Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Art of Critiquing

I've been asked recently about critiquing work and thought I'd revisit and revise a blog I wrote on this topic several years ago (yes it's really been that long!  I was nobbut a chahld!!).


I had been reading a very interesting book about the formal art critique: The Critique Handbook by Kendall Buster and Paula Crawford. Kendall Buster is a sculptor who works with airy forms – fabric stretched over wire frameworks, often in circular shapes. Paula Crawford is a painter of airy abstract landscapes and skyscapes. Their book is an expensive paperback but it is densely written with lots of ideas and a heap of fascinating questions – in fact nearly the whole book is questions. It makes you think all around the art work you’re examining, from every literal and abstract angle. The authors talk about a critique as going through several steps beginning with an assessment of form vs content.

Form is defined as the particular elements: the lines, shapes, values, colours and textures that the artist chose for a piece plus the design principles: how well those elements balance and harmonise, how much variety and tension is included; whether there are rhythms and repetitions is evident, how well the viewer is led around the piece to examine each part, how well the whole piece is balanced, and whether the proportions of the elements are in keeping with one another. It’s also very important to judge how well crafted the piece is and the material from which it is made. Buster and Crawford define form as “the means by which one gives substance to an idea”.

I’ve noticed that when I entered quilts into shows where you are sent a copy of the judges’ comments, the comments focus on certain aspects of form, particularly craftsmanship, colour and balance. I’ve often felt that the comments address only a very narrow slice of all that goes into an art quilt – with more focus on form than on content. I don’t know why that is – perhaps it’s a matter mainly of time, and also a continuation of judging methods from traditional quilt judging.
Such a critique obviously addresses only formal considerations, but not all art quilts are mainly formalist in nature. Clearly, the more abstract pieces, in the tradition of Nancy Crow’s or Jan Myers Newbury’s wonderful quilts, are principally formalist.  The formalists would maintain that the “aesthetic value” of the piece is based on how sound the formal qualities are. And that is how it should be judged. A work of art can be purely about its own formal qualities, representative of nothing but itself.

Many quilts are more focussed on content than form, however. Content is very interesting when it's not too obvious.   I recently read the juror's statement from the current fiber show at the Fuller Museum in Brockton MA and photographed it because I thought the message was both intriguing and telling:


In the newsletter about the Fuller show (which, alas, I gave away!) Dion continued by saying that if he could see and understand all there was to understand about the art work from a quick glance at the photograph, then he felt it was not strong enough to be in the show. He wanted to be intrigued, he wanted to feel like the piece had more to offer than a snapshot could ever show.

If we're attempting to evaluate an art quilt where content is evident, or implied, our critique of the denoted content would assess how successfully these images are denoted but also just how much the viewer was engaged by this process.  For, beneath the obvious denoted content, lies the connoted content. For example, my recent series of quilts are pictures of industrial buildings – that’s the content. But the way I have portrayed them is to communicate how I felt about seeing those buildings, and similar buildings of that type. There’s a certain sinister beauty to buildings like these, there’s a push pull – we want the steel, but do we want the pollution; we want the jobs and the income but do we want the destruction of the environment – not a living plant is evident anywhere. I hope by my contrasting the natural element of water with the unnatural shapes of the buildings I have conveyed some of that intent.

Sometimes it’s the title of a piece that gives a clue to the connotations the maker had in mind.
I’ve made a number of quilts that denote old buildings, or sections of old buildings, but at the same time I’ve used those images to express some ideas that are troubling to me.

So my quilt “Brighter at the Top”, is actually a picture of the golden end of the day catching the chimney tops, but also alludes to the contrast between the view from the top, and the actuality at the bottom.
The piece called “The Affluent Drainpipe” showing the fancy guttering on an old building but also alludes to some of the waste of resources seen in more affluent communities.  

In evaluating a purely abstract quilt (sometimes called non-representational), therefore, one would rely largely on its formal qualities.  Possibly,  in abstract expressionist work, you would also consider the emotions created in you by the piece.  Of course, I think that is true of all art work - what is our gut reaction?  where does that fit into the judging process?  And I'm sure it does!! Despite what jurors say about being objective, and being able to assess all work whether they like that type of work or not.  We are human beings, it is impossible for us to think with only One part of our brains!! You might be able to do that with a computer or a robot, but not with a human!  In fact psychological studies have shown that we judge less harshly those things - or people - whose appearance we like. 

In judging a quilt that was not purely abstract, one would be looking both at its formal qualities and also how well the meaning was communicated.  And this should be subtle...and draw you in....and keep you, engage you in the process.  Not be "blindingly obvious" at first look, but also not be so obscure and muddled as to lead the juror only to confusion and frustration.   Not an easy task!

And now to critique that half finished piece on the design wall......maybe best done with a cuppa tea now I think about it...
and, if you have been, thanks for reading!   And Commenting!!!!   Elizabeth

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Original? Or Derivative? When is a Clone not a Clone?


What is original work?
How does “inspired by” become original”?
How d’you keep your work from being derivative?

Interesting questions, and clearly on many peoples’ minds – for two reasons:
  1. we’ve seen a LOT of clones, let’s face it!!
  2. Most big shows and jurors say they are looking for “original” work.

As time goes on it seems to be harder and harder to make something that no one has seen before…to write something new, to find a problem that no one else has investigated (as many a graduate student knows!)…
But wait! Each one of us is unique, not only are our fingerprints, our irises and our ear folds unlike anyone else’s – our way of walking is very distinctive, our handwriting, our voice patterns.  This is our individuality showing through.

An original work is original in two ways:
  1. It looks fresh and new, it gives you a different perspective on something, a new idea.
  2. It is very distinctive to the individual who made it.
I used to carry 6” squares of navy linen with me when travelling  and needles threaded with strands of embroidery floss (white) – every one I stayed with I asked to stitch something on the square.
 What shall I stitch?
 Anything.
 What if I’ve never stitched before?
 Just remember to go up and down on the same side and you’ll be all right.

At the end of the trip I looked at the squares – they were all different, not only that but they all had some characteristics of the maker. I controlled only 2 variables: the size and color of the cloth, and the color and thickness of the thread.
Their individuality came through.  You can do this! Try it! Set a few constants: size of piece, amount of fabric etc…choose things you really like! 

The best way to find your own original voice is by “singing”!!  You won’t find it by thinking about it – even though, as you know, I’m a great lover of cogitation.

Don’t go to any workshop where the teacher is teaching a specific pattern – if you want to do something original and different from everyone else.  If all around you are making the same thing, you’re in the wrong place!! (as Kipling would have said....)

How d’you recognize what is original?  Set yourself a test – open any catalogue from a high quality art quilt show and find the 3 most individual and original pieces and the 3 most derivative ones.  Then sit down and Analyze.  Some of the things you might come up with are:
 I’ve never seen this before vs. I’ve seen this 100 times.
This looks like X’s work vs this doesn’t look like any work I’ve seen.
Or even:
This looks like Xs work…but no, on closer examination, the artist has done something quite different: they’ve taken X’s starting point and gone beyond.
I really like this idea, it's so intriguing and I want to see more...

Think about mystery/crime novels – I know many of us enjoy these!!  Think about the ones that are the most interesting versus the ones you know to be pot boilers – i.e. written to a formula.   The latter are predictable, the characters are wooden, they talk in clichés (I’m allergic to clichés!) and so on.  Now, back to your art work: have you solved a problem in a predictable way?  Is your sky blue, your grass green and your tree trunks brown?  It’s probably be done before!! Have you taken a small unit that is very like a Big Name's unit and done all the usual things with it that the Big Name did 10 years ago?  If you really like that unit – then set yourself the task of coming up with 50 more things you can do with it that the Big Name never even thought of!!

Originality comes from going beyond the predictable, coming up with a new way of looking at flowers, or puppy dogs…or babies.   Remember those photographs of babies all covered in flowers that appeared a few years ago?  How fresh and new they were when we first saw them? 
Are they still as fresh and new? 

Look at combinations ….see which things are often combined…and change it!
Maybe the good guy is the ugly one we all dislike and the baddie is the charmer!

A famous writer I once met told us he looked through the newspapers every day and collected strange little stories that he could later use as a kernel for his plots.  Just a few lines of somebody's odd behaviour would set him to thinking.  Keep your eyes open for strange little visual stories as you go about your daily life.  How could they be expanded into an art piece?

I'm sure there is LOTS more to be said on this topic - so please do send me your thoughts.....
I'll keep on cogitating!
And, if you have been, thanks for reading!   Elizabeth


Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Abstraction? Representation? The truth? or not.......




A few weeks ago I was teaching a workshop in Oregon and asked the students in the class to give me some topics for my blog – sometimes the pump does need priming!  Well they came up with several ideas upon which I will gradually cogitate…and record herewith my various cogitations!

One question took my eye:  “is it okay to be somewhat representational?  How abstract does “abstract” have to be?

There is no clear cut single definition of abstract art – the term can mean anything from totally non-objective, derived from a mathematical formula, to simply abstracting a section of a scene (whether it be figurative, landscape or still life) and manipulating the shapes and lines and values to create a great design.  Many painters (including Picasso) have pointed out that in a sense all art is abstract since it’s not “the real thing” – except, I suppose, Duchamp’s “Fountain” which, of course, wasn’t ….
Here is the link to the image:
 in case you don’t know the piece.  I do wish it were okay to just show the image on the blog…but some of these places are fussy and litigious these days that even an image that is being used in a totally educative “fair use” way can now suddenly lead to an invoice.  And of course it’s NOT the original artist that would get the loot, but rather the photographer of the art work – or, even more likely, the agency that bought up the rights to the photographs!  But I don’t want to get into ranting!!

Many painters and psychologists have also pointed out that while probably have rearranged and modified (from the original) any visual images that we create, they have actually come from somewhere.  Everything is inspired by something – the images we put together may come from a movie we saw last night, or from a book we read as a child but there is always a starting point. 


So abstract doesn’t have to be all that abstract to be abstract – or abstracted from.  Like fashion nowadays or rather, the lack thereof anywhere away from a fashion center like NYC(!), anything goes!

But the question also implies that maybe representational art is no longer acceptable…..
And that is a valid possibility.  I would say that while the public at large has always preferred to buy (more or less) representational art for a domestic setting, the critics and the curators do seem to swing from Abstract being in and Representational out to the other way round – like those old weather indicators with little people that came in and out according to whether it would be fair or not – you couldn’t have them both at the same time.     Abstract art has had a huge revival in the last few years starting with a big retrospective at MOMA in NYC a couple of years ago and a more recent exhibition a year ago called Inventing Abstraction 1910-1925 about which they wrote:
In 1912, in several European cities, a handful of artists—Vasily Kandinsky, Frantisek Kupka, Francis Picabia, and Robert Delaunay—presented the first abstract pictures to the public. [This show] celebrates the centennial of this bold new type of artwork, tracing the development of abstraction as it moved through a network of modern artists, from Marsden Hartley and Marcel Duchamp to Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich, sweeping across nations and across media.”

It’s always been okay to produce representational art, since abstraction was “invented” it too has continued to be popular and re-invented with several different “movements” over and over.    With exhibitions like those at MOMA and many other museums, we’re now at a place where we can begin to asses which abstract pieces will stand the test of time and which will be more stepping stones in the development of the art form.

Within the quilt world, of course, abstract was always “in” – especially with pieced work. Since the 1980s there has been a huge resurgence of quilting and many people begin their quilting careers with traditional pieced patterns and then move onto create their own patterns and images.  I think the advent of fusing techniques has really encouraged much more representational work.  Fusing makes  representational work much easier – it’s very difficult to be very representational with piecing unless one really fractures the image to a very complicated extent and, in a way, those images are then more abstracted anyway.

I do think there seems to be something of a dichotomy right now in the quilt world as to styles and not between traditional and art quilts but rather it’s a dichotomy over technique:  there is one school of people who feel that only piecing is truly acceptable (and it’s easier to piece abstract work than it is to piece representational work).  They feel that fusing techniques should probably be considered as fiber collage rather than quilting and they definitely look down their noses at representational work!  Other quilters feel that any techniques that involve putting together pieces of fabric in any way together with some stitching qualify that work as a quilt.      And if you get jurors or curators that do have a strong bias one way or the other, obviously the show they put together will reflect that.

I am much more of a mind with Ellington who said that there are only two kinds of music: good music, and the rest.  If the piece is strong and beautiful and worthy of being looked at and made of fiber then it’s good quilt art , if it’s a boring or ugly mess – then it’s not.

And another good quote which is very apposite to this blog - this time from Matisse::
“Never ruin a good [piece of art] with the truth.”

Please do weigh in with your comments!!!  All comments are delightfully beheld by this blogger!   And, if you have been, thanks for reading!  Elizabeth

And now for a nice cuppa tea……

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Don’t get your Ps and Es mixed up with your Ps and Qs!



 You know how everyone these days talks about the “Ps&Es” of design?
…..though they do sometimes get them mixed up!!   The Ps and Es are not the same as the Ps and Qs of etiquette!!   The Es are actually just the elements of design – in the same way that hydrogen and oxygen are the basic building blocks of water.  Design elements are the “things” from which the design is made viz: value, color, texture, line and shape. In quilting terms these would come down to small pieces of fabric of different solid or patterned colors, some dark, some medium, some light and the quilting stitches.  That’s what we have to work with: fabric and stitches.  Pretty straight forward.



Ah, but what about the Ps…the “principles”….which are, by the way, guidelines not rules.    Well, classically these are said to be: unity, variety, rhythm, balance and economy..however I’ve been thinking -  nay -  cogitating!  I feel that these are merely the techniques one uses, not the final result one wishes to achieve, and definitely not what the Art Must Be.  The  Most Important characteristics that one would hope for in an art work (no matter the medium) are in fact the following:

• That it catches your eye, that you SEE it and want to LOOK at it….(or hear it, or taste it, or feel it…). Even the cave paintings at Lascaux done over 17 thousand years ago were done for someone to SEE.
“[Art] should call out to the viewer…and the surprised viewer should go to it, as if entering a conversation” .
(Roger de Piles, Cours de Peintre Par Principles, 1676).

  That it has great beauty (which could be a “terrible beauty” as in Geurnica, Picasso’s painting about the horror of war).
  When I think of art, I think of beauty.  Beauty is the mystery of life. It is not in the eye, it is in the mind. In our minds there is awareness of perfection”.
Agnes Martin

  That it lasts – you can look at it every day and still get something from it.
This is probably the toughest to assess but I find that if I sew quite a few quilt tops, and don’t immediately baste and quilt them, but instead put them away in the cupboard for a few months, then when I get them out I can judge them better.   Or I’ll hang the piece up in the living room where I will see it every day – if I’m sick of it after a week – I’ve got my answer!

Is there anything else d’you think?  We want to see it, we must look at it, we can’t not look at it – it is totally wondrous and transformative…and we could see it very day and still love it.
Let me know if you think anything should be added to this…..
And, if you have been, thanks for reading!
Elizabeth


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Questions one is asked......

Ellen Lindner asked me to answer the following:

1. What am I working on?
2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?
3. Why do I write/create what I do?
4. How does my writing/creating process work?



Yikes!! ... 3 volumes later....


but here is the short answer:


After a year of travelling - seeing amazing places - I'm  mentally consolidating all I've seen...absorbing the images and seeing which ones "hold" for me. 
 Most of my quilts (even the abstract ones)  have been based on very early photographs:

Here's a typical sequence: the photo, the drawing, the quilt.

 I'm not going to tell you just how long ago I took that photograph!!  But it's in York, UK...not too far from the Kirk Museum (if it's still called that!) - a street close to the bar walls behind the museum.  I remembered the photo not only for the moment (apparently he'd never permitted a photograph before but I caught him unawares) but also the juxtaposition of boy, bicycle and old streets.

 Here's part of the drawing I made - I think there was more - but these things disappear!!

 And above is the finished quilt.  A typical process for me.    The boy is ghostly because of course he's long gone, the streets remain the same.....and glow with the freshness of sweet old memory.


It takes time for images to sink in:  I don't really know why this should be but I think it's, in part, because the younger you are the more impressionable you are...it gets harder and harder (but of course even more important for an artist) to achieve those same fresh responses, the strong reactions, and also to lay down significant memories that stay with you for years.   At age six I could lie on the warm paving stones underneath the rose bushes in the local park and just watch the petals against the sky and smell the marvelous scent of the flowers....alas,  that's not really possible now!!!  imagine!! 
Also, the old city streets I made quilts about I walked every day for around 14 years...now that's a significant amount of time:  almost 5000 days...I've not been able to spend 5000 days looking at Paris, or Western Colorado or the loess hills of SE Washington...to name just a few of the gorgeous sceneries I've been privileged to visit this year.    But I do have the photographs, and the mental images and I am cogitating.......


So, if you have been - thanks for reading!!  Elizabeth ........  now back to the cogitation!


PS you can read Ellen's responses to her own questions on her blog. 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

...and yet another class...


with some very talented ladies in Grand Forks - and the best laughers of any group I've come across!!
As a teacher, it's lovely when people listen attentively to information, but even better when they laugh  uproariously at one's jokes - such as they are!!!

We spent a couple of days on designing, then one day on completeling value sketches and choosing color schemes...and finally into the sewing...
Here are some of their designs:











What's lovely is how varied they are....nobody's looks like anyone else's at all...and each person can use the construction method with which they are most familiar to create the quilt.  I do think that the type of construction method you use should be something you're good at...and that the design should come first, and the method of construction second.  Also the quilting pattern should be subservient to the design, rather than a totally irrelevant display of quilting virtuosity!!!
I also like art to Mean Something...to be something that is important and meaningful to the artist - doesn't matter if it's abstract, impressionistic, realistic, hyperrealistic...but it should have the Artist's heart and mind and hand within it.

Here's an image from Grand Forks that I think would make a great watercolor!!!  And I'll always remember standing on the spot from which I took this photo with the mild October breeze, the warmth of the sun...and the laughter of all those lovely ladies!!!



And now up to the little quilt museum at La Conner, WA.  I had a show there last year but, alas, could not attend...however it will be much more interesting to see someone else's show!!!

If you have been, thanks for reading.........Elizabeth

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

On the Road...


One of the great things about teaching quilt workshops is all the amazing places you get to visit and the people you enjoy meeting.
This week I'm in Sisters, Oregon.
 It is an old forestry town now converted to a tourist place...very pretty with lovely hanging baskets of purple petunias, and lots of pretty plantings alongside the Western style shops.  The Sisters in question are three mountains part of the Cascade chain - which can be seen in the distance from the edge of town..within the town we're deep in pine woods.

I took the photo on the left on the way to breakfast this morning!!





And here's me teaching.....


I only hope the solemn look on the ladies is concentration and not despair!!!  They worked really hard and produced some super designs...I set the parameters tightly at first emphasizing major important points in creating strong composition - like unity with variety - and then gradually broaden the variables.
Here are a few of their designs:














I think there's a good chance at least one of them will find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow:


If you have been - thanks for reading!!!  and please do make comments...also I'd be very interested in any topics you might suggest for the blog...  thank you!!  Elizabeth