Saturday, May 14, 2011

Every Fiber of My Being

by Betty Vera
photo courtesy of The Memorial Art Gallery

In the auditorium at The Memorial Art Gallery, Jeanne Raffer Beck ended her evening lecture on May 12th with a quote from the choreographer Martha Graham.  "Keep the channel open", wrote Graham, and it is appropriate to mention that when you visit exhibitions like the Fiber Art International now on view at The Memorial Art Gallery your idea of what fiber art actually is will be seriously updated.  Jeanne Beck commented that she was "trying to not make her work look too pretty", but this does not stress the aesthetic sense she brings to her art which is driven by texture and mark making with thread.

Fiber art is more than just weaving of course, but weaving itself is given a major boost in the art of Betty Vera.  Weaving is an ancient form of digital art:  it works on a grid ( the warp and weft ) and it can be layered.  Betty Vera was trained as a painter, but now employs a digital loom to weave images that appear like textured photographs - her art is all about light.  At the MAG, Betty Vera won an award for "Gesture" ( see above ) which is a racy blue mixture of cotton and rayon and the complex patterning is an achievement in Jacquard damask.  This was the same technique that appeared in two similar works on view recently at The Rochester Contemporary Art Center.

Computer guided looms manage intricate patterns, and we have seen the influx of this in some of the clothes we wear.  Once patterns were strictly geometric ( to go along with the warp and weft ), but now a pattern could be anything.  I enjoyed "Funny Face" a digital inkjet print on silk satin hanging as a pair in the gallery by artist Hitoshi Ujiie.  "5 Generations of Virtue" by Lisa Lee Peterson, also has this photographic look in her woven panels whose focus is on Asian women and their costumes.

Alighiero Boetti, a member of the Arte Povera movement in Italy created many woven works before his death in 1994.  Often these woven "paintings" included maps and letters of the alphabet, and this might have been the inspiration for a large colorful creation called "Reconstruction" by the Japanese artist Mami Idei.  The visual legacy of ideas and how they travel could be the subtext of the Fiber Art International exhibition.  Another example of this would be the delicate batik created for "Kimono Windy" by the German artist Maria Schade.  Are those goldfish or fallen leaves in a pond?

Given the events in the world, it is not surprising that the human condition is evoked by award winning art such as Erin Endicott's "Healing Sutra" ( Best in Show ).  This delicate work of embroidery looks like a diagram of a heart attack, and it finds correlations to other human forms in the exhibit - most notably the use of x-rays in the "Humanoids" which hang in the main gallery by French artist Brigitte Amarger.

When fiber art becomes truly three dimensional and begins to occupy our space the sculptural impact can be very powerful as with Stephanie Metz's felt work "Muscle Heifer".  I also found myself mesmerized by the knotting in Joh Ricci's "Indian Summer" which looks like peas in a pod - and also Rebecca Siemering's suit of clothes "American Made".

Jeanne Beck opened her talk at the Memorial Art Gallery by reciting the parable of the blind men in India describing what they thought an elephant must be like.  One blind man hugged the animal's leg and said that an elephant must be like a cylinder, another had the tail and said no - the elephant was like a rope, finally another put his hands on the elephants belly - and said it was like a wall.  "Trying to describe art is like that", said Jeanne Beck, it all depends on your perspective.  The trick is to keep the channels open.

"Seeds of Compassion" 2008
Jeanne Raffer Beck
photo courtesy of The Memorial Art Gallery

Sunday, May 1, 2011

360/365 and 50

Oh, the associations one can bring to the viewing of art does lead down some unique paths.  At the 360/365 George Eastman House Film Festival we saw Julie Taymor receive her Susan B. Anthony Award and we heard the gracious comments from Garth Fagan about Ms. Taymor's vision and work ethic.  Then we get to see Helen Mirren star as Prospera in an adaptation of Shakespeare's "The Tempest".  As the film opens, Mirren raises her staff - and on a distant stormy sea great waves hit a foundering boat, thus setting the scene for marvelous storytelling and poetic alchemy.  I couldn't help thinking that Taymor has the eyes of a painter like Joseph Mallord William Turner (think of his "SlaveShip" of 1840, oil on canvas), and in fact the sprite Ariel, in this film version of "The Tempest", is a change agent - who has powers not unlike that of a great artist.

The following day we look in on the introduction of C.Scott's documentary film "The Woodmans"; and stay for the presentation of Francesca Woodman's photos, the testament of her parents - Betty and George, and the episodes that follow leading up to a tragic ending.  The epilogue for this family of artists highlights how vulnerable we are, and how we struggle to deal with mental distress.  George's artwork changed as a result, from pattern painting to a photographic art that has eerie similarities to his deceased daughter's ouevre. Betty's ceramics get bigger and bolder, and yet she appears not willing to address on camera issues of guilt and regret about her daughter's illness.

Betty Woodman goes on to have major exhibitions at MOMA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and then off to Beijing to add her art to the new American Embassy being built there.  But the art of their daughter seems to transcend this all - and hold in it some core of enigma, and elusive personality.

Demuth "The Figure 5 in Gold"
courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

Bill Santelli " 5-0 in Gold"
courtesy Oxford Gallery, Inc.

We are left in a retrospective mood bolstered by the fact that this is the 50th Anniversary of the founding of the Oxford Gallery in Rochester, celebrated by the opening of a spring exhibition honoring many of the participants past and present.

I was aware of the reputation of the Oxford Gallery way before I ever set foot there.  Artists who I knew in New York City like Morton Kaish were represented by the Oxford Gallery, and an artist and printmaker - Zevi Blum (I was his graduate assistant at Cornell in the 1970's) had many shows at Oxford.  What is the Oxford Gallery known for, and why has it had such endurance over the years?  First, over all there is enlightened management, a passion for the art it shows with remarkable consistency, and a deep respect for the traditional craft of image making.  The Oxford Gallery offers mainly representational art for the wall and some noteworthy sculpture featuring artists from central and western New York.

When you walk downstairs and visit the Oxford Gallery you are immediately ushered into the gallery space by Jim Hall, the present owner.  At a distance one sees what looks like Charles Demuth's "The Figure 5 in Gold", now updated by Bill Santelli to commemorate 50 years in business; the painting is clever and eye catching.  Demuth made the original in 1928 in response to his friend, the poet William Carlos Williams, in a momentary observation of a ruckus caused by a passing fire truck.

Observation is crucial to the artists at the Oxford Gallery show, so many of the works succeed ( or fail ) at holding your attention - by either presenting you with something commonplace that is beautifully rendered such as the tree in Phil Bornarth's "Wadsworth Oak", or the still life by David Dorsey "Flowers From Another Year", or else giving you something entirely new like Jacquie Germanow's sculpture "Lacuna" .

History was written on the walls and this 50th birthday for the gallery includes a recent find "The Centennial" -by Lilly Martin Spencer, an American painter ( 1822-1902) of genre scenes known primarily here in Rochester for her work "Peeling Onions" usually on view at the MAG.  "The Centennial" is a large unfinished canvas depicting age and youth at a party; it was found on the artist's easel at the time of her death.

On the elegiac note one must acknowledge the passing of Nancy Buckett also a former owner and director of the Oxford Gallery who died earlier this month, and the aforementioned Zevi Blum whose print hangs in the entry vestibule.  Both were friends and a part of the fabric of the visual arts scene and they will be missed.

Wishing the Oxford Gallery well for all the support that has been given to the artists whose vision is celebrated with this and what one hopes will be many exhibitions to come.  Go and enjoy the show.