Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A refreshing break or how to hide your sins in fluff

Sometimes you just have to do something mindless!  No concept at all, just cut the squares and sew them together and hand over the finished piece to the grateful recipient.

I’ve always liked the idea of recycling, and there is a horrible waste in my normal production methods which involve dyeing or screen printing  yards of  fabric most of which is discarded in the compositional process.  So for once I’ve used old, reclaimed, much loved and worn fabric wrenched from the arms and overflowing closets of the previous owner!  Plus, I must admit, a little polartec for warmth – that stuff sews so nicely  I might just switch to using it for all future work! Ah to hide my sins in brightly colored synthetic fluff!



And below, the critical acclaim is exceeding positive!  Would that it were always so!                                      






nov 2010 clare with tshirt q




And now, back to the angst ridden “real” (or is it?) work of the art quilt maker….










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

Friday, November 26, 2010

It’s all in the stirring!

cityofmists 72 pixels
I’ve seen some discussions recently as to whether abstract  quilts are better than representational and vice versa, or whether “sweet” subject matter is less effective than “sour” but I think such categories are important only to quilt organizations or curators setting out rules for a particular show they wish to exhibit.  The Real Truth (ta dah!) is not what image or style you choose  for your quilt but how well you do it.  It’s all in the mixing and the stirring, the attention to measures (and i don’t mean 1/4” seams, I mean proportions of this colour to that etc)  and the gentle baking – just enough, not too much and not underdone.  I’ve seen both!
The challenge with an abstract quilt, I think, is to make it interesting.  If it can all be seen and understood at one go, then it’s not worth a second glance.  There has to be some tension, something more to look at.  This was why the African American quilts we first saw were so strong: they weren’t as predictable, everything didn’t match up and that caught our attention.   We are hardwired to notice the one element that is a little different from the others.  It’s a genius that takes something that on the face of it sounds extremely predictable but then just tweaks it a little to give you that little surprise or jump!  But clarting a piece up with beads (or the kitchen sink for that matter – I’m sure it’s been tried, they’ve stuck everything else onto a quilt!)  is not new, fresh and surprising!
However there’s a fine line (which has been crossed many times!) between predictability with a bit of a surprise and something that has so many unpredictable elements it’s a complete jumble.  That’s the “Let’s just slap it on and then add a few letters or words to try to resolve it” school of thought!!   It’s important to get the right balance between boring and confusing.
Abstract quilts also have a problem with having a fairly predictable formula.  People can be very tempted by being successful with their first quilt in the formula, but then when they have repeated that same formula over and over, with maybe minor variations, it really becomes deadly. There is no surprise and freshness at all, the life is squeezed out of the damned thing! 
And sadly, formulae that are obvious are easily “stolen” and copies made.  Copies are boring.  BUT, if the maker takes the idea and reworks it in a new and interesting way, adding their own ideas, flair and twist to the piece, then it pushes the idea forward.  We have seen many artists do that – right from the beginning.  Each taking something from the one that went before, adding to it, using it in a new way and moving forward.
Representational quilts appear to have other problems but perhaps there are more similarities than differences in the challenge.   Again it’s in how well it’s done that’s important.  We don’t want Stale!  And it’s a real challenge if you choose a subject like kittens or houses in snow with lamplight or cherry blossom to come up with something fresh and new.  It can be done, but it’s not easy and I think you would have to work through a lot of ideas before coming up with something interesting.  Cats, for example – look at * Edrica Huws’  “Cat on an Ironing board” – now that is one fearsome moggie!! “Inner tension, a hint of disorder being controlled” was the effect she so brilliantly aimed for and achieved.  And I defy anyone who would call this “easy”!    Not a quilt artist, but a painter, Elizabeth Blackadder also has made art about cats that are in no way sweet and soppy.  If you choose a subject that’s been represented a million times before, you need to come up with something special about it.  It’s like the good story teller – he may repeat the story many times, but each time there’s a new little detail, a nuance, something to make you hold your breath.
If you choose a subject that hasn’t been done, people may say – oh! barbecue pits! what could be interesting about them?  Or, toilets, or urinals – how can they be made worth looking at (although, didn’t somebody show us that? :))  Rauschenberg took a tire (how can that be art?) and a stuffed goat he found discarded  - who would think you could make art from that?  Or how could old factories or grey towns and dumpsters ever be made into something I would really want to observe and admire.  But, as we know, if it’s done well – they are.
So please, let’s stop condemning whole categories, but look closer and examine the work.  Is it done well? Does it give me a thrill?  Do I want to keep coming back to it to look at it again?  Is it satisfying to all my senses and delicately and perfectly Right?
If you have been, thanks for reading!  Elizabeth
and, oh yes, Comments much appreciated!  Especially those with a little “inner tension”!!  thank you.
* sadly I failed to embed the link to the u tube video clip; google on Edrica Huws then click on  the videao: edrica huws patchworks 2

Monday, November 22, 2010

We look for Real Criticism, but does it exist?

I’ve been looking around for good examples of art criticism lately since there seems to be a lack of it in the art quilt world. I’m beginning to feel that this deficit is not confined to quilts!  I read a review about the fibre work of artist Orly Genger recently.  She uses rope to crochet mats and amorphous shapes which are then stacked up or leant against the walls of the museum or gallery.  Two things obviously stood out in the reviewer's mind: the scale of the work, and the pain suffered by the artist in creating the work.  It’s both interesting and depressing that no other judgment was given of the value of the  work  other than a basic description of it. There was no (as far as I could see) evaluation of how this was art, or how it added to truth , discovery or beauty within the world, or what it might inspire in others.

This does seem to be a pattern in many of the art "reviews" I've perused recently.  They  focus mainly on a description of the work using words like zine and trope quite frequently (I'm always looking them up and then forgetting what they mean, perhaps I could find a way to incorporated them into my quotidian discourse (2 more favorites). 

Furthermore, when you do find what purport to be actual evaluations of work (other current artists, not Genger)  rather than just plain descriptions, they are extremely generic, being  limited to phrases like:   “her work is uneven”, and “the paintings are competent but uninspired”, the work “feels forced” although there are “witty details”.  You could apply these vague comments to many pieces in any quilt show, they’re so generic.    Here’s one I like: “uncannily pertinent”! Yes, I think I might apply that to some work I’ve seen!!  But, think about it, whenever was pertinence really uncanny? Arn’t they just taking any old adverb and attaching it to any old adjective?     The quilts of Ms Smith were so superbly arrogant in their witty loftiness.   And Mr. Brown’s pieces were seen “ at once to be unabashedly romantic and oddly remote” while at the same time displaying a competent wonder.  If that fails, then one should double up on the adverbs as in: “unexpectedly and unforgettably alien”.

Of course the descriptions could be like those of real estate.    One man’s paintings were described as “sumptuous” – presumably they were over large (or should I say expressionisticly mammoth?)  and  dripped with paint.   Another’s work was considered to be “affecting”.  Probably made you sneeze as you looked at them.   “Strikingly original” (yes another happy adverb adjective combination!) would suggest that as you gazed at the work boxing gloves came out on extending arms and jabbed you in the nose.

Some critics adopt a scatalogical pose (it’s not only little children who delight in this!): “they are exquisitely painted, dignified when they look like a phallus, and morbidly funny when they look like a pile of excrement”.  It really makes you want to rush to the gallery doesn’t it?! To laugh at a pile of shit?  What are we coming to?

And then there’s the Jane Austen school of critics who are much persuaded by the sensibility of the much admired work they view, as they generally accept the tropes of gentle irony.  Oops it’s getting to me.

It’s always good to mention metaphor if all else fails in trying to understand art (and we all know that it’s currently fashionable for artists to say “Oh the interpretation is whatever the viewer wants to make of it”) so you don’t even need to specify the actual metaphor.  Here’s  a phrase that could apply to a lot of work: “the metaphor is massive and crosses boundaries of time, taste, tragedy and stuff a housekeeper won’t touch”!!  though one could always make a guess.   And at the same time be sure to temper any phrase with  a useful “perhaps” as in: “Perhaps the picture represents a spirit rising above death’s reach, a mixed message both ominous and hopeful” – let’s be sure to fall squarely on each side of that one!  Especially  when one is “grappling with the human spirit’s transcendence of the flawed, mortal self”!!  Yes, these are real, and from different critics writing about different artists. I kid you not!

So back to the pain and the size… I was wondering if we might be able to get Art Quilts taken more seriously by the Real Art world (which of course is not in any way to be confused with the Real World!) if we just made our quilts immensely large and in the most painful way possible.  (And we already have the phrases as outlined above for the critical review!).

So how could the size be achieved and the pain more visible?   How can our work be expressively gigantic and painfully rendered?  Perhaps if we got many art quilters together working on one piece?  A quilt that stretched between acres of sewing machines, and we could have arrows sticking out of our shoulders and maybe flames thrusting up from time to time underneath to portray the mental heat involved?  or something else…..

If we did that….and made the subject of the pieces an artistic trope of  elimination and erection, exquisitely and metaphorically rendered…I think we might be ready to call in the critics!  We should of course supply them with two little bags (oh yes, Tim, I think black velvet drawstring ones!) – one would contain arcane adverbs and the other an ambiguous agglomeration of adjectives! Onward and upward! oops I   should say : let us go forward in a surprisingly upward and unforgettably and obscurely onward direction.

And, if you have been, thanks for reading!  and do send any examples of such critical bon mots as you might stumble over!   Elizabeth

Thursday, November 18, 2010

So what is it for? why d’you do it?

stitched piece

Sitting at home stitching and thinking…

Thank you so much to those who commented on my last post – it’s lovely to have a dialogue and also to hear different points of view from one’s own.  I do find that my own point of view gets a bit predictable over time!!

And as a result,  as I stitch away, I have been cogitating upon the question that a couple of folk raised as to why was I making the art quilts in the first place.  And I think the answer is the same as why a person would write a book or compose a piece of music.  The writer writes to be read, read with enjoyment and recognition and ah-ha moments on the part of the reader.  They write for the reader to  say “phew! I’ve felt that but didn’t have the words”, or “oh! that’s a devious twist to the plot took me by surprise” or “yes! I remember that too”  or “Now, I understand”  and so on.  The composer writes music to be heard: if the notes sit only on their little staves and go no further then I do not think the composer would feel very fulfilled.  My father once wrote a little guitar piece and it was one of the most joyous moments of his life when John Williams (yes, the  John Williams!) played the piece for him.     The visual artist (whatever the medium) makes art to be seen.  The goal is that people should look at it, with pleasure or horror or surprise or deep recognition or some other emotion.  Up until that point, I think, all the effort and time one puts into the work (whether it be a novel, a poem, a concerto, a film, a sculpture, a choreography, an architectural plan) is done in order to learn the skills necessary to make The Piece  which is launched out into the world to stand on its own (remember I do love Mixed metaphors – the best kind!).  The momma bird does not produce baby birds with all the skill, care and attention she can manage in order to have them clutter up the cupboards in her nest!

Actually I’m pretty good kicking out stuff from my nest’s cupboards! If the darn things won’t fly, let them crash to the ground say I.  Perhaps they will fertilize some interesting crops of weeds down there.

So, tell me, am I wrong here?  Are most creative people making things for the sheer pleasure of doing? then when they have made them just cramming  them  into storage?  We all know that making anything isn’t that easy; it’s hard work.  It’s a lot easier to read a book, or play a game on the computer, or wander round the garden with a cup of tea – not that these arn’t very legitimate activities! (they must be since I practice them all daily!).  And I do concede that sometimes when you’re making art you can really get into the zone and time flies past as you exercise your skill, but there’s always another hill or hole in the ground ahead of you to be climbed over or dug through.  If it was known that from here on out everything you made would never ever be enjoyed by anyone else, would you be able to continue?

So, think on! and let me know!!  And, if you have been, thanks for reading!   Elizabeth

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Dilemma of Balance

Okay, so I made a new piece: All that Glitters is not Gold.


It’s not very big: about 40” wide.   I really like the strange giraffe-like shapes of the oil pumps you see in the fields in Louisiana – and I’m sure further west, but I’ve not been there.  And having made several quilts about steel works and cement works, I feel  I want to continue with the industrial theme.   And also with the larger theme of the effect of industry on nature, and the ambivalence of our desires portrayed by these creations. 

   I chose the colours I used carefully.  The marshy green reflects both the colour of oil (that I have seen! it probably comes in lots of different colours!) but is also a colour often seen in Nature.  The black is the colour of dead plants, of sump oil and machinery.  The golden beige represents both dead dry leaves, but also our golden hopes for what this energy source will bring us.  In other words – nicely ambivalent colours!  And I’ve quilted the piece with a golden thread – of course.
But the few people I’ve shown the piece to, have objected to it because they didn’t like the colours.   They think of wall hangings as decorative items (whether they have a meaning beyond decor or not) and therefore should be in decorative, attractive colours.
So – what d’you think?  Should I array my oil pumps in Solomon’s glorious colours? 
Was it a mistake to use more literal shades? 

How important is the colour balance of the Meaning of the quilt versus the Acceptability of the piece?

And now, back to the dye-pot!  If you have been, thanks for reading!   Elizabeth
I’m really looking forward to comments!  Much appreciated!!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

No Tender Visions

I was fascinated to read Emil Zola’s writings in the middle of the 19th century about what good art should be. It reminded me of certain discussions going on today! Emile Zola was a successful writer of both articles and novels in France (apparently earning more than Victor Hugo!), a close friend of Cezanne and often writing about art.

For Zola, there were two important elements in any work of art: the inspiration for the piece (generally some aspect of nature in the mid C19) and the eye of the artist. He felt that while the inspiration was the same for everyone who observed and admired the landscape, it was the eye and mind of the artist that varied. If this were not so, then all art about any particular inspiration would be identical. Like a photograph. The crucial thing in a work of art, he felt, was that the artist created not only an image of the inspirational scene or object but also his own personal feelings and sensations in response to it:

“A work of art is a corner of creation seen through a temperament”.

He felt that it was extremely unfortunate that both the jurors of the day and the visiting public were much less interested in the eye of the artist, in his/her personal view, than in how well or accurately the landscape was depicted. And also in how well the painting conformed to the current conventions within the medium. Doesn’t this sound familiar?

The public and the jurors, he complained, rewarded art that followed the fashionable and accepted style and rejected much more individual approaches and points of view. He pointed out that “the crowd” (think about it! Viewer’s Choice – the Worst prize you can get in an art quilt show!) always preferred art that was either easily digested and pleasing, or that gave rise to cheap thrills.

“The crowd sees in a painting a subject that seizes it by the neck or the heart, and it asks nothing more from the artist than a tear or a smile.”

Whereas : “What I ask for from an artist is not to give me tender visions or terrifying nightmares; it is to deliver himself, flesh and blood, and to affirm loudly a powerful and particular intelligence, a personality that takes nature broadly in hand and sets it down in front of us, just as he sees it”.

Of course this same phenomenon occurs today – and not only in art and art quilts, but also in music, television and books. Big business has taken over our reading – all you can get at many airports now are “the New York Times bestseller list” which of course is only the books that the publishers hype and they are – yes – either “tender visions or terrifying nightmares”! And are they written with a fresh view and individual language? No way ! trite clich├ęs and predictable plots from start to finish. Should we therefore be surprised that art quilts also are guilty of this? We want Man Booker prize, Pulitzer prize  or Nobel prize quilts, not New York Times bestsellers! I asked my librarian daughter why do libraries buy such crap – she said “it’s what the people want to read”.

Zola’s views were very heavily criticized at the time (as Michael James is being criticized now for very similar views, and as he was when he juried Visions some years ago – such that he swore he’d never be a sole juror of a show again).

The cause of individuality as emphasized by Zola being the key thing that an artist can bring to the easel or the design wall is further discouraged by quilt shows where quiltmakers are instructed to respond to a challenge given by some external source, however charismatic. Just as novels do not improve when writers write to a given formula, however big the advance. No formulae please!

On the other hand, we all know that quilt shows, like the NYT bestsellers, are big business and in many ways big business has benefited quilters – with numerous books, magazines, shows, seminars and various venues to say nothing of providing incomes for many (thank you!). These don’t lead to great art, but there’s a lot of fun and relaxation and diversion from the horrible problems of today (created I may add by non-artists and non-quilters!). Let’s just not mix the two up and think that a fun hobby that can be engaged in for a few hours a week is going to result in Great Art. It takes much more (research suggests 10,000 hours to reach the highest levels) to get from a most obvious (and therefore probably rather shallow and commonplace and trite) exposition of a particular inspiration to a very personal, fresh, clear and mind-catching response. Zola recommended that Cezanne study and practice art for 9 hours a day for years beginning from his early student days. Nearly every great artist began with the awkward, trite and commonplace, let’s see that as a stage on the journey – some wish to go further, some don’t. That’s fine. We can only start from where we are and go as far as we can and want. But let’s be clear headed about where we are going, and where we are right now. No inflated grades, please!

If you have been, thanks for reading! And I look forward to comments! Elizabeth

Friday, November 5, 2010

Categories: Poodles vs dachshunds

One of the problems of dividing art up into categories like abstract versus representational is that one woman’s abstract is another’s representation!

To be strictly correct (or even loosely correct for that matter), “abstract” as a term comes from “abstracting” – i.e. taking something out of something (usually some kind of scene) and making a piece about it. The correct term for something that has been created from no obvious concrete inspiration is non-representational.

warmlight A quilt, therefore, which strove to totally recreate a specific scene or photograph would be representational, one which took some elements from a scene and modified them would be abstract and one which had no reference whatsoever to anything in real life would be non-representational.

The most appropriate category for a given piece would probably be best decided by the intention of the artist. I once had the temerity to compliment Nancy Crow on the quilt she had made about “the lake in the woods”, and the poor woman nearly had a fit! Her aim is to make work that is totally non-referential and here was this backwoods blithering idiot seeing ponds in it!


      Poodle #3


Maybe there is a point to the artist’s statement after all? (although I doubt it!) .   I do think that titles are both important and meaningful. If you intend that your  work  be totally non-rep then the title should reflect that. Most of Ms Crow’s titles do (being simply numbers), though I was very puzzled by some of her recent titles that appeared to refer to some inner angst. Are those titles referring to the quilts? To her mood as she made the quilt? Or to her impatience later on with people requiring titles? That aside: it seems to me that if you intend your piece to be totally non-representational i.e. being about the basic building blocks of 2D art and your arrangement of their relationships to one another, then the title should totally indicate that. The titles should relate to what drove you to make the piece. I like to stitch the title right onto the front of the quilt: it is a clue to what the piece is about. But I’m not going to spell it out any more than that. Unless you are greeting me with a large check and rosette of course! Then I’ll probably say anything!


Dachshund #2

The real reason, however, for an art quilt to be chosen for an exhibition of excellent work should be simply that: its excellence regardless of the category into which it might fall.

Having categories is a big problem especially with shows that divide entries up into categories (sometimes arbitrarily from what I hear). Obviously then if you are competitive and want to get in you simply make a quilt for the category that has the lowest number of entries. The marketplace, right? Supply and demand. And I’ve actually heard that from jurors: “oh we had so many good pieces about poodles this year that even though your dear little poodle was so much better than all the miserable dachshunds we had three dachshund prizes to give out..so sorry…”

bluebeard's castle

I do think the category problem is compounded by having 3 dachshund (or poodle) owners as jurors but that is a whole other issue.

And let us not kid ourselves about impartiality, there’s plenty of psychological research (to say nothing of the US Supreme Court) that shows that idea to be a myth!

If you have been, thanks for reading! From a devoted mongrel lover, Elizabeth




                                                                                             Mongrel #47

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Relativity of Pink

I’m often asked to critique other people’s work and it’s quite a responsibility.  It’s one I both enjoy and at the same time worry about feeling like an imposter.  What if I say the one wrong thing? And miss the most important thing?    I think it’s important to keep this in mind and make it clear to the person that what I (as the one doing the critique) say is not the Absolute Truth so much as what I personally see on this particular day with the experience I have had to date.  I have found that people can take one too seriously and too literally: “you said you didn’t like pink and so I’ve gotten rid of all my pink fabric!”  Well what I probably said was: "I wonder if the pink is working there as it’s not a very deep value".   So I think it’s helpful to put all remarks into that kind of context.  It’s always relative!
When the person first shows you the quilt (or the photograph of the quilt) you can practically hear them stop breathing and I think it’s very important to be very encouraging at this point.  There’s always something good that can be said.  And when I mention difficulties, I always try to help the person think up ways of overcoming those difficulties so that they go away with a sense of what Can Be Done, not defeat.
One thing I’ve found from workshops is that it’s very helpful for me to have a sense of what else that person has made.  So I usually ask people to bring a few pictures of previous work with them. From these pictures I can see how serious they are, what areas they have been trying to improve in and what might be a persistent difficulty for them.    If a person is serious about improving their art they will try the same idea a few times, each time trying to improve upon it.  It’s rare we get things perfect the first time – I know I never have!   If I see someone repeatedly trying to work with the same idea, I can ask “what was it that you were working on in these few pieces?”.  The answer will help me to see how knowledgeable they are and how much insight into their own process they have.  If they tend to be always very tight, then I can suggest the possibility of loosening a little - but not too much because that tightness is clearly part of their style - and vice versa of course.
Seeing repeated difficulties- for example a tendency to use all mid range values, or to have a big black hole in the middle of a piece (something I find very disturbing – reminds me too much of the movie Train Spotting!)- is very telling.  You don’t always spot a problem in one piece, but if you have 4 pieces with the same problem it’s very clear.  Also it’s easier for the quiltmaker to see the difficulty if there are several example.  I find if there’s just one piece we’re looking at and I say, “oh the balance seems to be a bit off, was that something you intended?”  they may be able to rationalize it.  But if we’re looking at several pieces and in each one there seems to be much more visual weight on one side than another, it’s quite clear.  And it is SO much easier to improve when you have a definite diagnosis!!  It’s so hard when you feel there’s something wrong with a piece but you don’t know what it is and therefore you don’t know what to do about it.  At that point I’ve seen many people just give up.
 It’s helpful if I can ask the person what they wanted to communicate with the quilt.  If they say one thing, but I see something completely different then their communication (or possibly my reception!) isn’t very clear.   For example one lady told me her piece was about a calm and happy day…when I looked at it I saw dull colours, downward lines and awkward nervous angles.   Then we were able to have a conversation about what I saw and what that might mean to another person.
If they tell me that the piece is about the freshness of spring, and I do see a little pale yellow shoot here and there, but only in a very timid way, then I can suggest she push that aspect of the piece.
I think it’s always helpful too to spot a person’s “signature”.  I look for the strengths that I see repeated across the work they’re showing me.  It is easy to lose the baby with the bathwater, especially if the baby is small and there’s a lot of water!!  And you do want to nurture that baby!
Also when you’re working on a piece yourself you don’t always see something completely obvious – it’s likely to be a small section you’ve had in place for ages and you’ve got really used to it and see it as part of the piece.  But when a person looks at the quilt for the first time it’s a glaring odd spot!  A wart on the witch’s nose!
I always try to be as precise as I can because when I’ve asked others for critiques and they’ve given me vague cloudy responses like “it’s not well resolved”  or “something’s not working” , then I’m no further forward.  When I'm the one in the critiqueing position, I try to say something like “You know I really love all the blues and greens you have in here, but without a little contrast of a dab of warm colour they can dull each other down”.  Being precise like this immediately leads one into problem solving.  Active problem solving is a positive activity – at that point you and the person whose work is being critiqued are on the same side working together to solve the mystery. 
And now, I must go and look for someone to spot my warts!
If you have been, thanks for reading!  And do write and tell me how you respond when asked to critique another’s work….I’m always ready to have more helpful things I can do in this situation.  Elizabeth