Tag: sculpture

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.

Exhibitions: “Surround Audience” at the New Museum

A few weeks ago I had a few hours to myself in New York and, after much consternation over both the Studio Museum and the Brooklyn Museum being closed on Tuesdays, I decided to check out the New Museum’s Triennial exhibition. Titled Surround Audience, the show is the third in the museum’s “triennial” program: group exhibitions which endeavor to spotlight important artists early in their careers, predicting the future of contemporary art. The result is a museum-wide showcase packed with awesome, diverse, young artists (so young, ugh) and I liked pretty much all of it! The size and scope of the show as a whole is daunting, and I could never write about everything I saw, so instead I’ve picked out the top five artists who stuck out to me.


huxtable-untitled-group-2015Juliana Huxtable: Untitled (Psychosocial Stuntin’) (left), 2015 and Untitled in the Rage (Nibiru Cataclysm) (right), 2015. All photos by the author.

benson-Juliana-2015Juliana Huxtable: Untitled (Destroying Flesh), 2015.

Juliana Huxtable

Artist-poet-DJ Juliana Huxtable has been making waves with her strong online presence, gathering a large following on instagram and tumblr. I had heard of her but wasn’t too familiar with her work, but her photography and poetry on view in Surround Audience immediately pulled me in. In her performance-photography, she creates personae inspired by pop culture, history, and mythology, with a narrative feel. Her photographs are interspersed with free-form poetry ruminating on identity, communication, capitalism, and generational history. In the center of the gallery with her pieces is a life-size sculpture of the artist created by Frank Benson (with Huxtable’s collaboration). With its tantalizing sheen and eerie green-gray color palette, the 3D-printed work captures the trans artist during her transition period, proudly showcasing her non-gender-conforming body while also placing it on a kind of sci-fi plane that matches the otherworldly feel of her self-portraits. Taken together, the works present Huxtable as both a changeable, larger-than-life fictional character as well as a bold, uninhibited, and real person.


Laric-untitled1-2015Oliver Laric: Untitled, 2014-15. Video still.

Laric-untitled2-2015Oliver Laric: Untitled, 2014-15. Video still.

Oliver Laric

Berlin-based video artist Oliver Laric’s untitled piece offers a study of transformation, appropriation, and narrative tropes within Western and Japanese animation. A string of short, hand-drawn animated clips are shown in fast succession, capturing characters and some objects at the moment of transformation, with humans turning into animals, alien creatures, mechanical contraptions, etc, but the full change never shown as it blinks to the next shot. There are also moments where the act of drawing is shown, as strokes of line and paint daubs coalesce into figures. The video as a whole seems tailor-made for internet-savvy folks, with references to furries, Disney, anime, and Saturday-morning cartoons, but it’s also easy to interpret its constantly shifting forms as a commentary on contemporary society, on a fast-paced culture that must endlessly re-appropriate the old into something new, preying on our sense of nostalgia. Honestly, I just loved watching it, the animation is beautiful and fluid, the premise is inventive, and the ambient score is hypnotic.


Kotatkova-NotHowPeopleMoveButWhatMovesThem5-2013Eva Kotátková: Not How People Move But What Moves Them, 2013.

Kotatkova-NotHowPeopleMoveButWhatMovesThem1-2013Eva Kotátková: Not How People Move But What Moves Them, 2013.

Kotatkova-NotHowPeopleMoveButWhatMovesThem2-2013Eva Kotátková: Not How People Move But What Moves Them, 2013.

Kotatkova-NotHowPeopleMoveButWhatMovesThem4-2013Eva Kotátková: Not How People Move But What Moves Them, 2013.

Eva Kotátková

I’m pretty sure I let out an audible gasp of delight when I came upon Eva Kotátková’s installation. Her collection of performative sculpture immediately reminded me of one of my favorite artists, Rebecca Horn, but pushed to even further extremes than Horn’s early body extensions. Kotátková’s work employs cage structures and prickly objects to create interactive tools and faux-appendages, accompanied by collage-drawings diagramming more elaborate creations. I love the possibility of her work, with images of hypothetical performers coming to mind as I viewed each piece (there were scheduled performances, but I missed them). Statically, they visually interact with each other within the installation, set against a cheery yellow backdrop that contrasts with the slightly menacing effect of the metal bars and rods that make up the sculptural shapes. Like Horn, Kotátková explores bondage as a concept, and her contraptions encourage users to consider the balance of bodily freedom and containment as they both hamper and enhance movement, along with the psychological effects of institutions that enforce these controls, like prisons and hospitals.


AkunyiliCrosby-anndwebegintoletgo-2013Njideka Akunyili Crosby: And We Begin to Let Go, 2013.

AkunyiliCrosby-thread-2012Njideka Akunyili Crosby: Thread, 2012.

Njideka Akunyili Crosby

It’s no secret I love collage, and these large-scale mixed media pieces by Nigerian-born artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby stopped me in my tracks. Her recent marriage to an American and move to Los Angeles serve as the context for these multi-layered portraits. For her, combining different styles and visual sources is a direct connection to her cultural history, referencing how colonized countries have often been forced to assimilate the art of Western cultures into their own traditions. With an eclectic array of source materials and brilliant color schemes, her works capture simple, intimate moments between lovers, focusing on expressive body language in her figures while the collage elements taken from Nigerian magazines capture the country she left behind. They drew me in almost immediately with their large size and tactile mixed-media layers, encouraging a close, lingering look.


Domanovic-SOHO-SubstancesOfHumanOrigin-2015Aleksandra Domanović: SOHO (Substances of Human Origin), 2015.

Domanovic-SOHO-SubstancesOfHumanOrigin2-2015Aleksandra Domanović: SOHO (Substances of Human Origin), 2015.

Aleksandra Domanović

Born in Yugoslavia (now Serbia), Berlin-based artist Aleksandra Domanović is concerned with the history of technology within her home country, and especially women’s roles in it. Her installation for the Triennial is the third in a trilogy of works connecting science-fiction, technological history, and the representation of women. Here, she has created three 3D-printed sculptures modeled after the Belgrade Hand, an early robotic prosthetic invented in the 60s by Serbian scientist Rajko Tomović, displayed within a hanging curtain of plastic sheeting decorated with blood cells and sea creatures to suggest a contrast between organic and man-made materials. Though based on the same model, the three sculptures perform different actions and seem to have portray diverse abilities, suggesting the technological advances that have since been made and more that may still be possible in future developments. Their realistic fabrication but fantastical look gives them an uncanny presence, and as I observed them it was easy to make mental links to robots-gone-bad sci-fi tropes like the disembodied Terminator hand or the hodgepodge mechanical killer in Hardware.

Art: Joseph Cornell’s Assemblages

Cornell-Untitled-Celestial-Navigation-1958Joseph Cornell: Untitled (Celestial Navigation), 1958. via Washington City Paper

The instinct to collect may be a basic part of human nature; we acquire and amass and stockpile a variety of things, be it nostalgic keepsakes, artistic treasures, emergency snacks, or cherished memories. Parents hold on to their children’s baby teeth, bibliophiles fill their houses with books, sports fans hunt down memorabilia from their favorite teams; my own mother dutifully collected Longaberger baskets for a good ten years. I myself collect all manner of things, often to the level of hoarding, but that is a discussion for another day. Perhaps this shared tendency is why the work of Joseph Cornell strikes a chord within so many, as I have yet to meet anyone who dislikes his thoughtful and intricate assemblages of found objects. A collector as much as an artist, he has inspired generations of artists and art-lovers, tapping into that seemingly innate human interest in stuff.

Born in 1903, Cornell grew up in the small village of Nyack, New York, a picturesque spot along the Hudson River. His four years at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts became the longest period he would spend away from home. After leaving school without a diploma, he moved back in with his family and became a textile salesman like his father, who had passed away in 1917. During the 1920s he collected various paper and secondhand ephemera, but it was not until around 1931 that he began making art out of such materials. Inspired by Surrealist exhibitions at the Julian Levy Gallery–especially Max Ernst’s collages–he created three-dimensional boxes and sculptures assembled from found objects. By 1932 he was exhibiting at the same gallery, with a solo show that fall. He also experimented with filmmaking, cutting together bits of collected film strips to create collaged movies (he returned to the medium in the 50s, collaborating with auteurs like Stan Brakhage to make films with new footage).

Throughout the next several decades, Cornell worked full- or part-time as an artist, never moving out of his mother’s house in Flushing, NY (where he helped care for his brother Robert, who had cerebral palsy) but taking frequent trips to New York City and establishing an ever-growing assortment of artistic connections and friendships, from artists Mark Rothko and Yayoi Kusama to dancer Allegra Kent and poet Mina Loy. He continued to make collages and assemblage boxes until the end of his life, dying of heart failure in 1972 at the age of 69. Though his art was exhibited across the country and was gaining value by the 1950s, he often preferred to make work as gifts to friends and people he admired, instead of commodifying everything he produced.

cornell.hotel-edenJoseph Cornell: Untitled (The Hotel Eden), 1945. ibiblio

cornell-ASwanLakeForTamaraToumanova-HomagetotheRomanticBalletJoseph Cornell: A Swan Lake for Tamara Toumanova (Homage to the Romantic Ballet), 1946. via The Old Curiosity Shop

The wonderful thing about Joseph Cornell is he created works of high art that could easily be read as pure knick-knacks if not for their powerful associative effect. He taps into the nostalgia inherent to so many objects, deftly combining his found items so as to elicit a response related to memory or personality, expressing feeling and experience through secondhand castaways. Putting together things like glassware, maps, stuffed birds, torn book pages, and keys, he silently invites viewers to extrapolate their own connections with such everyday items. We bring along our own baggage, our own memories, our own wishful thinking, and we are able to take it personally. Generally, Cornell is not making bold political statements or irreverent art historical references; he is not caught up in the manifestos and rampant theories of many artists of his day. He is sharing his own interests and perspective with others–often specific friends, colleagues, and crushes–through his own belongings. Many early-twentieth-century artists made art out of the everyday, but Cornell made art out of his everyday, which in turn could easily become reinterpreted as our own.

Many of his boxes can actually be read as portraits, combining photographs with symbolic ephemera so that a person’s essence might be distilled down to a few objects in a box, a shrine to their persona or legacy. His tribute to Lauren Bacall is dark and haunting, emphasizing both her alluring sexuality and her youth, along with her unattainable, iconic status. His assemblage for Tilly Losch seems to cast her as a delicate paper doll, floating above an abandoned landscape, possibly referencing her skills as a ballet dancer. She appears aloof and alone, but not unhappy, and clearly treasured in her mottled-marble frame. There is an air of preservation about Cornell’s assemblages, containing newly-precious objects behind glass and assuring they remain forever. Knowing many of his boxes were gifts or tributes of sorts, it’s hard not to see them as parts of the artist himself, given in trust to those he admired. Known as something of a recluse and a loner (by choice, though of course affected by his ailing younger brother and the early death of his father), Cornell nevertheless formed many significant relationships, and seemed keen to fall in love with various artistic women. Perhaps sharing bits of his own collections was his way of sharing something of himself.

Cornell - BacallJoseph Cornell: Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall), 1945-46. via MSU

Cornell _Untitled-TillyLosch-1935.jpgJoseph Cornell: Untitled (Tilly Losch), 1935. via MBA Lyon

cornell - medici boyJoseph Cornell: Untitled (Medici Boy), 1942-52. via ibiblio

Cornell-untitled-no3-1955Joseph Cornell: Untitled No. 3. via MBA Lyon

cornell - solar setJoseph Cornell: Untitled (Solar Set), 1956-58. via ibiblio


The Archives of American Art

The Joseph Cornell Box

Adam Gopnick. “Sparkings: Joseph Cornell and the Art of Nostalgia” in The New Yorker.

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: 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.