Tag: drawing

Exhibitions: “Arlene Shechet: All at Once” at ICA Boston

shechet-IsandIsNot-2011Arlene Shechet: Is and Is Not, 2011 (detail). All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Within the realm of artistic genres, the area of sculpture has perhaps become the most elastic in definition. Installation is sculpture. Performance is sculpture. Assemblage is sculpture. For many the word still evokes the traditional figurative carvings of Michelangelo or the rounded bronze castings of Henry Moore, but ultimately the term is endlessly pliable. For New York-based artist Arlene Shechet, sculpture is about action as well as form, about painterly experimentation as well as material. Her abstract, textural work is on view now at the Institute of Contemporary Art in a comprehensive retrospective that has introduced me to her art for the first time.

Spread across three galleries, the exhibit’s aesthetic reflects Shechet’s own inclination for playful display tactics. Her more recent abstract sculptures are typically mounted on pedestals of her own making, rendered in wood or brick or plexiglass, and the show’s organizers extended this idea to the entire layout. The first room features a large multi-leveled shelf unit (made by the artist) at its center, with her early forays into Buddhist figures and pottery clustered throughout. The walls are lined with loose architectural drawings of stupas, inspired by her visit to Buddhist monuments in Indonesia. Western artists are drawn to Buddhism and Buddhist imagery for various reasons, sometimes appropriative or ethnocentric; Shechet’s primary interest is in the way Buddhist sculpture was used as a language, as well a way to communicate the concept of transience. The loss of a close friend prompted her to pay more attention to life’s preciousness, and the process of working with plaster allowed her to “maintain a consistent state of awareness in the studio” (Arlene Shechet, 13). The works here are quite varied, combining blue and white pottery, contemplative seated Buddhas, and goopy abstracted messes. Their arrangement forces the viewer to always be moving around the room, taking in first the whole and then, gradually, individual pieces.

shechet-buddharoomArlene Shechet: All At Once installation view at ICA/Boston.

shechet-buddhasArlene Shechet: East Buddha, 1999 (left) and Collective Head, 1996 (right).

shechet-Building-2003-2Arlene Shechet: Building, 2003.

shechet-Building-2003Arlene Shechet: Building, 2003.

shechet-InTheBalance2004Arlene Shechet: selections from In the Balance series, 2004-05.

The second gallery moves into the 21st century, with a deceptively simple sculptural installation titled “Building,” from 2002. A commissioned work for the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, it was put together with students at the University of Washington, who threw different pottery shapes and made molds based on Shechet’s drawings. She stained the molds with black glazes, so that the resulting casts came out with dark exteriors that became progressively lighter as the molds were re-used. The final piece features a large grouping of these pottery forms, cut and stacked and placed at eye-level, resembling a miniature city that literalizes curator Jenelle Porter’s description of Shechet’s work as “equally sculpture and architecture” (Arlene Shechet, 11). The ashen coloring subtly hints to the artist’s experiences as a New Yorker after the 9/11 attacks, evoking imagery of fallen buildings, burnt-out ruins, and urban debris. Alongside Building is a small series of glass sculptures titled In the Balance. As the only offering in glass on view, they stick out as an elegant side-note, with shapes that recall the smaller pottery pieces in Building and a theme related to breath that carries over into future works. To me the appealing aspects of all the works in this section is how they reference traditional craft shapes, but remain completely non-functional.

shechet-ANightOut2011-MyBalzacArlene Shechet: A Night Out, 2011 (left) and My Balzac, 2010 (right).

shechet-LollandAirTime-2006Arlene Shechet: Loll, 2006-07 (left) and Air Time, 2007 (right).

shechet-NowPlaying2015-Tattletale2012Arlene Shechet: Now Playing, 2015 (left) and Tattletale, 2012 (right).

shechet-NoNoise2013-Stories2013Arlene Shechet: No Noise, 2013 (left) and Stories, 2013 (right).

shechet-NotToMention2013-NoMatterWhat2013Arlene Shechet: Not to Mention, 2013 (left – via CFile) and No Matter What, 2013 (right).

shechet-Absolutely2012-Away2012Arlene Shechet: Absolutely, 2014 (left) and Away, 2014 (right).

shechet-ParallelPlay-2012Arlene Shechet: selections from Parallel Play series, 2012-2014.

The meat of the exhibition is in the third gallery, a long stretch of freestanding sculpture that highlights Shechet’s interest in texture, form, and color. Several pieces are inspired by lungs and breath, relating to her father’s death from lung cancer, their lumpy grey shapes inflating and deflating, their random circular orifices painted blood orange. Others are comical, with droopy appendages and colorful splotches. Still others are architectural, or even monumental, with jutting windows and dark loops, leaning every which way like a surreal Tower of Pisa. Most are primarily made of ceramic, and all are placed atop stands of varying material and size, some matching and some contrasting their passengers, some including kiln bricks as a reference to the act of firing clay. The work is remarkable in its totally freeform look, so far from the seemingly meticulously-planned aspect of most carved and molded sculpture. In her process, Shechet drips and stacks, presses and pulls, attacks and retreats, leaving traces of her movements like the strokes of an action painting. Though abstract in both form and title, the sculptures evoke different emotional responses in each viewer, intimate in their tactility, strange and funny and unavoidable in their presence.

In a partially-enclosed wing off the main gallery are several large-scale wall paintings that tie in closely with the freestanding pieces nearby. Their blotchy application of color and thick, three-dimensional shapes reflect the forms found in her sculpture. In fact, the compositions are created by applying molds of different sections of the sculptures to create textured paper, spreading out and flattening her favorite visual motifs so they can be viewed in a new element. The process is detailed in this short Art 21 video, which also offers a glimpse of the pieces on view at the ICA.

shechet-raspberrytwistArlene Shechet: Raspberry Twist, 2012.

ASBreakingtheMold01Arlene Shechet: Dancing Girl with Two Right Feet, 2012. via Arlene Shechet

shechet-artwork-040-split-blockArlene Shechet: Split Block, 2013. via Art 21

The final space, a small enclosed room with black walls, is the most indicative of Shechet’s interest in display, functionally presenting the artist as curator. Here, works from her residency at the celebrated Meissen porcelain studio in Germany are arranged like so many knick-knacks on shelves of varying height and size. She mixes her own uncanny experiments in with actual historical ceramics, highlighting the kind of aesthetic that was treasured in the 18th century–most notably orientalist tropes and delicate courtly figurines. Shechet’s contributions are generally hybrid creations that melt or cut or combine these familiar elements into something new and strange. Disembodied legs pop out of rosebuds, abstract shapes crop up on porcelain plates, vases soften and tip over erratically. It’s an odd, funny little room that invites close looking (though, sadly, no photos) and adds an unexpected historicity to the exhibition as a whole, relating Shechet’s contemporary use of ceramic to its decorative and East Asian origins.

shechet-AndSoAndSoAndSoArlene Shechet: So and So and So and So and So and On and On, 2010.

In conversation with fellow artist Janine Antoni, Shechet says, “One of the reasons I’ve liked working with marginalized materials is that they have a kind of slackness. They give me more opportunity to say things in an unexpected way, or to point out the full range of life rather than a narrower range” (Arlene Shechet, 150). Though her approach to “pointing out the full range of life” is nonspecific, I do feel these works represent a whole person, a whole volume of emotions. They reveal the flaws, the humor, the tragedy, the playfulness, the bizarre, and beauty everyone experiences, though they may ultimately best represent the artist herself.


“Arlene Shechet.” Art21. http://www.art21.org/artists/arlene-shechet

Jenelle Porter, et al. Arlene Shechet. Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston and Prestel, 2015.

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


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.