the floor, but one of these days I'll send Isaac down with a flashlight and a little dish and let him retrieve as many as he can.

For several years I've also been making an ornament for one of my blog readers.  If you would like to be in the running this year, just leave a comment on the blog between now and Friday midnight.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

My favorite things 46

Four months after we got married we moved to Germany, and my parents seized upon the opportunity to come visit us the next summer.  It was Mom's first trip to Europe, and Dad's first since he was in the Army in WW2.  In subsequent years they traveled the world but for this first expedition were happy to have a home base, a chauffeured car and personal guides.

The chauffeured car was nothing to write home about: a VW hatchback, only slightly larger than the classic bug.  When all four of us, with our luggage, piled in there was barely room to breathe, but we were all much younger then and soldiered through.  We picked them up from the ship in Bremerhaven and then drove around for a couple of weeks through Northern Germany and Denmark.

In Copenhagen we split up, men adjourning for beer while women went shopping.  Mom and I were both enamored of Scandinavian design and we wandered around drooling over all manner of furniture, china, housewares, textiles and glass.  Mindful of the tiny car we had to return home in, we bought a couple of tiny dishes, small enough to fit in your pocket.  But then we came upon a small table, dark wood with an inlaid copper top.  The copper was incised in a shallow bas relief, with an abstract pattern that was at once organic and industrial in feeling.

I fell in love.  But how would I get it home?  We asked the clerk if the legs came off.  No.  We asked the clerk if they could ship it to Germany.  Yes, for three times the cost of the table, which was a non-starter.  We left.  We came back, so I could stroke the copper top again.  Do you suppose the legs really don't come off?  So we turned it over, and guess what?  The legs came off!

So we took the table home, in pieces, held on my lap in the backseat for 1000 kilometers.  It has sat next to my living room chair, whichever chair that might be, for 46 years.  It really could stand to be refinished, at least the wooden part; the copper looks as beautiful as the day it was born.

The moral of the story, of course, is persistence, and/or skepticism: even when the clerk says the legs don't come off, turn it over and look for yourself. 

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Chicago art 1 -- early work

Many artists become famous for some easily recognizable technique, subject or approach -- and when you see their early work, quite different, it's a surprise.  I found several examples in my recent Chicago museum extravaganza.

First, at the Art Institute, Jackson Pollock, before he started flinging paint in spatters.  Here he is one year earlier, with an almost-landscape, almost-still-life.  He was working on the floor rather than vertically, but a long way from his signature style.

Jackson Pollock, The Key, 1946

Also at the Art Institute, Robert Ryman, who went on to explore every conceivable permutation of all-white painting.  Here he was working predominantly in white, but underneath the white, definite colors visible as a background.

Robert Ryman, Untitled, 1962 (detail below)

Finally, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, here's Jeff Koons -- yes, famous for his renderings of himself in flagrante with his porn-star wife, Michael Jackson and his chimp, and highly polished balloon dogs -- in a very different character.  It's a formalist tableau of vacuum cleaners and fluorescent lights in plexi cases (and very hard to photograph; you can either get the camera to see the appliances or the bulbs, but not both).

Jeff Koons, New Hoover Deluxe Shampoo Polishers, New Shelton Wet/Dry 10-gallon Displaced Tripledecker, 1981-87

And another early Koons, in which he suspended three basketballs in a tank of water with exactly enough sodium chloride added so that the balls float at the same level:

Jeff Koons, Three Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Dr. JK Silver Series), 1985  

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Chicago architecture 1

We took a walking tour of Chicago architecture that focused on mid-century modernist buildings, including the Daley Plaza of three federal buildings.  In a corner they built an eternal flame, quite unassuming to my eye, considering all the people it commemorates.

It was a cold day.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

My favorite things 45

Although I own plenty of things whose only function in life is to sit there and look beautiful, I love souvenirs that work.  And best of all are free souvenirs that work.

Consider the humble beer mat.  While the customary American beer mat is inscribed with the name of the restaurant or bar, the customary European beer mat, like the customary European beer glass, is inscribed with the name of the beer.  When we lived in Germany in the 1970s we started acquiring beer mats by accident, and some time later I started acquiring them on purpose.  I own several dozens, small piles of them conveniently situated around the house within reach of any place you might ever want to sit down and park your drink. 

Since I've been officially collecting (a much nicer word than stealing, don't you think?) beer mats I have gotten many that are in relatively virgin condition, but the most precious are the ones that have been with us since Germany.

 It's amazing how tough those old mats are -- some of them are kind of beat up, and some have faded a bit, but they keep on trucking.  Some day I may retire them to use as art materials, but for now I'm just as happy to use a vintage mat as a nice new one.  Although I don't remember exactly where and when I grabbed most of them, they bring back fond generalized memories of pleasant hours of leisure and cameraderie.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Handwork in miniature

The Art Institute of Chicago is known for its collection of 68 miniature dioramas depicting rooms from different places and times.  They were made after extensive research into the authentic furniture and architecture styles, and crafted meticulously in the 1930s under the direction of Mrs. James Ward Thorne, a rich benefactor of the museum.

The rooms are done to a scale of one inch to one foot, and situated low in the walls, with a convenient step beneath each one so small visitors can get a good view.

I was intrigued to see that the inhabitant of the New England Bedroom, 1750-1850, was at work on an embroidery in a standing hoop.

It's apparently an allover floral design, only half finished.  And what a bright, sunny, spacious room in which to sit with your needle in front of the fireplace!

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Reformation Day at the museum

Five hundred years ago today was the date we now commemorate as the start of the Protestant Reformation, and the Art Institute of Chicago put out this row of unassuming little prints of Martin Luther to mark the season.  None larger than about seven inches tall, they show the man in different stages of life.  Choose your favorite!

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Luther as an Augustinian Friar, with Cap, 1521, engraving

Daniel Hopfer, After Lucas Cranach the Elder, Martin Luther, 1523, etching

Heinrich Aldegrever, Martin Luther, 1540, engraving

Johann Michael PĆ¼chler, Martin Luther, engraving

Master I.B., Portrait of Martin Luther, 1530, engraving

Johann Gottfried Schadow, Luther's Statue in Wittenberg, 1822, lithograph

Sunday, October 29, 2017

My favorite things 44

My mother acquired three old kitchen chairs that had belonged to her grandparents, but the caned seats were deteriorating.  Once my father's supremely handy aunt and uncle were visiting and the chairs came up in the conversation.  Well, heck, it's no big deal to recane a chair, they said, and took them home with them to Indiana.  Mom insisted on paying them, despite much argument.

In the fullness of time the chairs returned, beautifully recaned.  But Mom had a conniption when she realized that it was plastic "cane," not real.  That had not come up in the conversation.

Mom thought that plastic had defiled her grandparent's precious chairs, and indeed, their precious memories.  She berated herself for not having specified authentic cane for the job.  She couldn't stand to even look at the chairs and stashed them in the attic.  We talked about this one day and I said, I'm sorry you can't stand to even look at them; I think they're pretty nice.  If that's what you think, she said, you can have them.

So the chairs came home with me and have been making themselves beautifully useful for a long time.  One served as my sewing chair for many years.  After we bought elegant upholstered chairs for our dining room, and I realized the seat was too high for me to get my feet comfortably on the floor, I sat in a caned chair for a decade, even though it didn't match anything else in the room. 

Currently two of the chairs reside in our front hall, convenient for depositing the mail, the newspaper, a package on the way to the post office, or your hat and gloves. One lives in the dining room, ready to be slotted in when we need to squeeze three people along one side of the dining room table without putting in the extra leaf.  If we need one someplace else, they're light enough to be carried all over the house.

For a while I shared Mom's opinion of the plastic cane, even while welcoming the "ruined" chairs into my life.  Then I decided that plastic was probably an excellent choice for chairs that were going to be seriously used.  In 30-some years it hasn't faded, stretched or frayed.  It doesn't scratch your legs if you're wearing shorts.  It looks sharper than the rest of the chairs, whose carved ornamentation is starting to lose its veneer.

So Mom, you were wrong to disdain the fix-up job.  But you were right to let me have the chairs!

Friday, October 27, 2017

Southern Accent 3 -- quilt rising

Another look at the "Southern Accent" show that just closed at the Speed Museum in Louisville.

Forgive me for sounding jaded, but one of the cliches of our stereotyped vision of the South is the quilt (you know, everybody's grandma made them...) and one of the cliches of the quilt is that old Underground Railroad myth.  How romantic to think that people would hang quilts on the line to point the direction to freedom or to mark the place for a free supper or a bed in the corncrib.  How romantic, but how silly, upon further examination: how many poor people just happened to have a quilt in the appropriate secret-code pattern on hand, and how would they hang it on the line when it was raining, and wouldn't vigilant sheriffs and slavers notice that the same people had a quilt hanging out every day?

Sanford Biggers, Quilt #15, Harmonics 2 (details below)

Sure enough, the signage on one big work in the show tells us -- falsely -- "Some quilts were used as signposts for safe houses along the secret network of routes from southern slave states to northern free states and Canada."

I am so sick and tired of hearing this fake news.  Only a few weeks ago I griped about it in my blog, in response to a review of work by -- well, well -- the very same Sanford Biggers!  So I wonder -- does the fake news come from the ignorance of the reviewer, as I had thought while writing that post, or does the artist plant it in his statements, as you would infer from reading the sign?

Oh well, let's talk about the art, not the propaganda.  He's painted with metallic and day-glo colors onto a beautifully made Irish Chain quilt, which incidentally is in pretty fine condition.  The quilt wasn't stiffened or stretched, just hung against the wall.

It was a striking image, especially the central curvy five-pointed star rising above the mountain horizon like a beacon in the sky, except that I didn't understand what all the protruding orange tubes were supposed to be.  To me they looked like gun barrels rather than rays of light.  I was also confused about those areas of gold paint that were dripping out of the star (as in the detail shot).  The rest of the image was controlled, even meticulous, and then here's this accidental blob....

More art from the Southern Accent show next week.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Southern Accent 2 -- fiber

Whenever I go to an exhibit that's not specifically fiber art, I look for fiber, always intrigued at how a material that is often considered a second-class citizen takes on substance when used by a painter.  I found several pieces incorporating fiber in the "Southern Accent" exhibit that just closed at the Speed Museum in Louisville. 

The most amusing was this painting/collage:

Benny Andrews, Down the Road (details below)

Most of the painting is flat, including some fabric used in the dress.  But the artist has constructed a huge nose jutting out from the picture plane, almost two inches deep, apparently molded from fabric and stiffened with paint or medium.  The hat also comes out from the surface to shade the nose and brow.

The painting was hung along the right-hand wall as people entered the exhibit, so your first view was the nose shape protruding from a foreshortened surface that you could hardly decipher; it was strange and off-putting.  I wish the painting had been hung at the corner facing the flow of traffic, so the first view could have been the full image, and you could have discovered the 3-D effect only on closer examination.

Next, a huge wall hanging, made from a tarp painted in various indigenous southern substances including dirt and tobacco.

Radcliffe Bailey, Up From (details below)

The large expanse, barely interrupted by a few appendages (can't tell if they were original to the tarp or added by the artist) and hand stitched African and voudou symbols, presented a calm background that focused your attention on the small black head perched on a rock. 

More on the Southern Accent show in my next post.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

My favorite things 43

We visited Italy in the winter of 2003. With the exception of two taxi rides, we did a whole month depending entirely on public transportation and our own two feet.  We packed light, washed out our clothes in hotel bathtubs and wore the same sweater every day. 

But in Sorrento we strolled through a market street and saw a kitchenware store with a table of sale items on the sidewalk.  We spotted some nice pasta bowls for an amazing 1.25 euros apiece -- at the time, about $1.15 -- and couldn't resist.  We bought four and shlepped them back to the hotel, a long enough walk that we traded off carrying the bag once or twice along the way.

Before we made it home for good we had carried those bowls about four miles, making our way between hotels and railroad stations and through airports.  With every step they got a little bit heavier, and we had to remind ourselves that the bowls were beautiful, a steal, and our only souvenirs of the trip.  We had invested not just the five bucks but a heck of a lot of sweat equity to bring them home.

But it was worth it!  They have become our default bowl for pasta, not to mention the occasional soup or other juicy entree.  I suspect they've been used at least once a week since we returned, and we never fail to think about our wonderful trip when we eat that last bit of food and reveal the red tomato.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Online frustration

Isn't technology wonderful?  With the Internet at our fingertips, we can find out anything we ever need to know in milliseconds.  Well, sometimes it works that way.

After shipping off a quilt to a show yesterday, I was reminded that I should let our local fiber art organization know so they can post the info in their "see our work" announcement page.  But I should also tell them the dates of the show.

Kathleen Loomis, Fading, selected for Mid-States Craft Exhibition, Evansville Museum

The hard copy acceptance letter from the museum was still in my shirt pocket from taking it to Fedex to read off the address.  But the acceptance letter did not say the dates of the show.  I looked up in my email for the notification message, but that did not say the dates of the show.  I typed "Evansville Museum events" in google and found no home page for the museum.  Instead I got a page from a trip planner website telling me that the museum's nice new facility will be opening January 2014, I should allow four hours and would I like to build an itinerary.  No, I wouldn't.  But there was a link to the museum website, which I clicked on. 

Oops.  Got the dreaded exclamation point in the red triangle: "Your connection is not private.  Attackers might be trying to steal your information from (for example, passwords, messages, or credit cards.)"  Well, that's scary but I only want to know the dates of the show.  The web is so concerned about my safety that it won't even let me take the risk and see the site anyway -- my only choice is "Back to safety."  North Korean hackers can infiltrate the site of any place I do business with, steal my social security number, plant ransomware on my computer, but at least I'm not at risk at the Evansville Museum!  What a relief.

I googled Evansville Museum again and found a link to their facebook page.  Under the "events" tab it showed several events in October and November, plus one next March and one next August, but not the December 9 opening reception (they did mention that date in the acceptance email).  I scrolled through their posts, reading as far back as August, but no mention of the show.

Back to those emails.  They show the same website that I'm not allowed to go to, for my own safety.  Hmmm.  I googled "Mid-States Craft Exhibition" and aha -- toward the bottom of the page, founds a listing for "Art Museum, Movie Theater, Attractions: Evansville, IN" and it's the museum's own website!  Not the same URL as the one on their stationery, or the link in the emails, but an actual working SAFE website!

But no listing for my show in the revolving banner on the top of the page.  In a sidebar called "upcoming events,"  no show listed, but up in September was an entry called "Mid-States Call for Entries September 21 - February 16."  Clicked on that, and found a brief description, with the eligibility rules and name of the juror, but no show dates, and a link to the full prospectus on CaFE, which finally revealed the dates: December 10 through February 4.  (Well, actually December 9, since that's the opening reception.)

And it only took me 35 minutes to find it out (that's slightly less than one millimonth).

But anyhow, if you find yourself in the vicinity of Evansville over the winter, drop in and see my flag. 

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Southern Accent 1 -- unraveling

Last week I went to the Speed Museum in Louisville for the last day of a blockbuster show called "Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art."  I wish I had gone earlier in the run so I could have gone back again; there was much to see and think about and I will have more posts, but let me start with one artwork, described as a "sculpture and performance piece."

Sonya Clark, Unraveling

It's a found Confederate battle flag which the artist is slowly unraveling by hand.  She started in 2015 on the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War and has been working on it ever since.  For two hours on the last day of the Speed exhibit, visitors were invited to help Clark unravel.

Each person was greeted with a handshake and introduction, and then set to work unraveling, side by side with the artist.  For a couple of minutes each visitor worked, chatting with Clark about the project, then parted with a hug.

Of course I had to be there for this performance, and I said I wanted to work on the white, "to unravel some white privilege."  I was surprised at how difficult it was to take the tightly woven threads apart with no tools -- at home I would have grabbed a seam ripper or awl to grab the weft threads and pull them away, but with only fingernails it was hard to get a grip.  When I commented on this, Clark responded metaphorically that it's hard it is to deconstruct racist history.  I wondered how many times she had made this comment to her visitor/collaborators in the many hours she has spent shoulder-to-shoulder on the project.

I was thrilled with this idea of taking the flag apart.  The project hits all my hot buttons: U.S. history, lingering racism in the south, flags, and of course, fabric.  During the time I waited in line for my turn at the flag, I couldn't help but think about the art project that I participated in a couple of years ago at a museum across town, where volunteer artists mended people's clothes.  In both cases, the time spent in conversation between artist and visitor was intended to be meditative and connective.

I don't think the flag unraveling was conducive to much meditation.  It turned into quite the mob scene (which is wonderful in itself, because how frequently do you find mobs in museums, but I wondered how much time many of the visitors spent looking at the art).  With a long line of people waiting behind, there was pressure to unravel for a very short bit and then move on. 

As you approached the head of the line, museum staff with clipboards took your name.  As you worked, photographers came in close.

After you departed, reporters asked for your reactions.

By contrast, the mending project offered much more intimate time for conversation -- simply because there were so few people who came by.  But there were more than 100 hours of artist-on-duty time in that project, compared to only two hours for the flag.

We asked one of the guards who herded us into line whether the crowd was bigger than they had expected; he said nobody had any advance idea what was going to happen.  He seemed cheerfully overwhelmed, but I wondered whether he would be equally cheerful at closing time when dozens of people still in line would have to be turned away.

I would have loved more time with my hands in the threads, and more time to talk with the artist, but when the museum presents a "relational" project as merely a two-hour event there isn't much relating that's going to happen.  As we waited in line we also talked about Marina Abromovic's massive relational project at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010, where she sat in a chair silently contemplating a visitor sitting across from her -- seven hours a day, six days a week, for 700 hours in total.

I'm sorry Sonya Clark didn't have the chance to spend more time with her art piece and with museum visitors, just as I was unhappy that Lee Mingwei hopped a plane to Tokyo after installing the mending project, delegating the visitor-relating to us volunteer artists.  Strikes me that both of these projects, brilliant in concept, suffered for want of boots on the ground.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

My favorite things 42

As a professor of graphic arts, my father was an inveterate collector of all things related to printing, an enthusiasm that washed down to my own generation.  Our favorite method was letterpress -- where the letters or images are raised above the surface of the printing plate to accept ink rolled or pounced over the top, like a rubber stamp.  But just to make the collection comprehensive, Dad acquired some lithographic stones.

Lithography works in a non-intuitive manner: the image and the printing plate are perfectly flat.  The ink adheres to the image and not to the rest of the plate through basic chemistry -- because oil and water don't mix.  Start with a porous stone, perfectly flat.  Draw on it with a greasy crayon or paint.  Slosh water over the entire stone; it will be repelled by the crayon but absorbed into the background areas.  Roll greasy ink over the entire stone; it will be deposited onto the greasy area of the image but repelled by the water-wet background.  Now you can print the image onto a piece of paper.

Commercial printers were apparently quite frugal with their raw material, the heavy and painstakingly milled stones.  Both of these stones have several letterheads and documents crammed as closely together as possible.  Apparently the cost of making a separate stone would far outweigh the extra care it would take to print just the one you want.

One of the stones was from Georgia, blank checks from banks in Wrightsville, Savannah, Maysville, Senola, Colquette and Fitzgerald.  (I flipped and lightened the images in photoshop so you can read the type.)

The printer must have had to do a lot of tricky masking to make sure just the right one got printed!  In those days, financial papers typically included a blank space for the date, printed like this:  _______________ 190__.     Maybe a clever way for the printer to insure that people came back and had new letterheads printed at least once per decade.

The other stone came from Paris; it has letterheads for a dressmaker, an electrician, and a stockbroker, if my bad French is correct.  It was a decade later, 191__.

I was reminded when I pulled the stones out for photography just how heavy they are!!  My brother, who lives in Australia, reminded me the last time he visited that one of the stones actually belongs to him.  I told him he was welcome to take it home with him, but since he's always just a nanogram this side of the weight limit, he declined.  So I think both stones are going to stay with me forever.

Friday, October 13, 2017

The people have assembled

The first amendment installation is finished -- awaiting transport to the banquet site next week. 

I hope the people are all firmly enough anchored into the base so they can survive the trip.  I'll drive slowly.  But if not, I'll take some extra wire along so I can jam the armatures more snugly into the holes on site.

I love the way they're crowded together, peaceably, just like it says in the constitution.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The people -- Plan B

When I started making daily people in January, I was intrigued by the way limp fabric could become firm simply through wrapping and tying.  A few friends to whom I showed the project were surprised to find that the people had no armatures, because they had a lot of structural strength -- that was the whole point of my exploration.  But most of the little guys didn't have enough structural strength or balance to stand on their own.

So when I got the opportunity to put them all into an installation, I needed to retrofit some skeletons into practically everybody, extending into a peg that could be fit into a drilled hole on the base. 

Some of the people were constructed so I could easily run a support wire up under their skirts or thread it up inside their legs.  Others had been wrapped so tightly, and perhaps had some internal folds and creases, that I couldn't force wire through the center of a leg, so I had to snake an external wire up the back of the body, secured by their original wrappings.

That's how I spent my weekend, with wires and wirecutters.  I could have saved a lot of time by putting the wire inside in the first place, but would that have been any fun?  Heck no!

I'm almost done with the installation -- I'll show it to you soon.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

My favorite things 41

My mother gave me a crystal ball -- not for fortune-telling, but to hang in my kitchen window.  It's about the size of a golf ball.  When the sun is at the right angle, and if I have wiped the ball clean of grease and dust, and put a little spin on it, brilliant little rainbows dance throughout the room.

It varies with the season, of course, but this week rainbow time starts about 8:30 a.m. and lasts maybe 20 minutes, 20 minutes of pure magic.