Fang Lijun Woodblock, Seattle

One of my research stops in Seattle was the Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park.  I was primarily there to visit some of the older pieces in the collection, but I stopped into the contemporary galleries, too, and was completely captivated by this large-scale woodblock print No. 19 by Chinese artist Fang Lijun.  I really like the linear textiles contrasted against the soft sinuous shadows.  The piece renders its figures with such sensitivity — and on a monumental scale.

the common S E N S E, Seattle

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During my research visits to the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, I swung into the galleries to see the current  museum-wide installation by Ann Hamilton.  This new work pulls together a number of threads.  Among them, Hamilton explores how the sensation of touch plays out across a range of ideas and experiences.  Influenced by the University (where’s she’s currently artist-in-residence) and its natural history collections, Hamilton pays close attention to animals and their furs.

In several galleries, she hung reams of newsprintted animal images, which exhibit viewers are invited to peel down as keepsakes.  The display calls to mind the older chambers of wonders model, where art and natural collections co-existed.

In the museum’s basement, Hamilton approached this same theme from a different lens, creating linen-walled cubes, each containing furs in glass cases.  Handwritten manila cards tied to each cube echo specimen cards, and more potently, morgues.

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A second major thread Hamilton explores here is the longtime tradition of the common book.  Aware of the way this exhibit draws together and links ideas, Hamilton creates a meta experience of idea collecting within her installation.  Exhibit visitors collect not only collect the newsprint animals from the gallery walls, but also quotes on touch that are placed throughout the exhibit.

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Amid all that collecting, Hamilton asks her viewers to contribute to the exhibit as well by leaving an ethereal photograph of themselves to be added to the installation.  “An exhibition is a form of exchange, and like a conversation it is organic,” Hamilton writes.  “It is changed by each person who enters and whose acts of taking and giving become the life of the project.”

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Hamilton is lyrical and astute in her written descriptions of this project.  And there’s a lot of interpretive text in this exhibit, a lot of conceptual frameworks to work though.  The choice to include extensive signage may have to do with the exhibit’s home at a university art museum where the work is meant to be engaged with repeatedly over a longer timeframe — and to become a part of a larger pedagogical discourse.

At times, though, I wish she had offered less explanation of the rich concepts she’s explored.  I would have liked to let these disparate threads coallese more organically, to allow the exhibit to work through inference more.  The work is strong enough for Hamilton to trust in its experiential rhythm.

You also get the sense, though, of an artist exploring an assortment of new elements in her work and inviting us into the recesses of creative process.  The sense that she’s gathering together ideas that are still more divergent than synthesized — and that this experimentation ought not cohere too soon.

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Henry Art Gallery, Seattle

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One of the first stops on my research trip this weekend was the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington in Seattle.  The gallery is home to a handful of resources I’ve wanted to access as I write my story collection.

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It also turns out to be a pretty dynamic structure.  I like the way the domes and arches of the older building juxtapose against its modern glass cylinder and trail of pyramids.

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Cozy

I started noticing these cozies around street signs and lampposts in my Baltimore neighborhood last summer.  The crocheted granny square above is my favorite one I’ve seen: its play of bright and mossy colors feels particularly warming and delightful.  And the generations-old granny square pattern (still the one I use most when I make blankets) seems at once deeply evocative and playful.

These fiber pieces carry a range of connotations, though. The one below feels to me distinctly different: grittier and rougher and more challenging.  I don’t know the artist or his/her intentions, but to me this piece is asking us to do a different kind of thinking about the city and its interwoven poverty.

I’ve been reading a bit about yarn bombing, which has an interesting history and trajectory as a street art, a medium for a range of artistic and political expressions.  London’s Knit the City‘s stitched story concept is an especially nuanced collectively-organized graffiti knitting project.

I’m struck by the way this emerging form grants a certain public access to a demographic that traditionally did not have a home in public and street art.  Fiber arts such as knitting and crocheting have so often existed in a domestic sphere.  Their realization as a street form — and a subversive one at that — opens these artists and their work to a potent range of creative possibility.

I really value the way fiber street art interrupts the streetscape, rendering it newly tactile and human, politicized and personal.

Lately / Ceramics

During my month of transition from this phase of my life to the next new journey, I took a ceramics class up at Baltimore Clayworks.  I’ve always had an acute tactile awareness, which is partly why I’m so drawn to textiles and ceramics.  So I thought it would be good for me to learn the wheel at last.

This is part of a longer process for me of reclaiming a sense of belonging and freedom in visual art.  It’s so creatively enlivening to explore these second mediums — ceramics and drawing and film photography.  It adds a loosening and layering to my primary creative work in fiction.

Learning the pottery wheel wound up being particularly apt at this moment as I get ready for my research trip, which includes a study of Japanese ceramics.

And I love this little olive dish I made.  It’s being bisqued while I’m away, and when I come home in March, I’ll glaze it and send it downstairs to the kiln to be finished.

Reflection

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Every day I walk by the Persian carpet store down the street from my apartment.  A few months ago, I caught the reflection of the buildings in the rug store window.  It looks almost as though the Mt. Vernon row houses are a design emerging from the pattern in the carpet.

Of course, as a textile enthusiast, I am always going to be attracted to to the designs and textures of carpets — and I particularly like this one.  I also love to the architecture of these old, nineteenth century Mt. Vernon row houses, with their brickwork and arcs and ornate entrances.

So I am drawn this layering of pattern and texture.  The resonance of organic and geometric shapes and warm color in both the cityscape and the Persian carpet, the way they interplay.

The image feels right just now: this resonance, this layering of place.  Back in the fall I mentioned that I received the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance’s Ruby Grant.  This winter I’ll use part of that grant to take a research trip for the last two stories in my collection.

That means that I’ll be away from my much-loved neighborhood for a little while, as I complete this book which spans from Baltimore to Japan to Hawaii to Seattle.  This story collection that layers refractions of place as its characters move across a shifting globe in the wake of war, and transport their complex webs of belonging.

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These photographs of Dulkarian’s Persian Rug Co. are part of an interest in Baltimore windows that seems to have taken hold this past year in my photography (see here).  In the coming weeks, I’ll write about my research travel, but I’ll also continue to post a series of these Baltimore windows.

In that way, I can layer place here in my studio space just as in my story collection.  I look forward to taking you all along on the journey!

American Prints & Drawings

Just before Christmas, my friend Emily and I made a trip to the National Gallery to see the El Greco exhibit.  On our way out, we stopped on the museum’s lower floor to see the small, two-room exhibit of 20th century American prints and drawings from the Kainen Collection.  I’ve been reading a lot about early twentieth-century American artists recently, and so was particularly excited to come across this collection of drawings.

The Kainens collected through most of the 20th century, and their collection includes early works and experimental prints and drawings by showstoppers like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.  In this 1951 drawing, Pollock experimented with the effects of allowing ink drips to soak through thin Japanese paper — I love the way this medium allowed him to create a melodic tone entirely different from his more iconic paintings.

Jackson Pollock, Untitled

The exhibit’s collection of lesser-known twentieth century artists is equally exciting.  I’ve been interested in the explorations of American artists in the 1930s, and there are a number of stellar prints and drawings here by artists like Stuart Davis.  I especially love this one by sculptor William Zorach, whose work in watercolor allowed him to embrace a more improvisational style.

William Zorach, View of Distant Hills

Like the Pollock, Zorach’s View of Distant Hills was done on Japanese paper.

One of the exciting things to me about the Kainen collection is how closely it brings us as museum viewers to the process and impact of contemporary collecting.  Though the Kainens collected widely, both were deeply committed to buying work by contemporary American artists.  Both Kainens were highly knowledgeable and well-connected in the art world (Jacob Kainen was an artist himself), so they certainly had the expertise to gauge the importance of the work they collected.  But buying work by experimental living artists always carries a heightened risk — and a heightened impact.  I’ve been reading about how artists like Zorach and Davis struggled because their work was innovative enough that it was seldom salable.  These purchases by knowledgeable collectors like Jacob and Ruth Kainen therefore had the double-impact of asserting the experimental works’ value and literally sustaining the living artists’ continued explorative practice.

Karl Schrag, The Influence of the Moon

Modern American Prints and Drawings from the Kainen Collection is on view at the National Gallery through February 1, and is absolutely worth visiting.

Degas / Cassatt

Cassatt by Degas

Last month, I went in to the National Gallery to see their Degas/Cassatt exhibit before it closed.  The exhibit was a fascinating glimpse into a long-time friendship between two artists — and the ongoing conversations that informed both their work.

Degas and Cassatt shared certain artistic interests and sensibilities.  Both depicted spaces of performance, dabbled in printmaking, and explored the ways Japanese art might influence their own formal innovations.  Through their lifelong collegial exchange, the artists encouraged each other’s growth; collected each other’s prints, drawings, and paintings — and occasionally even challenged one another to creative projects.  But they each developed distinct paths and diverged frequently in their approaches; their friendship was a matter of mutual artistic admiration and not one of influence.

Cassatt Print

In telling this story of artistic friendship, the exhibit also offered fresh insight into each artist.  The exhibit included works by both Degas and Cassatt that I had never seen, and reframed slightly the narrative of each’s artistic development.  Certain aspects of their work were lingered over for a beat longer than they would be in a traditional solo exhibit; more attention was given to the process of creative growth and experimentation than to the resulting masterpieces.  The artists’ sketches and shared period of intensive printmaking wound up being an illuminating glimpse into each of their individual creative trajectories.

And some of these lesser-exhibited works were absolutely stunning.  Cassatt’s Japanese-inspired print above is just luminous in is color, pattern, and flattened planes.  Degas’s fans, which I had never seen before this, are extraordinary: the reproduction below does not come close to the metallic depth and vibrancy of this palate, nor the delicacy and detail of those dancers.

Degas - Fan Mount - Ballet Girls - 1879

Perhaps my favorite piece in this exhibit of memorable pieces is Degas’s pastel portrait of Cassatt at the Louvre.  He did a series of these drawings and paintings, capturing something of her relaxed, spirited engagement with the art that surrounds her.  These portraits, like the story of their friendship, reveal the interchange between artists and artistic community.

The Degas / Cassatt exhibit closed earlier this fall, but there’s a new Degas exhibit on view now at the National Gallery.  This one, on his Little Dancer, is held in conjunction with a world-premier performance commissioned by the Kennedy Center to explore the ramifications of the artist’s sculpture in the life of the real-life ballet dancer who posed for it.  I’m going to see the performance with a friend this week, and am so intrigued by these intersections between art, ballet, and storytelling.  The performance runs through November 30, though the exhibit stays open to January 11.  Have any of you been to see it?

Victoria Vox on Taking Artistic Risks

A few months back, I saw Victoria Vox in concert at the Garrett Jacobs Mansion.  (Have you all been to a concert there?  It’s one of my favorite spaces — and scandals — in Baltimore.)  Victoria has a great energy on stage — she’s open and dynamic and fun to watch.  And her music, played on instruments spanning from ukulele to mouth trumpet, reveals a lyricism, playfulness, and musical breadth.   This summer, Victoria and I had a chance to get together and talk more about her album — and the two years of creative risks that led to it.

Victoria’s album Key started in the wake of a breakup.  After spending Christmas with her family in Wisconsin, she came home alone to her new house in Baltimore.  “It was kind of like that opening scene from Bridget Jones’s Diary,” Victoria says.  “You know… she’s just a mess, tissues everywhere.”  That January 8th Victoria just lay in bed and sang Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” all morning.  “Then finally I’m like, ‘Get up.  Do something today,'” Vox says.  “Even if it’s just learning that song, because it’s a really great song.'”  She started working out the melody on the ukulele.  By the end of the day she’d decided to record the song and post it on YouTube — and to turn that first January recording into a year-long creative project.

You can still find the video of that Newman cover recording on Victoria’s channel: in it, she’s wearing a red and black flannel shirt, the sleeves cuffed, her fingers laced beneath the fretboard of her ukulele.  In the background, you can see the nighttime darkness through her house’s stained glass window.  “I decided,” she says at the beginning of the video, and then looks to the side and purses her lips,”that I would extend that learning to other songs this year: that I will post one song a week.”  The announcement marked the start of a year-long project and an artistic shift.

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Photo by Philip Edward Laubner

By the time she recorded that first Randy Newman cover song, Victoria had been playing ukulele for nine years and had already released several successful recordings.  Her album Exact Change alone had raised $22,000 in crowdfunding, and she had an extensive and loyal fan following.  But she wanted to push herself in a new direction.  And her cover song project represented a new kind of exploration.  “This was my chance to really study other songwriters’ work,” she says.

Every week for an entire year, Vox learned and recorded a different song by a wide range of artists she admired.  Thousands of existing fans and new listeners followed her weekly video recordings, and by October, this growing fan base started to worry.  “People started e-mailing in and saying, ‘We’re really going to miss this weekly project,'” she says.  They asked her what she was going to do in January, when the cover song year was over.

As soon as they asked, she knew what she wanted to do.

“That year was about gathering all this information,” Victoria says.  “And toward the end — even halfway through, I was getting this itch, like I want to write something.  And I just had to keep reminding myself: you’re gathering musical information right now, and you’re at school.”

But as the new year approached, she knew she wanted to mirror the structure of her 52-week cover song project: that she wanted to write and record a new original song every week that next year.  It was an ambitious goal and, she says, “It was a really scary thing to announce.  I thought about it for over a month, …weighed the pros and cons of that kind of project, of that kind of dedication.”

In the end, she decided to take the risk.  But to make it happen, she needed some support.  She’d learned and recorded 52 cover songs while maintaining a full-time tour.  By the end of the cover song year she was so sick it was hard to sing.  In her videos from weeks 50 and 51 you can hear her getting progressively sicker.  She knew there was no way she could maintain her tour schedule while writing a song each week.  She needed to raise funding to support this new project.

After an unsuccessful self-designed subscription program failed to generate sufficient resources to fund the project, Vox landed on Kickstarter and hit 80% of her goal the first day.  Eventually she wound up raising $22,000, the same amount she’d raised for her previous album — and enough to make the project financially sustainable.

“I was almost brimming with ideas by the end of the year,” Victoria says.  “I was like, ‘Just wait.  Just wait till January 1st.  Just wait until the project is funded.’  It felt like everything was going to outpour.”  And she proved to be right: The information and material she’d studied all year sparked a creative burst in her songwriting.

Photo by Philip Edward Laubner

“It was a lot of work, but it was a different kind of work,” Vox says.  “I was living life a little bit more.  I called it my ‘yes’ year.  Someone would say, ‘Hey, do you want to go to something?’ and I’d be like, ‘Yeah, I’ll go.’  Because you never know what’s going to inspire you, or what you’re going to see, or who you might meet.  For filling my creative well, I really needed to go out and experience things.”

The resulting 52 songs were recorded and immediately released to Vox’s Kickstarter subscribers each week as she wrote them.  They have since gone on to comprise her album Key and 4 songs on a new album,When the Night Unravels, which is slated to be released in January 2015.  “It was a very emotional year,” Victoria says of the intensive year of songwriting.  “I was giving myself complete creative freedom.”

 

For more on Victoria Vox, including her upcoming performances and her albums, visit victoriavox.com.

Wyeth at the National Gallery

After visiting Wyeth’s paintings at the Farnsworth in Maine this summer, I knew I wanted to make it down to the National Gallery to see the “Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In” exhibit.  I finally made it down to DC on a Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago.

The exhibit is centered around Wyeth’s depiction of windows and inspired by the museum’s recent acquisition of Wind from the Sea.

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I found, as I had at the Farnsworth, that the paintings carry a depth in person that muddies in reproductions.  The National Gallery actually has a pretty nice digital image of Wind from the Sea, but even that doesn’t quite convey the delicacy and flight of those curtains, and the way the landscape mutes and shifts between the open window and the gauzed lace.

Wyeth - Wisteria

It was interesting to see Wyeth’s paintings from Maine and Brandywine all mixed together in one gallery space.  He is a painter whose work seems so anchored in place — so deeply tied to particular atmospheres and textures.  Wyeth talked about his habit of walking and its role in his life as an artist.  That connection to landscape feels intrinsic, also, in the finished paintings.  Seeing his work in Maine — in that old white church behind the Farnsworth — felt like a means of immersing more deeply in place.

At the National Gallery, I lost some of that deep-seated sense of connection, of immediacy.  In a way, though, freeing the paintings from place allowed me to understand them differently: to acquire a more overarching, canonical sense of Wyeth as an artist.  Which may be one of the more important legacies of this exhibit.  So often during his lifetime, Wyeth’s work was critically underappreciated in an era of radical redefinitions of visual art.  “Looking Out, Looking In” reclaims the bold invention of Wyeth’s oevure, and calls on the contemporary viewer to reconsider the impact of his work.

Wyeth - Frostbitten

If you haven’t yet been to see it, “Looking Out, Looking In” is on view at the National Gallery through November 30.