March 15, 2010

Eleven Bullets of the Civil War

Above is a detail from my latest figurative mosaic, Eleven Bullets of the Civil War, featured at right. It is so named for the actual civil war bullets incorporated into the mosaic. I am usually not quite so literal in my titles for art work but this one just seemed to write itself. The bullets were found on the trip home from Maryland last summer and the figure was modeled that same summer. For some months now they sat in the studio unassembled while I ruminated over them.
It takes me a while to compose the elements of a mosaic - although these days I am moving slower than usual. The placement of parts in a mosaic of found objects such as this one can change the message depending upon where they go and what they are next to. While composing this mosaic I kept this in mind, asking questions all the during the slow assembly. Should the bullets be arranged in a row to evoke the straight and narrow way of the military? Or should they be scattered to indicate the chaos of war? I decided to use them in provocative, ironic ways, as parts of architecture, as a pillow and foot rest. They surround and embellish a neolithic spear head (given to me as a gift one year ago). After arranging them all to my satisfaction, I had one spare bullet that didn’t seem to fit anywhere. I almost put it aside when I finally realized that all the other bullets were on their sides, flush with the picture plane. This last bullet I cemented to the picture in such a way as to project outward towards the viewer. How awful and confrontational! The last bullet would point at the viewer’s head should the picture be hung at eye level. Should someone ask why I changed the orientation of that last bullet I would be obliged to come up with an answer. My answer would go something like this:
The last bullet punctures the illusion of peace in war time. It makes us see that which we wish not to see but which happens nevertheless. The last bullet shatters the notion that America at war does not in some way involve us all and that, aware of it or not, it is a part of us. It is that lingering, nagging sadness in the back of the mind as we go about our daily business, made manifest by a direct shot of confrontation.

It is difficult to be aware of the extent of what happens in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unlike Vietnam, which was brought into livingrooms in graphic horror, the current wars are filtered somewhat my media coverage, I believe. Hence it is a new kind of civil war.

March 14, 2010

Characters in Dance and Writing

For the last month, I have been traveling the state to teach Chinese Calligraphy and Painting. My program, A Brush With History, teaches students the historical development of Chinese writing and painting with hands on training in brush painting. My February Residency at Spartanburg Day School happened to coincide with Mardi Gras, which only added to the festive spirit - replete with King Cake served in the school cafeteria. King Cake was a delicacy that I had been hitherto unacquainted with, but as someone with a penchant for sweet things, I was more than happy to make that acquaintance. It was a tubular creation filled with an eclair-like cream and festooned with sugar sprinkles in a gaudy array of colors ranging from purple to yellow. Tradition has it that a small baby doll is hidden inside and whoever gets the piece with the baby in it will have good luck and will throw the next party. (I’m not sure how bearing the expense for a party can be called "lucky" but I suppose you just have to roll with that).
My Brush with History residency went quite well. The classes were small, the students were attentive and my teaching hosts were very accommodating. The school was unusual in that a Chinese language program had been in place and the elementary students already had up to four years of exposure to Chinese. I was also amazed at the plethora of work by professional artists adorning the hallways and hung in large meeting places. The cafeteria was like a restaurant with a full time professional chef. My eyes were often wide in disbelief at the cornucopia of fresh fruit and greens available. Such is the lot of private school students: good food, good culture, small classes, one-on-one attention opportunities. Although the residency was only four days, I was able to cover the three classic elements of Chinese Painting: calligraphy, brush painting and seal carving. The residency was fortuitously covered in the Spartanburg Herald as my stay happened to coincide with a visit to the school of a Chinese contingency from Guilin.
My second residency was at A C Flora High School in Columbia, SC. What a contrast public to private school was! The grounds were still under construction and there was a lot of repair work still needed on the school infrastructure. Teachers packed their own lunches but that was fun anyway for the lunch comradery. At Spartanburg Day School I had about a total of thirty eight students. At A C Flora there were over one hundred. (I have had some public school experiences where there were over two hundred students for the week Some teachers regularly have about one thousand!) Although some of the combined classes were quite large, I fortunately had the help of the visual arts teacher, Mary Conner as well as the dance instructor, Gayle Etheridge. This was an experimental residency combining dance students and visual art students. It was the culmination of something I had been wanting to do for several years - have dance students choreograph a performance based upon Chinese calligraphy. It entailed having both the visual art and dance students study Chinese calligraphy forms; the basic strokes of kai characters, stroke order, and stylistic variations such as oracle bone, zhuan shu, xing shu, li shu and cao shu. The final day, the entire group of participating students were divided into fourteen groups of about five to eight students - visual artists mixed with dancers. Because I had about two decades of pent up ideas with regard to dance and Chinese calligraphy I had loads of suggestions for these groups. The art teacher and the dance instructor advised me, however, to hold back as much as possible during the student’s creative phase. And they were right because although many students incorporated some of my ideas, most of them came up with even better ones on their own.
Despite the two days of emphasis on Kai, or regular hand characters (something I could compare to printing versus script) most of the students performed dances based on zhuan characters. This made sense in that ancient Chinese zhuan characters (roughly 800 BC) are closer to pictographs and it is easy to envision people striking exotic poses when looking at them. In some instances, though, these were used as elaborate floor patterns for creating dance movements - something I wouldn’t have thought of. Since I provided translations of the zhuan characters many of the students focused on literary content in their dances. One used the concept of wisdom and philosophy, another used both the form and content of the sun and earth elements.
There was one truly brilliant dance performed to the writing of basic strokes of kai characters and I was glad to see at least one group take on that challenge. There was one particularly fascinating bit of choreography with the calligraphers drawing in the air with brushes over the heads of the dancers who simultaneously "translated" these gestures into body movements. The students did such a great job that I almost cried at their performances.
Performance day itself was full of surprises. We had a visit from the director of the Confucius Institute at USC, Professor Tan Ye. Professor Ye gave us information about what how the Confucius Institute is supporting scholarly exchanges between South Carolina students and China and encouraged the high school students to consider further language and cultural studies. Professor Ye did not come empty handed and presented students with a bag full of goodies in the way of Beijing Opera letter openers and silk good luck charms to hang from door knobs.
After the residency, I attended a meeting with the dance instructor, her student teacher, as well as the art instructor. We all came up with ideas to make the next residency even better but most of all we just took some time to bask in the warmth of each other’s company and the satisfaction of a job well done.

March 13, 2010

Abstract Expressions: Both Ancient and Modern

While routing through my materials I came across a painting I did as a demonstration work for a course I taught last year for the Columbia Museum of Art on automatism in Abstract Expressionism. In keeping with my vow to either throw out excess material or use it up in a new way, I decided to "complete" this little painting by making it into a collage with strips of leftover paintings from a different course I had taught previously on lightweight mosaics.
Despite my title for this log, Abstract Expressionism is not entirely modern in that its adherents were painting about sixty years ago - how time flies! But there has been a resurgence of interest in this period and the theories behind the creation of 1950's and 60's abstract painting.

In my own work, I noticed something calligraphic about the black brush marks so decided to add finishing touches with prints of stone seals that I had carved last fall. They read Gold River and Black Water. Inclusion of these two prints makes this newly revived work something of a cultural overlay. In recent weeks I have been teaching more Chinese so integrating these disparate units of different times and far away places into my painting just seems natural.

March 7, 2010

The Other Collage Squares

From my previous writing, including some blogs, readers will know about my ongoing desire to keep from accumulating too many materials in the studio and home. This is of course a daunting challenge because of the nature of my work as a mixed media and found object artist working in several genres. I just keep finding stuff and making more stuff with it. So in keeping with not keeping too much around, I chose to cut and paste old pieces of previous painting studies on paper and use them in the last two collages squares I made for the Kansas City extension of the "Homage to Squares..." exhibition. These two compositions were simply called "Expressions" as they were simple experiments with limited color palettes. Green and orange have always been favorite colors of mine and I made liberal use of these colors for the square painting above. I knifed through the paint in several areas as well to make primitive scrawls like those seen on neolithic pottery or the etchings on ancient Chinese oracle bones.
The predominantly black and white pattern to the right looks forward to an exhibition idea for next year, "Basically Black."

March 5, 2010

Opening Day: Squared Away

Today marks the opening of the second installment of my exhibition, "Homage to Squares: The Poetry of Paintings and Mosaics." The down side of not selling much work at an exhibition is that it can be difficult to cover exhibition costs, let alone make a profit. The up side is that the artist still has a body of work available to travel to a new venue. If one is lucky enough, another gallery/museum will host the continuing saga of the ever growing body of art.
Regardless of the fact that I could just recycle the same exhibition in a different setting, I generally pull some old work out and replace it with some new things to freshen it up. In the case of Kansas City exhibition, pragmatism prevailed in this regard because everything had to be shipped to location. Small works on canvas were ideal for shipping but even mid-range mosaics, with their plethora of stones and ceramics, were problematic. As a consequence, only five of these were shipped out. What I made to fill the wall space usually taken by these heavier works were a series of small square collages weighing just ounces each. I took as inspiration for this small run of collage work, the paintings of the abstract expressionists I had reacquainted myself with when I taught this subject at the Columbia Museum of Art last August. Using a decidedly automatist technique, I painted small square non-objective compositions with acrylic on paper then mounted these onto a tinted museum board base. I then reinterpreted elements of the painted colors and composition with painted papers cut in various shapes and sizes. These were pasted onto the background in mosaic designs, sometimes tessellated, other times cut in haphazard patterns. There was something very peaceful about the act of assembling these small compositions in the joy of working only with shapes, textures and colors. Objects are fascinating but sometimes worrisome for artists- having to get something that reasonably evokes recognition.
The first square in this series is influenced by Gottlieb - the rounded forms with their definitive black outlines. But the color palette is decidedly different, more earthy. The painting to the left was purposely done in counterpoint to the first one, in soft pastel colors redolent of the comfort of flannel pajamas. I will look forward to having these paintings back again but would rather they find homes in the midwest.

March 4, 2010

Allergy Shots and On-Line Diaries

Allergy Shots and On-line Diaries
2010 sprung into being about two months too soon. Here it is March and I am finishing up projects and starting new ones that I thought would be welcoming the advent of the new year. We expect to keep up with things and finish what we started but sometimes life gets in the way. A protracted respiratory illness beginning in December and ending in February, along with various and sundry little setbacks and a heavy schedule of obligations caused two things that I generally keep up with to fall by the wayside: allergy shots and my blog site. Why these two things would be the ballast of daily life that ended up being jettisoned in order to keep moving forward I cannot say. They aren’t exactly related. But in either case, getting on board again will require catching up and starting over. New vial of antigens, new paintings, new drawings, new writing.
So to catch up where I left off in December, after I participated as a juror in the International Mosaic Arts contest, the saga continued with my renewing my membership in the venerable old mosaic organization that I had founded ten years ago and joining a new on-line mosaic group, the Contemporary Mosaic Arts. It is good to be social again after such a long hiatus. Sadly, I will be unable to join my colleagues in Chicago and to see my selections in person. But I am hoping to get to Kansas City to catch up with graduate school classmates from twenty years ago. Perhaps the twenty year reunion, due to a sense of seniority, takes precedence over the ten year one?
The biggest project that was brought to fruition these past months, is the catalogue and digital archive of my work, which now includes about 1600 entries. It occurred to me that if I wrote a story about each work one day at a time it would take about four and a half years to get through my life story in art - what a journey that would be! I might try it if I can finish uploading the drawing collection.!
The second big project for 2010 was finishing the work for my Kansas City exhibition, crating it and shipping it out to location. This exhibition opens tomorrow evening at the Thornhill Gallery at Avila University so I will begin my blog again by posting some of the new work for 2010 now out in the midwest. The three paintings posted are three views of a parade from 1984 viewed from Tian An Men Square in Beijing. The paintings are based on photographs that my husband took on site those ages ago and which I posted on my earlier blog, "Sixty Years and Three Parades: The Long March to Conservative Reporting on China." In the paintings I kept the people crowd-like and nebulous, to emphasis the massive group of humanity moving forward with these ridiculous floats. My favorite painting is the one of Red Balloons over the portrait of Lenin.