Category: Art

Exhibitions: “Shinique Smith: Bright Matter” at MFA Boston

I visit the Museum of Fine Arts Boston fairly regularly–I’ve seen almost all of their major exhibitions (plus many smaller ones) since I moved here in 2006–and while I respect their vast collections, up-to-date facilities, and significant works in the Impressionist, Japanese, and ancient Egyptian categories, I have found little to praise in the diversity department. Their pre-Columbian holdings are hidden in the basement, their African and Oceanic galleries are weirdly situated, and their main exhibits especially (which I do hold as the most important marker of a museum’s tastes and priorities, since they are the main thing museums will advertise, merchandise, celebrate, etc) leave much to be desired in terms of representation. In the past several years in their large exhibition galleries, they’ve primarily shown white men (Edgar Degas, Dale Chihuly, Alex Katz, Mario Testino, Jamie Wyeth, Richard Avedon, Ellsworth Kelly, etc), authorless objects like samurai armor, or fashion primarily designed by white men. The only major show I can think of with named artists of color is Fresh Ink, displaying the work of ten contemporary Chinese artists (only one a woman). The Quilts and Color show from this summer was notable for its focus on works made by women, even if they were anonymous housewives, but the text associated with the show rarely mentioned the actual makers of the works, instead choosing to discuss everything in the context of color theory and the collectors’ process. There is an admission that these quilts anticipate later experiments in color and optical effects by influential artists like Josef Albers and Bridget Riley, but the fact that the people actually pioneering these ideas are “non-artist” housewives is never mentioned.

Shinique SmithEntrance to Shinique Smith: Bright Matter. All photos by the author.

All this frustration with the MFA’s lack of diversity is just a lead-up to say how pleased I’ve been with the museum’s contemporary wing as of late. Not only have the ever-changing contemporary galleries become much more inclusive of women and people of color, but the special exhibitions have been far from safe in their choices of artist and theme- usually foregoing big names in favor of exposure for international artists who are less known in the US. They’ve had Israeli photographer Ori Gersht, experimental ceramists, Iranian women photographers, political artists from Latin America, and now, Shinique Smith, an inventive and multi-talented black artist whose works makes an impact in both scale and material. Side note: we went to the same college, which kind of blows my mind because I can’t think of any artists I really love who went there.

Pulling from a range of graphic references–including graffiti, Cy Twombly, calligraphy, fashion design, rock music, breakdancing, 80s nostalgia, and Jean-Michel Basquiat–Smith has forged a distinctive style through her incorporation of lowbrow textiles, sweeping gestures, and collage elements in a variety of works. She is probably most known for her sculptural clothing bundles, representing “bales” of clothes sent from the US and other Western countries to communities in Africa for re-use. Though they make compelling statements about the intersection of race, culture, and consumerism in the clothing industry, I found them kind of underwhelming in the context of this exhibit. I think they’re probably most effective in large groups filling up a gallery space, as opposed to strewn individually throughout the rooms. I felt similarly about her hanging clothing bundle sculptures, collectively titled Parade, which are so interesting but just not placed well here. I wanted more of them peppering the space about my head, so they might truly invoke the parade floats hinted at in the title. I do really like all of these sculptural pieces, I’m just not sure they were shown off to their best effect in this specific display.

shiniquesmith-installationviewShinique Smith: Bright Matter. Installation view.

shiniquesmith-Parade-2014Shinique Smith: Parade (detail), 2014.

Luckily, I had plenty of beautiful things to engage me with Smith’s truly lovely wall pieces, many of which are brand new and haven’t been shown before. These large-scale canvases combine all manner of material, including paint, fabrics, bleach, beads, dolls, and magazine cut-outs, resulting in visually stunning abstract works that benefit as much from a distanced viewing as from a close inspection of detail. Smith is adept at blending aspects of memory and nostalgia in a way that feels universal, filtering her own associations through ambiguous, abstract compositions. In a work like Inner Clock, she pieces together elements of her own youth, deeply intimate symbols as well as actual personal objects. And yet, because of her deft blending of familiar materials, I can still easily find my own experiences in this: the pink-haired doll, the deflated balloons, the pink boa and mannequin arm; all remind me of specific events or moments in my own life, from birthday party afterglow to art class sculpture projects. Similarly, her impressive Of a Particular Perfume easily calls to mind the soft quietude of my grandparents’ house simply in its use of a pink crocheted shawl.

Through such work, Smith ably forges a connection with her viewers, a recognition of object and material that links to memory, tied up in the obscure associations each individual may have to a fabric pattern, a piece of jewelry, an abstract shape. She also references street and youth subcultures in her use of graffiti-style writing and recognizable collage elements, while pulling from a host of other sources. This kind of allusive art-making can have mixed results: Some artists seem overly bent on referencing everything they can, on citing more known works of art so they can elicit a knowing “a-ha!” moment in their viewers. Smith incorporates a lot of re-used and re-hashed material, but always in a way that pleases the eye visually as much as it arouses our nostalgia. She seamlessly works it into her bold, energetic painting style, with sweeping strokes curving and falling across her large canvases, echoing the folds of a piece of cloth or beads strung on a necklace. In a winking response to Abstract Expressionism, she maintains the importance of action and gesture but rejects the sanctification and self-importance associated with that movement.

shiniquesmith-InnerClock-2014Shinique Smith: Inner clock, 2014.

shiniquesmith-InnerClock-2014-2Shinique Smith: Inner Clock (detail), 2014.

shiniquesmith-OfaParticularPerfume-2011Shinique Smith: Of a Particular Perfume, 2011.

shiniquesmith-Splendid-2014-2Shinique Smith: Splendid, 2014.

shiniquesmith-Splendid-2014Shinique Smith: Splendid (detail), 2014.

shiniquesmith-Majesty-2012Shinique Smith: Majesty, 2012.

shiniquesmith-Breath&Line-2014Shinique Smith: Breath & Line (detail), 2014.

Smith’s stimulation of the senses is kicked up a notch in the final work of the show (at least, in the way I walked around it): Breath & Line. This installation is set in a small room covered in mirrors, lights, and black graffiti-like calligraphic scrawl, and whispering audio plays throughout, sampling poetry, song lyrics, and Smith’s own breath. In her continued use of nostalgia, she also incorporates scent- one of the most powerful links to memory. It is an understated but powerful piece, beautiful in a way that is slightly haunting. Breath & Line marks something of a turn for the artist when compared to the other works on view in Bright Matter– its black and white color scheme, flat graphics, and hushed voices seem removed from the plethora of loud, cluttered, colorful, playful pieces in the rest of the gallery. But its more serious atmosphere also led me to re-consider the tone of some of those other works as I re-traced my steps back through the exhibition, finding new elements and themes in works I had at first appreciated more at face value. Smith’s technique relies on layering, on piling on, and in doing so she encourages multiple takes and readings, collecting together positive and negative, specificity and ambiguity, and “high” and “low” all at once so that individual works often feel like well-packed suitcases full of her own lifetime of experiences. And perhaps yours, too.

shiniquesmith-BellyButtonWindow-2014Shinique Smith: Belly Button Window, 2014.

shiniquesmith-BellyButtonWindow-2014-2Shinique Smith: Belly Button Window (detail), 2014.

shiniquesmith-NoKeyNoQuestion-2013Shinique Smith: No Key, No Question, 2013.

shiniquesmith-TheSpark-2013Shinique Smith: The Spark, 2013.

shiniquesmith-UntitledForVandalsOnlyNo1-2009-2Shinique Smith: Untitled (For Vandals Only No. 1), 2009.

shiniquesmith-UntitledForVandalsOnlyNo1-2009Shinique Smith: Untitled (For Vandals Only No. 1) (detail), 2009.

shiniquesmith-WithWingsNewlyMadeofWater-2014Shinique Smith: With wings, newly made of water, 2014.

Art: Wangechi Mutu’s Grossly Beautiful Collage

yomammaWangechi Mutu: Yo Mamma, 2003. via Nasher Museum of Art

Combining diverse artistic approaches–including ink drawing, collage, installation, painting, video, and animation–and commenting slyly on race, gender, colonialism, and sexuality in her subject matter, Wangechi Mutu has always most attracted me with her work’s sickly beauty. There’s something so eye-catching yet simultaneously upsetting about her mixed-media compositions, they force viewers to look first for pleasure and then again for meaning. Born in Nairobi, Kenya, and educated at Cooper Union and Yale University, Mutu has been exhibiting since the late 90s but seems to be gaining more and more recognition in recent years, with a major solo museum exhibition that is ending its national tour at Northwestern University this fall. Her work has primarily focused on subversions of the female form, which Helaine Posner describes as a “cross-cultural look at the exoticized, eroticized, and demonized female body, particularly the black female body, as the repository of society’s fascination and fears” (The Reckoning). Her female figures tend to be elongated and contorted, at times even lumpy, made up of disparate pieces that seem to call out the innumerable expectations, presumptions, and stereotypes placed upon women in general by contemporary societies, and on black women specifically.

Many of her pieces mix pornographic imagery with ethnographic photography like that seen in National Geographic. In her series of collages collectively titled The Ark Collection, she playfully and pointedly juxtaposes black female porn models with details of Masai tribal textiles, jewelry, and figures taken from popular snaps by photojournalist Carole Beckwith. Mutu intentionally draws associations between the hyper-sexualization of black women in contemporary media and the long-held Western fascination with women living in so-called “primitive” or “exotic” cultures. Complex and confrontational, these works are also intriguingly beautiful, inviting viewers to consider how their different parts add up to a bitingly satirical whole. In these as in other works, we see a kind of dualism, which Mutu has herself described: “I was thinking in terms of two histories; I was moving from seeing myself as a person from Kenya in America, to seeing myself as a fusion of the two. When two ideas come together, it doesn’t always create a very logical result, it doesn’t add up to what people expect, and you can’t tell where one begins and where one ends” (“Resonant Surgeries: The Collaged World of Wangechi Mutu”).

Mutu- the ark collection2Wangechi Mutu: The Ark Collection, 2006. via Border Crossings Magazine

Mutu- the ark collectionWangechi Mutu: The Ark Collection, 2006. via Border Crossings Magazine

In many of her more recent pieces, the artist works on a large scale (about life-size for her figures) to create mixed-media representations of female-animal-plant hybrids, seemingly amorphous bodies that exist in fantastical landscapes. Her imagery seems to reference everything from environmental concerns and sci-fi technology to high fashion models and acid flashbacks. It is easy to draw a line between her work and the early cut-up collages by Picasso (which she cites as an influence), the gritty, exaggerated bodies of Egon Schiele, the overlapping composite paintings of Francis Picabia, and the grotesque figures of Georg Baselitz; however, Mutu brings the aesthetic of these white male modernists into the current age, and infuses it with her unique perspective, gendered and racial experience, and cultural signifiers. Of her identity as a black woman artist, she has commented, “Part of my baggage with feminism is that it still hasn’t taken into consideration the work done by women outside America and Europe. We’re coming from very different behavioural patterns as far as how the patriarchy expressed itself on us. European and American women occupy a very different space from African women, and even that is too general because there are different countries with different histories and different religions… I still feel there are many battles to be fought concerning how women are placed in society” (“Resonant Surgeries: The Collaged World of Wangechi Mutu”).

Another thing I appreciate about Wangechi Mutu is how she elevates the collage technique to a higher plane, as it is not typically considered a “high art” form. Many well-known artists have worked in collage (Picasso himself was a pioneer of the medium), but it is rarely considered a primary approach for major artists aside from someone like Hannah Höch or Richard Hamilton. I’ve never been quite sure why, I assume it has something to do with the typically small size of collaged works, or perhaps that it is by nature appropriative. Mutu’s life-size scale and expert utilization of different media, along with her captivatingly bold visual style, lend her collages a dynamism and confrontationalism that is not so often communicated with small cut-paper collage. She continues the practice’s tradition of using found imagery to comment on societal and cultural issues, but is not obvious about it in the way the Constructivists and Pop artists were, nor so cheeky as Dada artists, preferring to hint and cajole until her audience realizes the profound subtleties found within. Her figures suggest characters, her compositions suggest narrative settings, and we are allowed free reign as viewers to examine closely how she employs symbolic imagery, and how these women are positioned and what their gestures or actions may indicate. Her imagination and expansive artistic vocabulary continually blow me away, and here I’ve only scratched the surface of her varied output (she’s probably most known for her mixed media works, but she also does performance, installation, sculpture, and film). Actually, I should just take a step back and let her work speak for itself.

 

untitled-640x845Wangechi Mutu: Untitled, 2003. via Wangechi Mutu

onceuponatimeWangechi Mutu: Once upon a time she said, I’m not afraid and her enemies became afraid of her The End, 2013. via Nasher Museum of Art

ridingdeathWangechi Mutu: Riding Death in My Sleep, 2002. via Nasher Museum of Art

Mutu- Forensic_Forms_5-598x845Wangechi Mutu: Forensic Forms, 5 of 10, 2004. via Wangechi Mutu

Wangechi Mutu - SantigoldWangechi Mutu: The End of Eating Everything, 2013. See a clip of the short film. Film still via Wangechi Mutu

Mutu: Fish-Trinity-1100x728Wangechi Mutu: Sketchbook Drawing (Fish Trinity), 2011. via Wangechi Mutu

MutuWangechi Mutu: Blue Rose, 2007. via Wangechi Mutu

misguidedWangechi Mutu: Misguided Little Unforgivable Hierarchies, 2005. via Nasher Museum of Art

People-in-Glass-Towers-Should-Not-Imagine-Us-EDITED-1100x766Wangechi Mutu: People in Glass Towers Should Not Imagine Us, 2003. via Wangechi Mutu

Mutu_361_TheStormHasFinallyMadeItOutOfMe_loresWangechi Mutu: The Storm Has Finally Made It Out Of Me Alhamdulillah, 2003. via Wangechi Mutu

Me.I1-1100x675Wangechi Mutu: Me.I., 2012. via Wangechi Mutu

Sources:

Robert Enright and Wangechi Mutu. “Resonant Surgeries: The Collaged World of Wangechi Mutu.Border Crossings Magazine.

Helaine Posner. “Wangechi Mutu.” The Reckoning: Women Artists in the New Millennium. Prestel Publishing, 2013.

Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey.” Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University.

Wangechi Mutu artist site.

Poster Design: The Posters of Akiko Stehrenberger

One my great passions is poster art, as anyone who knows me is well aware. I love the combination of illustration, advertising, referential imagery, typography, and stylistic variety I see in so many posters for film, tv, bands, and events. One of the biggest downsides to being interested in poster design is that so often artists are not credited for their work- I’m often lucky if I can make out a small signature to go by, especially on older designs. With a lot of independent films turning to illustrators and fine artists for their posters, it’s even more disappointing this is so frequently happens today. Gorgeous movie posters are unveiled and few press releases or film news sites include artist names unless it’s a Mondo release or some big name. Since I want to write about poster designers on here anyway, I’m going to start highlighting artists whose work is likely familiar to filmgoers but whose names might not be as known. I’m starting with an easy one because there’s already been some articles written about her, and because I absolutely love her work: Akiko Stehrenberger.

I first became aware of Stehrenberger as an artist through her breathtaking poster for Kiss of the Damned, which honestly stopped me in my tracks. It’s the kind of poster that makes me rethink how the film’s trailer looked terrible. It’s the kind of poster I’d be happy to have on my wall regardless of whether I’d enjoyed or even seen the film. It is, in short, a damn good poster. And I immediately wanted to know more about its designer. Originally based in New York, Stehrenberger began her career doing magazine illustration. When she moved back to Los Angeles in 2004 she started designing movie posters, though she has also worked in advertising, toy design, and portraiture. As an artist she has been devoted to hand-drawn illustration, often rendering posters in paint and graphite, but she has become equally adept at digital production. Her style is incredibly diverse, but is perhaps most distinguished by a free use of color, spare use of text, figural subjects,  and incorporation of freehand visual details.

akiko-stehrenberger-funnygamesAkiko Stehrenberger: Funny Games, 2007. via IMPAwards

One of Stehrenberger’s most high-profile designs to date is her poster for Michael Haneke’s 2007 remake of Funny Games. She pulled a screenshot depicting a frightened Naomi Watts in close-up, and turned it into a photorealistic digital painting. It is the perfect moment to capture from the film: the character is obviously scared and pained, with teary eyes and unkempt hair, but there is a hint of defiance in her expression that relates to the progression of the story. The image is clouded with noise, nearly disguising the fact that this is in fact a digital painting and not a simple film still- perhaps a subtle reference to Haneke’s essential copying of himself in remaking his own film, or to the inherent artifice of film as a medium. The type is simple and direct, allowing the illustration to do most of the work, aided by the fantastically chilling tagline, “You must admit, you brought this on yourself.” Cited as her personal favorite of her designs, Stehrenberger says, “I fought really, really hard for Funny Games to come out the way it did. I don’t think I ever fought harder for any of my designs. The client kept wanting to add something to it, like a gloved hand, or blood, and I believed strongly that it was strong enough and haunting on its own” (Mubi: Movie Poster of the Week interview).

As much as I love the bold, disturbing visual of the Funny Games poster, it’s generally her more colorful, playful work to which I’m drawn. Her work for The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology–a film I haven’t seen and admittedly don’t know much about–is a psychedelic portrait of philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek. Rendered in vibrant pink and purple ink, his gruff personage is surrounded by religious and military figures, rainbow bridges, rolling green fields, cowboys, and lovers. The composition presents a strange, varied, eclectic documentary, referencing politics, Hollywood, 1960s counter-culture, and Christianity in its visual sources and color scheme: appropriate for a movie about how media reinforces certain belief systems. The style recalls hand-drawn indie band gig posters while bringing in allusions to Socialist Realism and Soviet design. I absolutely love the inky, freehand lines and garish colors, it’s just a really appealing image.

Akiko Stehrenberger - Pervert's Guide to IdeologyAkiko Stehrenberger: The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, 2012. via IMPAwards

Akiko Stehrenberger is committed to maintaining a level of artistry and innovation in the poster industry. She does the kind of work that got me excited about poster design in the first place, the kind of eye-catching, referential, detailed visuals that don’t just sell a film but really sell themselves. Over the past decade she has created several memorable designs for indie films (she prefers independent over studio movies because she generally has more creative control), and regardless of the films’ quality I can always view her posters as autonomous works of art. I especially love the painterly approach she takes to most of her works, even her digital designs, as it is reminiscent of the great illustrated posters of the pre-digital age. Of her work’s unique place in the greater scheme of things, she says, “I’d be lying if I said it was my intention to try to change the industry when I first got into it. My main goal was to do work I was proud of and eventually people started appreciating it and asking for more of it. Leaving a small influence and getting to work with some of the best creative directors in this industry, is just the cherry on top!” (Japan Cinema interview).

Incidentally, Stehrenberger is also one of the few female designers who’s really made a name for herself in the typically male-dominated field, and I just think that’s really cool.

akiko-stehrenberger-casa-de-mi-padrejpgAkiko Stehrenberger: Casa de mi Padre, 2012. via IMPAwards

fathers_day_ver2_xlgAkiko Stehrenberger: Father’s Day, 2012. via IMPAwards

12_awaywego_planeAkiko Stehrenberger: Away We Go, 2009. via H Represents

akikomatic_herAkiko Stehrenberger: Her, 2014. via H Represents

akiko_undertheskin-hrepresents-comAkiko Stehrenberger: Under the Skin, 2014. via H Represents

Akiko Stehrenberger - Code UnknownAkiko Stehrenberger: Code Unknown, 2000. Blu-ray cover. via H Represents

blue_ruin_ver3_xxlgAkiko Stehrenberger: Blue Ruin, 2014. via IMPAwards

Akiko Stehrenberger - Kiss of the DamnedAkiko Stehrenberger: Kiss of the Damned, 2013. via IMPAwards

28_seriousman2Akiko Stehrenberger: A Serious Man, 2009. via H Represents

Sources:

Akikomatic. Akiko Stehrenberger’s official site.

Adrian Curry. “Movie Poster of the Week: An Interview with ‘Funny Games’ Poster Designer Akiko Stehrenberger.” Mubi.com, 2010.

Creative Spotlight: Episode #199 – Akiko Stehrenberger.” Japan Cinema, 2013.

Exhibitions: “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010” at MoMA NYC

Sigmar PolkeSigmar Polke: Untitled, 1975. via Gallerist

Ever since I read my first X-Men comic and fell in love with the fuzzy German mutant Nightcrawler, I’ve been interested in German language and culture. Some people find it surprising that such a silly, kitschy thing spurred a passion that became academic, as I made twentieth-century German art and culture one of my specialties in school, and even studied there for a semester in undergrad. Today I’m feeling that the comic book connection would have been appreciated by the artist at hand, irreverent Pop and experimental kitsch genius Sigmar Polke, whose first full retrospective is currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Raised in East Germany before escaping to the West as a teenager, Polke worked at a stained glass factory before embarking on a career as a fine artist in the early 60s. He studied at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf under influential conceptualist Joseph Beuys, but did not follow in his teacher’s mystical/political/high-concept footsteps.

Along with painter Gerhard Richter and others, he helped establish the genre of “Capitalist Realism”, an offshoot of the ubiquitous Pop Art style so common in the United States in the 1960s. Their art was made in response to the so-called “Economic Miracle” that had affected Germany in the 1950s, a sudden time of plenty after years of scarcity, leading to gluttonous consumerism and a seeming rush to forget the horrors of World War II. The rising generation of German artists often used their work to criticize the “Americanization” of their country and the frivolous lifestyle it promoted, while also seeking to come to terms with the guilt and shame of their parents’ generation and its actions under Nazi leadership. Like many Pop artists, Polke engaged with food and brand imagery, as well as department stores and Hollywood-style glamor, referencing this extreme shift in West German experience (felt especially keenly as someone who had lived in East Germany). However, the trajectory of his artistic practice became much more dynamic and varied than these early Pop works might suggest, as he spent the next several decades pushing style, media, and subject beyond their expected limits.

 

Sigmar Polke SchokoladenbildSigmar Polke: Chocolate Painting, 1964. via Aesthetic Perspectives

Sigmar Polke SupermarketsSigmar Polke: Supermarkets, 1976. via Hot Parade

At MoMA, hundreds of Polke’s works are collected together in a comprehensive retrospective, highlighting the artist’s versatility and various experiments. Visitors are first met with his works in the atrium, which shows off an eclectic grouping of painting, sculpture, film, and mixed media. From there, it launches into a chronological organization so that his development can be traced through the years. I get why the show is arranged this way, but it did feel kind of uninspired. There is no linear progression for Polke, he was all over the place, which allows his work to be shown in any number of ways (indeed, before he died in 2010, he had suggested a non-chronological layout for this show while it was still in the planning stages). Perhaps an exhibit that instead highlighted certain subjects he returned to, or processes, or media, or even color schemes. Not a major criticism of the show, just something I thought about as I walked through the galleries.

His variety can be overwhelming, and instead of finding a way around that curator Kathy Halbreich seems to have embraced it. This show is packed, throwing together all aspects of his output, from his home videos and sketchbooks to his wall-size canvases and photo series. And it’s great. Admittedly, because he worked in so many different styles and materials, not every work is a masterpiece, but they’re all interesting, and they all have a story behind them. Each gallery’s wall text briefly introduces a certain stage in Polke’s life- including his world travels in the 70s, his stint in New York, his many collaborations (often with the lovers he took besides his wife), his responses to current events and political happenings. However, most of the expository text is found within a booklet that visitors carry around, which details each work (there are no wall labels) and often gives extra information and anecdotes. With Polke, context means a lot. His works are often beautiful and weird and fascinating all on their own, but knowing their connection to German history and Western art history can make a big difference, as can knowing their place in his biography.

Sigmar Polke Lee Harvey OswaldSigmar Polke: Raster Drawing (Portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald), 1963. via Gallerist

Sigmar Polke FreundinnenSigmar Polke: Girlfriends, 1965/66. via Frieder Burda Museum

His series of “Raster” paintings, for example, might at first glance seem like riffs on Roy Lichtenstein’s comic book recreations, but they were actually made in response to contemporary media coverage of events in the Middle East. Polke felt that people in the West were somewhat phony for dramatically expressing their horror at the news, while only ever experiencing it through printed photographs. For these works, he meticulously painted and screenprinted the black and colored dots used in newspaper printing, forcing us to view their subjects (lifted from mass media sources) through a distorted, distanced lens. We cannot experience these subjects first hand. Few of Polke’s works make overt political statements, but many of them engage indirectly with specific issues or concerns, whether in their subversion of art historical references (take, for example, his graph-objects meant to establish a psychic connection with William Blake or his wry dig at Abstract Expressionism titled “Modern Art”) or their dispassionate iconography (such as his repeated use of swastikas in cartoonish compositions and his series of watchtower paintings on fabric).

Polke is a ridiculously difficult artist to summarize, and that’s part of what makes him and his work so fantastic. I have always loved him for his use of printed fabrics as canvas, his gestural abstraction, his abundant irreverence, his printmaking experiments; MoMA expands even further into all manner of his practices, introducing me to his films (which J. Hoberman detailed in May’s issue of Artforum) and his forays into weird materials like uranium and his psychedelic side-trips (in a loud, over-stimulated gallery that I quite liked) and his pornographic caricatures and so much more. Many commentators have noted that this feels like a group show because of the great variety of works, and I think that feel really works in its favor. Realizing that all of this came from the mind of one man encourages viewers to consider that man- how did all of these eclectic and diverse ideas and styles come together in the singular artist of Sigmar Polke? It’s a question that cannot be easily answered, but Alibis is a good start. Luckily, his wonderful work can speak for itself.

sigmar polke modern artSigmar Polke: Modern Art, 1968. via Gallerist

Sigmar PolkeSigmar Polke: Dr. Berlin, 1969-74. via Ross Smirnoff Art

Sigmar Polke Untitled (Quetta, Pakistan), 1974-1978Sigmar Polke: Untitled (Quetta, Pakistan), 1974-1978. via AF Asia

Sigmar PolkeSigmar Polke: Mu nieitnam netorruprup, 1975. via Ross Smirnoff Art

Sigmar PolkeSigmar Polke: Untitled (Dr. Bonn), 1978. via Vogue

Polke Velocitas FirmitudoSigmar Polke: Untitled (Color Experiments), 1982-86 (bottom row). Velocitas-Firmitudo, 1986 (top right). via Hyperallergic

sigmar polke watchtowerSigmar Polke: Watchtower, 1984. via Vogue

Sigmar Polke Mrs. Autumn and Her Two Daughters, 1991Sigmar Polke: Mrs. Autumn and Her Two Daughters, 1991. via AF Asia

sigmar polkeSigmar Polke: Salamander Stone, 1997. via Vogue

Art: The Wire Sculpture of Ruth Asawa

Ruth AsawaRuth Asawa at work, 1957. Photograph by Imogen Cunningham. via The Huffington Post

I stumbled across a photograph of Ruth Asawa a few months ago on tumblr, and was embarrassed I’d never heard of her before. She seems like exactly the type of artist I should know about, but then I guess it’s indicative of the ever-exclusionary “canon” I’ve studied in school and am continually trying to break away from. Asawa was a Japanese-American artist who led a fascinating life, and forged a successful art career out of her own ingenuity, diligence, and focus. She was born in 1926 to Japanese immigrant parents, farmers in Southern California who were not allowed to own land (or become citizens) due to their background, but worked to establish a business on leased farmland. As a child, Asawa was encouraged to pursue her love of drawing, studying art in public school and calligraphy in a Japanese school on weekends, while also learning Kendo from her father. In 1942 after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when Asawa was 16, her family was forcibly placed in an internment camp- first in California, then in Arkansas (though her father was separated and held in New Mexico). She was able to take drawing and painting classes during her time there, with teachers that included interned Japanese artists from Disney Studios.

In 1943, Asawa was allowed to attend college, but only in the Midwest, so she attended Milwaukee State Teachers College because it was the cheapest one available. As a Japanese student, she was somewhat limited in her movements, but she was able to visit Mexico City with her sister, where she was inspired by the bright colors as well as the materiality of fresco painting. When she returned to Milwaukee, she realized that she could not complete her teaching degree- she could not get a teaching credit because none of the surrounding schools would hire a Japanese American. In 1946, without a job, without money, and without a degree, she headed out to Black Mountain College in North Carolina. This legendary school was an experimental arts community, whose freeform program and influential teachers (including Josef Albers, Buckminster Fuller, Alvin Lustig, John Cage, and Walter Gropius) helped develop a generation of artists in the 1930s-60s. There Asawa studied design with Josef Albers, but she was encouraged to experiment with new media, eventually creating a technique for looped wire sculpture (inspired by crocheted baskets she learned to make in Mexico) that was to become her hallmark.

asawa-dancers-1946-47Ruth Asawa: Dancers, 1946-47. An example of her early work at Black Mountain. My scan.

Ruth Asawa's living roomAl Lanier (asleep on couch) and Ruth Asawa in their living room, 1970s. Photograph by Laurence Cuneo. via SuperRadNow

Asawa met her husband, architect Al Lanier, in 1947 at Black Mountain, and the two married and moved to San Francisco in 1949. From then on, she devoted her life equally to making art and raising a family- six children in all, which sounds exhausting, but it sounds like they made it work. She continued making looped wire sculpture, and began exhibiting in San Francisco and other American cities. By the 1960s she was receiving commissions for public sculptures, which she continued to design throughout her life. She also experimented with twisted wire forms inspired by desert plants, resulting in spiky metal sculptures, and ran a lithography workshop in Los Angeles. As she established herself more as an artist, she worked to bring art into local schools and supported small arts organizations. Many of her public pieces were group projects produced within their respective communities. Asawa died in 2013 at the age of 87, leaving behind a rich legacy of sculpture and public art spaces in California, though she remains lesser known outside of her home state. It seems her blend of craft techniques and high art ideas made her hard to categorize. She didn’t receive her first retrospective until 2006, at the De Young Museum in San Francisco.

asawa_untitled_1_Ruth Asawa: Untitled, 1950s. via SuperRadNow

Ruth AsawaRuth Asawa: Various sculptures. Photographed by Imogen Cunningham. via The Huffington Post

What I love about Asawa’s wire sculpture is how unassuming it is, and yet how formidable. Her forms are large and dominant, but also open and mutable. She takes cold, hard metals and coaxes them into warm, pliant, organic shapes. There is a certain improvisational feel to them, as the eye travels down to see how different shapes are created and changed through continuous looping or twisting, and their connection to craft techniques gives them an ambiguous familiarity despite their fantastical scope. They are reliant on their relationship to space, suspended in the air, casting shadows across various walls that are as interesting to the eye as the pieces themselves. Curator Daniell Cornell links this proclivity to Asawa’s teacher Josef Albers, who taught his students to “think in terms of figure-ground relationships” and focus on negative space- for her sculpture, specifically the gaps created between objects and lines. The artist herself has also traced this mode of thought back to her study of calligraphy as a child, where she was taught “to look at the space that we don’t touch. The form in calligraphy, the form is the space around the letter–that we leave white–as much as the character” (quoted in The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa, 138). Over time she came to view them as cohesive groupings as opposed to individual works, anticipating strides in installation art to come decades later. Her forms interact with and complement one another brilliantly, blending interior and exterior with shadow and light in pleasing optical illusions. For Cornell, “When installed together… they engage viewers by animating and defining the space around them with an ineffable quality” (The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa, 145).

In her time, Asawa’s work was often viewed within the context of her gender and ethnicity, as critics and curators tried to group her with certain movements and ideas. To some, she represented the perceived simplicity and sparseness of East Asian culture, its softness and quietude. To others, she was a craftswoman whose work could be categorized as pretty and fragile, not meeting any kind of intellectual need but relegated to domestic decoration. Of course, this type of response is not particularly relevant: though her personality and creative output were naturally influenced by her experience (as all artists somehow are), the specifics of her background do not affect the impact of her work on the viewer. And yet, it seems she has been left out of the discussion of American artists working in the 1950s-60s (and beyond) both because of her identities and despite them- she doesn’t fit into the (male-dominated) Abstract Expressionist group, nor the experimental avant-garde embraced by her female Japanese peers Yoko Ono and Yayoi Kusama, nor the outwardly feminist groups who arose in the late 1960s. As a woman of color, Asawa is already on the fringes in terms of her inclusion in general art history texts, but without a certain movement to lump her in with, there’s not much hope she’ll be given the attention she deserves. Though I’m optimistic this oversight will change over time.

 

Ruth Asawa - printed cork endsRuth Asawa: Printed Cork Ends, 1950s. via California Fibers

Ruth AsawaRuth Asawa: Various sculptures installed at the De Young Museum. via YedOmi

asawa-desertplant-1965Ruth Asawa: Desert Plant, 1965. Lithograph. My scan.

ruth-asawa-untitled, 1969Ruth Asawa: Untitled, 1969. via That Creative Feeling

"Aurora" by Ruth Asawa, 1986Ruth Asawa: Aurora, 1986. Fountain installed at Bayside Plaza. via Rarelywrongerin

Sources:

Addie Lanier and Peter Weverka. Ruth Asawa. http://www.ruthasawa.com/

The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air. Edited by Daniell Cornell. University of California Press, 2006.