Friday, December 28, 2012

considering Abstraction in 2013

Ambivalence 1
  Representational art is art that involves some representation of the real world.
Abstract art, by contrast, does not attempt to show things as they really are.

In realism the artist generally tried to portray things as realistically as they can; abstract art attempts a number of different things but what it does not do is aim at a realistic representation of some actual place or object.  Abstract art can be about ideas, or feelings, expressions, mood.  In effect pure abstraction is one end of a continuum and pure realism at the other, with most 2d art somewhere in the middle.

Attempting to paint things as they really are has a long history and was particularly popular in the mid 19th century.   Realist painters wanted to make every day life and everyday scenes into Art.  Previous to this the main focus of art had been on religious or mythological topics.  Abstract art began to appear around the turn of the 19th/20th century with various movements being developed: Impressionism, Cubism, Fauvism – and many more, divisions and subdivisions!
A Summer Day Long Ago

You can take the same subject and paint it abstractly, realistically or somewhere in the middle: e.g. a landscape can be shown in as much detail as a photograph, or more impressionistically with the emphasis on the light and shade, or as abstractly as a simple grid using just the colors from the landscape. Agnes Martin’s grids have often been said to have been inspired by the Canadian prairies where she was born – or the New Mexico deserts where she moved after leaving New York.  Interestingly, she herself always hotly denied this; she wanted her grids to be a picture of perfection, the abstract idea of perfection rather than a portrayal of something actual. And who knows what is true?  I think we probably don’t even remember or have any idea of the power of our early visual memories.

The inspiration for abstract art can come from mood, emotions, observations, objects, geometry, patterns, details, even microscopic details – there are a myriad possibilities. Ideas can be developed from other artists’ work (a very common beginning point for artists ever since art began thousands and thousands of years ago), from nature, from  the construction techniques themselves and these days, increasingly from computer manipulations!  There are so many ways that can inspire us to create ever new arrangements of the basic elements.

Fall Study
 I felt that I’ve always made some abstract work – when I added up how many of the 250 or so wall quilts or fiber collages (take your pick!) I considered that about 1/3 were purely abstract and another third significantly abstracted from my original sketch of a building or city or landscape.  In reality, however everything I’ve done has been abstract.  I’ve never once attempted a faithful realistic representation of anything – nature does that better, also an SLR camera !!

Forcefield 2
There are many regions of abstraction, though, into which I’ve never strayed and I think the task I’m going to set myself for the New Year, my second NY resolution after “Spend more time on Making Art!”, is to explore some of the possibilities for abstract fiber art that I havn’t yet attempted.  I think it’s very important (unless one is a commercial decorative artist) to keep trying things you’ve not tried before, to be very adventurous in one’s art.  In order to get into the better shows (the top handful of quilt shows and mixed media art shows) something different and venturesome is required.  And I think that’s right – that’s what those shows are for.  The other shows are for polished techniques and impeccable renderings of ideas we’ve seen before.  I know for Quilt National this year I deliberately chose something strong and bold and a little out of the normal quilt range – and it paid off – or perhaps I was just lucky, who knows?!!  But we do owe it to ourselves to not just keep reproducing the same thing, in many different colors, but instead to push forward, to be Bold.

And so with resolutions 1 and 2 in place, I shall go and make a nice cup of tea!  Meanwhile, I’d love to hear what you have decided to do in your artistic life and what part abstraction might play in it.  Also, d’you agree with me?  Should we be bolder?  Or is polishing better?
And, if you have been, thanks for reading!   Elizabeth

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Ultimate Quilt Judging Algorithm - 9 questions to ask!

Last week I wrote about developing an algorithm to see if the judging of art quilts could be improved -  partly just out of curiosity about decision making but also because I had seen so many amazing pieces rejected for major shows, when quite mediocre ones were accepted. I asked for ideas for questions the algorithm might use. 
But, before we get to that, I must commend N who has already developed her own algorithm for judging science fair projects!  She wrote that judging “seemed daunting [until]  I came up with a number system that rated categories. Added the categories, I could tell whom I would recommend for blue ribbons. It worked great for me, but I was always amazed that the other judges saw things totally differently. I was never really sure if I was thinking out of the box or if they just didn't know what they were doing”.  What’s interesting is that there is, in fact, very little correlation between one’s confidence in a decision of this kind and its validity.  If a person is very confident in their intuitive powers, you need to ask whether they are making that judgment in an environment that is sufficiently regular to be predictable and also whether they have had the opportunity to learn those regularities through prolonged practice. 

The same holds true, of course, for art projects.  When you are blocking out a quilt on the design wall, in judging whether or not this shape of red (or blue) will work well in relationship to the other shapes on the wall, if you have considerable practice and feedback at doing this, your intuitive judgment is likely to be sound, given that the principles of good design are surprisingly applicable to much art.  If, however, you have not had much practice and this is your first workshop in creating an art quilt, then to be asked by the teacher to “use your intuition” is a nonsense! Intuition is the result of prolonged and considerable exposure to fairly regular situations, it isn’t something you’re born with.  Alas!!

SO,  let’s look at the questions that were suggested for our Ultimate Quilt Judging Algorithm.  I wrote that six categories should be enough – you don’t want to be standing there all day looking at your own various attempts, or at the quilt show looking at one piece! Interestingly, only four main categories were mentioned.

1. Immediate reaction, Attention getting and holding
Did this quilt attract my attention? Yes = 1, no = 0
How long did I want to look at it? 5 seconds (0) or 5 minutes? (1)
If I pushed myself to look longer, did I see something more? Yes = 1, no = 0
Does this piece stir something in me? Yes = 1, no = 0
Is there anything in this quilt that distresses, disturbs or bothers me?  Was that the artist’s intent?
 Yes:    Intentional = 1, Unintentional = minus 1. No = 0.

2. Fresh and New
 Have I seen something like this before? If so, is it a development, or an iteration?
Score 1 for not seen before, or a development.  Score 0 for seen before.

3. Color and Value
Looking at it first in grey scale (in order to avoid not only color bias, but also the tendency for different people to see colors in different ways), is it strong, balanced and interesting? Yes = 1, no = 0
Do the colors used work together and, if they clash, is there a reason for that? Work together = 1, clash but with a good reason = 1, clash for no reason = 0.

4. Technique
Does the technique used amaze and awe me? Yes = 1, no = 0
But, are the techniques more the result of proficiency and access to particular technology (camera, printer, high end machine) than to traditional fiber work?  The weight given to the answer to this could be determined by the organizers of the quilt show and who is awarding the prizes! (ha!) If the show supports all techniques, not matter how much technology is used, then the yes is good.  If the show does not, then subtract the 1 given for amazing technique.

Conclusions: What’s interesting is that while the above questions do not directly relate to the principles (which are, of course, guidelines, not rules!) of design (as in “is this quilt design well pulled together?"), but, rather, they are all supported by those principles.  So judges who were familiar with those concepts would be able to hold a discussion using common terminology.  I do think it important that we all have the vocabularly of designs - we think in words by and large, and without words, less thinking is possible!!

There are more questions in category 1, however that is because more people thought it important to mention. And, in reading many jurors' comments, this is definitely the category considered to be most important.   So there are in total 9 questions.   Try them out – and report back!!  Especially try it out on the winners of prizes vs the non winners, and, if you have access, the accepted work vs the unaccepted.

Any comments?  I look forward to reading them! They make my day! both positive and negative!
And, if you have been, thanks for reading!    Elizabeth

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Ultimate Quilt Judging Algorithm

How would you feel if your art quilt was judged via a simple questionnaire rather than a panel of experts?

I read Meehl’s famous book Clinical vs statistical  Prediction: A theoretical analysis and a review of the evidence  many years ago.  I was reminded of it recently by a discussion in Kahneman’s fascinating book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, in itself a further treatise on the parlous and impossibly illogical state of human decision making!!
Meehl showed with numerous examples that in many fields a simple algorithm could make a better predictions than could experts in that particular field.  This included doctors re prognosis (remember the Apgar score they use to evaluate newborns?  It has saved many infant lives), wine-growers predicting how good a wine a particular crop will make, stock-brokers (yes! Wall street could give up tomorrow and computers calculate the best buys and sells and do it better!), financial analysts, sporting events, recidivism rates etc etc.  When I think of how much money we spend on these “fortune tellers”, instead of  on solid research and development into clean energy and so on, my mind doesn’t cogitate, it boggles!

So I started wondering if an algorithm could be developed for judging art, specifically a quilt show…or even if that would be a good thing?  We have all known of amazing quilts that weren’t accepted to shows where they should have been –  and duds that were included to everyone’s disgust (except I presume to that of the maker!!)   Would they have got in if they were assessed simply by a 6 step questionnaire?  It would also be a useful way of assessing one’s own work – which babies need help and which will be stars? I know I’m not alone in wondering which of my art works is the strongest.

Meehl concluded from his meta analyses that in order to achieve the best predictions, decisions should be based on formulae, especially in low-validity environments (like an art show).   What we also know is that the algorithm doesn’t have to include complex weighting – it doesn’t make any difference according to Dawes’ article “The Robust Beauty of Improper Linear models in decision making”.
Weighted complex combinations are no more reliable than simple ones.

 Of course “experts” are extremely hostile to these ideas, they don’t like to think that all their expertise and judgment and sensitivity counts for very little.  And they are skilled in limited, local short term situations, but longer term predictions are better assessed by a mechanical combination of a few variables. However, many have so much invested in their expertise that it makes it very difficult for them to accept their weaknesses as well as their strengths.

Okay – so which variables would we pick for judging a quilt?  Six is enough.  They should, if possible, address different aspects of the work so that there is not too much overlap.  Once the six dimensions have been chosen then a couple of questions for each one could be formulated.  For example, for me one of the important things is whether or not the piece can hold my interest – so the questions might be:

1a. How long did I look at this quilt when I first saw it?
1b. Did I come back to look at it again?

A second variable I think important would be something I’d call “freshness”.  Questions might be:
2a.  Have I seen something like this before?

And so on….so let’s see how much consensus as to important variables we would have.  So please send in your ideas!!  What characteristics of a quilt, or any work of art actually, are the most important?  Let’s see if between us  we can devise the Ultimate Quilt Judging Algorithm!

And, if you have been, thanks for reading!!  Elizabeth

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Rara avis: the fiber art collector


Birds On The Wire 18” x 20”
Forgive the gap in blogging! I’ve recently taken part in two art shows/sales in our town – well advertised, a fair amount of traffic and a LOT of work. I had a selection of small and medium sized quilts, framed and unframed watercolors. My sales of quilts (and believe me the prices were low…I wouldn’t dare tell any of the “quilt professionals” just quite how low!) were minimal. On the other hand, I had absolutely no problem finding buyers for my watercolour paintings, both framed and unframed.
Quilts seem to be a hard sell right now. For one thing few people outside the quilt world see quilts as art. Consider this quotation from the local newspaper’s article about one of the shows:
“Elizabeth Barton weaves quilts that, if viewed without texture, are just as abstract as paintings, never mind their usefulness..there is no reason ever to snuggle under one of her art quilts. Tack it to the wall for sure!”

Spuggies 18” x 18” (i.e. sparrows!)
The fiber art collector is a rare bird: Those who do buy seemed to fall into two categories: people who sew themselves, and folk art collectors. I sold one little piece precisely because the buyers identified it as being very like the work of a well known folk art painter and sculptor.
Quiltmakers themselves are very appreciative of the work and time and planning that goes into making a quilt, but alas they are not usually the richest of folk! Plus, they often feel that they could make a piece like it themselves, if they only got round to it! (ah yes!!). Also I’ve discovered that quiltmakers rarely go to art shows. Despite postcards, newspaper articles etc I think only one or two quiltmakers of the hundreds in the local area came to either of the shows though if you take the quilts to them – for example at a workshop – they are very interested.
The other big problem with quilts is that it’s very hard to make something under $100 – fabric is expensive – whether you dye it or buy it. Good thread is also very pricey and cheap thread is not worth working with, unless you’re a masochist! Even the simplest piece can take at least 20 hours which means that even if you pay yourself just $5 an hour, you’re easily over $100. I do love those folk who say “ah yes, but you enjoyed making it!” – as if somehow you should subtract your enjoyment from the price!!
It’s also difficult to give wall quilt as a gift, whereas a small painting that is fresh and lively will, the buyer feels, be appreciated by anyone. Sadly, they are not so sure about the lasting value, or the acceptance of, a fiber piece.
Institutions, on the other hand, love fiber art. I think mainly because they can get a much bigger fiber piece for their money than they can a painting! Plus, in many ways, quilts are easier to handle and to hang than paintings and you’re not worried that a falling quilt could rending someone unconscious!! Alas, with the recession, many institutions have given up buying art of any kind.
Now, however, with holiday sales out of the way, there’s a whole New Year to look forward to. I’m planning a series based on a very specific group of painters, so I’m in research mode right now which I love! Oh dear, perhaps I should be adding up how much I’m enjoying this ready to deduct it from the price of my future work!

If you have been, thanks for reading! And I’d love to hear about your experiences with art shows/sales……sorry about the slight hassle of copying a few blurry letters when you comment – it prevents a deluge, unbelievable deluge!, of spam.
Thank you! Elizabeth