November 18, 2010

Mid-Autumn Monster Plants and Gender Mojos

The middle of November in the center of South Carolina brings a much anticipated event: the annual migration of house plants from outside to indoors. Not everyone survives the journey, especially those who were the victims of their own success and grew too large and unwieldy for their containers. One such plant is the Devil’s Ivy, aptly named because it cascaded ten feet down from its container then rooted itself into the ground for another five feet. Pulling these botanical wonders back indoors for the winter is a task that is happily put off. The trick is to play chicken with the frost and wait until the last possible moment to lug the heavy ones in. Sometimes the frost wins. Plant life or death for the winter months can also be pinned to the vagaries of having out of town work or a cold on frost day.

The truly problematic plant this year was an overgrown tree philodendron which needed to be repotted in something about three times the size of the original container- something so huge it devoured an entire bag of potting soil. The aerial roots on the plant tangled themselves so profoundly inside the pot that the plant simply could not be removed. The only thing to do was to destroy the pot to free the plant. The plant of course had to be preserved not only for it being such a grand specimen of a tree philodendron but because it came from my late mother-in-law’s home. ( I had over the years become the keeper of all specimens of greenery from friends and relatives who left them at my doorstep like orphans. Okay, some I adopted myself off of street corners and I have even been known to cultivate plants rescued from the cracks in sidewalks).

I tried to pry the plant loose from the pot at first with a wonder bar but to no avail. My husband decided that my continued efforts would break the pot anyway and so he suggested that I just clobber it with a hammer. Easy for someone who did not purchase this vessel to say. But I reluctantly and somewhat tepidly started to fracture the fiberglass pot with the wonder bar. The pace of my efforts seemed to go too slowly for my husband’s patience and he decided to take over the job.

Getting a huge axe, my significant other took the plant outdoors and bid me not to look lest his concentration fail. This caused a feeling of deja vu. I distinctly remember times in my youth when my overlooking the proceedings of males bonding over car repairs was frowned upon. What is it about the scrutinizing gaze of the opposite gender that causes such discomfit? Is it the fear of relinquishing forbidden knowledge? Or is it a feeling that a task can never be accomplished well under the scrutinizing, critical stare of the other. With regard to the other being a member of the opposite sex, this has been known to take on disastrous consequences. I recalled here reading in a book on the history of musical instruments about the bull roarer, a primitive instrument that only men were allowed to play. Women were not even allowed to look upon it under the threat of death! Needless to say, that is a rather extreme example, but certainly points to how serious superstitions about the scrutiny of the opposite gender can be.

One would think such fear of derailing competence the other gender’s watch might be would be confined to the woman’s gaze upon the man’s work. Yet this very noon, as I write this, I found that try as I might, I could not do the necessary repairs on a broken drawer while under my husband’s critical scrutiny and had to wait until some quiet time alone before I could analyze the components, find the right tools and do the job.

But getting back to the seasonal removals of plants, the monstrous tree philodendron was finally released and given a new home. The other large polypodium ferns may just have to survive the winter outdoors - so many leaves, such tangled roots, so little space!

For now, I’m posting my drawing from my notebooks of a cat watching a tropical plant in Italy. And when I finish making my first bull roarer, I’ll post an image of that as well.

November 14, 2010

Two into One

Two Into One

“Whatever the thing, it is always a case of dividing one into two and not combining two into one”
-Qi Zhen Hai

For the past week, I have been preparing documents for an application which entails telling a life story in art and publications. These documents span just over twenty-five years - a quarter of a century! Despite aching muscles from hovering over paper cutters, desktops, and photocopy machines it has been a humbling overview thus far. Yes, I had done a lot of work, but I wish I had done more, done better and organized it all more efficiently.

What has been particularly interesting this past week was the occasion to review very early exhibitions. Had I known twenty-five years earlier that I would be called upon to provide documents of these events I would have been a more diligent archivist. The original invitations and documents from some of these early exhibitions long lost or discarded, I’ve been filling in the blanks by retrieving images from these bygone eras and putting them together in a presentable format with the help of my sister’s superior graphic design skills.

The first replaced piece of history concerns the very first one-woman exhibition I had in the United States. A naive newcomer to the art scene in America, I had no clue as to how a gallery or museum should be approached a gallery about exhibiting a body of work. So my first exhibition was at a dance studio - the Aparri School of Dance in Princeton, New Jersey in 1985 to be exact. I had not even included this exhibition on my resume, but I am now rethinking this documentation because in recent years I’ve been working more frequently with dancers. Now this early liaison makes for a more cohesive narrative.

Mila Gibbons, the director of the Aparri School of Dance passed away a number of years ago and her lively school is no longer in operation.. Madam Gibbons was a fascinating international character and a fluent speaker of French and German. She was old Princeton. Someone who might best be described as a Princeton Brahmin, if such a term even exists. Madam Gibbons had an old-fashioned Victorian sense of propriety that in retrospect was rather quaint. She could meet you for a weekly tea over the period of, say, about a decade, without ever even alluding to previous marriages or unhappy family relationships. Madam Gibbons carried herself with the deportment of a dancer, gliding through a room with consummate posture and head held high. I never saw her in a state that was not well-groomed, well coiffed, and impeccably dressed. This venerable matron could be described as my first mentor in the world of art exhibitions.

And what a pleasant exhibition it was. It provided me with the experience of putting together a body of work for an American audience and some cash in my pocket for my relocation to Europe.
What I would give to have that hand-lettered invitation!

Fortunately, I do have pictorial records of the work from that time. Perhaps the most intriguing examples of paintings from that show was the series of works on paper called collectively “Two into One.” These paintings were completed in China shortly before my husband and I left the country to teach in Holland. I had not put them onto silk scrolls like my more traditional brush paintings and had neither the time nor inclination to frame them. My father came up with the ingenious idea of creating an installation for them made out of four tall wooden doors affixed to one another to form a pillar. This stood in the middle of the Dance floor with the leaves of “Two into One” pinned to it.

The paintings of “Two into One” were executed with inks and watercolors onto thin, transparent cafe-au-lait colored rag paper. The paper was created in Hebei province, China and had a deliciously warm cotton blanket like softness. The Beijing Art Academy professor Li Xiao Wen taught me how to use these homemade papers in 1984-1985. With a judicious use of inks and pigments, professor Li was able to create effects on this paper that looked similar to batik. The secret was to paint on both sides of the paper. Professor Li showed me some of his own paintings with lines and highlights on one side of the paper with darker inks and pigments washed onto the obverse side. The effect was that the darker pigments would seep through the fibers of the paper and react with the lighter pigments on the other side to create a crenulated look. I used a variation on this technique to create the paintings I have shown examples of here.

My “Two into One” series of paintings raised some eyebrows in China. It perhaps took some nerve to call the group by a title that had a volatile history. On one thematic level, they were simply naive and childlike depictions. I painted them thinking of the colors and shapes of children’s wooden building blocks. They were for the most part about adult relationships, however. To be specific they represented conditions of war, love, study, worship, commerce, play, meditation, and dance. In addition to the paintings, I carved a series of small stones with comparable images that I printed onto the page below the paintings. A fellow ex-patriot further embellished these with some lovely poetry.

One reason that there was some consternation about this little series of figurative paintings in Beijing was because the heads were floating above the bodies. The second reason had to do with the descriptive phrase “Two into One.” This phrase had a significance with regard to the Cultural Revolution that China in the 1980's was still coming to terms with. During the late sixties the subject of whether “One Becomes Two” or “Two Becomes One” was hotly debated. To a western person, the fact that people were persecuted and may even have lost their lives over what appeared to be a circular argument that would enervate even the most stalwart Sophist, seems a tragic waste. But at the time it was serious business. To oversimplify, “One Becomes Two” was a code for the dialectic philosophy of Marxism while “Two Becomes One” could allude to western style capitalism.

The paintings of “Two into One” were executed in a style that was very different from the one I came to China to learn. Towards the end of my tenure there I think that a western aesthetic began to reassert itself and these paintings were like a Chinese tale told in translation on the road back west. The only time they were exhibited in the United States was through the gracious support of Mila Gibbons at the Aparri School of Dance so long ago. The collection has since been dispersed - sold, traded or given away. In seeing them again I wonder if they were two into one or one into two? Were these figures defined by their enclosures or was the space defined by their dual actions? At least it does no harm to wonder.

November 9, 2010

The Progress of Subclinical Harpies

For a recent article about my mosaic work, I was asked to submit some images of a “work-in-progress.” The author, JoAnn Locktov, was such a thorough and engaging interviewer I was happy to oblige her with this. I turned my attention to my unfinished mosaic made from broken plates, a broken ocarina and various manufactured as well as found pieces. After adhering the central pieces with thinset mortar on to the base, I judiciously placed the other pieces loosely around those to indicate a process of thinking about where they might be cemented. It was the first time I had been asked to send out images of a work in progress and I have to confess it was a little difficult to decide just how unfinished it should be. Too unfinished and it would look confusing to people. Too complete and it would not have educational merit with regard to process. But after reaching what I determined was a mean between these two, I photographed the piece and sent it off to my on-line publishing friends.

It was good that I sent the photos off when I did because as any mosaicist knows, it can sometimes be difficult to actually stop working abruptly on a mosaic. While making this “work in progress” I found that as I progressed a little more, then a little more hour by hour the piece was rapidly approaching completion. And in fact, I did bring the project to completion just shortly after I sent off the documentation of the unfinished work. Ironically, the “work in progress” photos were never published but the finished work was. And since I can not undue physically what is now finished I will instead tell a story about the progress of this mosaic.

The mosaic pictured above is called “Subclinical Harpies,” so named for a poem from one of my now voluminous unpublished manuscripts. It is a mosaic that began, progressed and was completed from a series of accidents and surprises.

The first step towards this mosaic began with a surprise visit from a friend. G had a way of turning up unannounced, which miraculously always seemed to work out because I never had pressing deadlines at the time. So one fine autumn day last year while I was doing some mundane task and waiting for the phone to ring with promises of remunerative work, she came sauntering up the path to my back door. We fell into conversation straight away as if it had not been about a year since we last spoke in person. We had tea and snacks and got caught up with each other’s social and work lives. I confessed that the Great Recession had slowed down my teaching gigs considerably as well as my commissions. But I was proud to also show G that the downturn had some unexpected benefits. The newer, slower pace afforded me the time to experiment with new designs and products. My development of one of a kind musical instruments arose out of the down time. I showed G one of my favorite ocarinas - one with a shape like a partridge wing with coral, pink, light green, ivory colors interspersed with silver gold enameling and mother-of-pearl. But when I handed this lovely instrument to G it slipped from my hands and fell crashing to the floor. Instantly, as all good friends are apt to do, G “apologized” profusely for having somehow mysteriously “caused” the accident. I assured her that it was entirely my own clumsiness and after an awkward pause I picked up the pieces. The ocarina had split along its length cleanly into two pieces. The perennial optimist G, suggested that I consider this little accident as an omen and admonition from a higher power that this ocarina split in two was destined for bigger and better projects. I looked at the two halves carefully and saw that they looked bird-like. I had been wanting to make relief sculptures of harpies I told G, and these would form the base. And as G had inspired more than one above average art project, I felted compelled not to disappoint with the pink harpies.

Several months later I did create female heads and feet to make harpies out of these forms. It took several months, of course, because I had to wait until I had the time and interest to make enough other small items to fill a kiln with. They also required two stages of firing; one for the underglaze and another for the overglaze gilding and enameling.

After the harpies were complete I cemented them to a wedi-board base with thin-set mortar. I also created a frame of ceramic bull-nose tiles painted with the same pink and ivory colors found in the ocarina halves turned harpy bodies. A series of fortunate accidents brought more items into “Subclinical Harpies.” My husband obliged me by letting one of his mother’s ivory Wedgewood plates slip from his hands. The pieces were made into an arch above the harpies. The arms from a broken porcelain doll became the harpies histrionic gesturing appendages. A friend supplied me with a broken plate hand painted with violet and green grapes. It formed the arbor around the arch and the grapes emanating from the ceramic wine glasses on either side of the harpies. I gave the harpies hand made tiles replete with words in ancient Chinese to rest upon. The harpy on the left stands on a tile tilted to the side which reads “Life from a swamp,” and the one on the right rests upon the tile that says “In all the world there is no other.”

As with most of my mosaic work, as the material progress continued, a theme developed as well. The themes that grew from the work were about illusions, accidents, fragmentation and a peculiar reference to chemical paradise in the form of alcohol. On this last reference I had another tool in my arsenal. When I had accidentally broken a tooth and required oral surgery I was given post operative hydrocodone tablets. My post operative pain only required using one of them so I had a whole bottle of these unused tablets. They were a vibrant pink and although I knew that most of this color would be washed away by the grouting process I decided to incorporate the pills as tesserae in the mosaic. I had some compunctions about doing so. Would the message be too offensive to some people? Would addicts try to dig the pills out of the mosaic should it be hung in a public place? And what if I fell off a stool - breaking my foot and ending up waiting several hours in an emergency room with no respite scolding myself for not having saved at least one tablet of pain medication for such an event? Strange how such little objects used for purposes they were not intended for can cause such thoughts to fly. But use them I did although most of the dye was washed out with the grouting.

So that is how a work in progress quickly turned into a finished work. And since these days it appears to be unpopular to be seen as being too progressive, finishing unfinished work is perhaps for the best.