Monday, April 23, 2018

Miriam Schapiro: Femmages and Seamlessness at MAD

We recently returned from several days in New York City. If there is such a thing as flash travel, like flash fiction, that is what we do; we compress our expeditions ("expotitions" if you are Winnie-the-Pooh) into three days, packing in a variety of museums, eateries, odd shops, and so forth. One museum, that had not been on our radar previously, was the Museum of Arts and Design. Like many things in NY, it was a small museum with rich exhibitions. Surface/Depth: The Decorative after Miriam Schapiro was one of four shows that caught our attention and provoked discussion and thought.

In 1975, Schapiro organized the first meeting of the Pattern and Decorative Arts Group, which became a movement. (I wrote previously about Judy Chicago in a post here.) Her work creating self-described "femmages" are the launching point for the exhibit.

I asked my friend Celeste, who had been a student of Schapiro's, if she had any impressions or memories she would like to share. She said: 
"Miriam Schapiro taught courses at UCSD before and just after her collaboration with [Judy] Chicago on WomanhouseWhat I remember most vividly was that she revitalized my childhood love of cut'n'paste with a method she called FemmageShe got our class engaged in feminist issues and using stereotypical 'feminine' materials like sensuous, gypsy-patterned fabrics, crochet and lace bits and girly 'things': objects that women are associated with, even now, like lipsticks and their embroidered cases, mirrored cosmetic cases, and even women's undergarments as potential bricolage materials to combine and paint over.  As a young woman from New England who only knew about the existence of two or three women artists at that point (Cassatt, O'Keeffe, and Rosa Bonheur) this was radical and heady stuff. I owe her and her student, Suzanne Lacy, whose work Mimi evoked in lecture, a lot."
I wish the exhibit had had Celeste's statement, statements from her other students, or at least quotes from Schapiro, perhaps from her books Women and the Creative Process (1974) or Rondo: An Artist's Book (1988) on the walls, but the exhibition was fairly spare with wall text.

 Mexican Memory, 1981

Schapiro used traditionally and/or historically feminine shapes for her works: the fan, the heart, the house standing in for the hearth. What is so interesting to me is how all the disparate objects come together so seamlessly. It's not just cut'n'paste, but it creates a seamless whole new artwork.

 Baby Block Bouquet, 1981
You can see the traditional tumbling block quilt pattern used as pattern in this one.

House of Summer's Night, c. 1980
This house is appealing for its shape, but also for its elegant, minimalist treatment.

 Ephemera from her studio

Apparently, she would have an annual sale of objects she wasn't using in her work.
That sale would have been fun to explore.

 Flying Carpet, 1972
acrylic and collage on canvas

 Curtains, 1972
acrylic and collage on canvas

 These two, above, and the following two are from the series "Anonymous Was a Woman," 1976
Collotype on paper

These were created most likely by the actual lace or crocheted piece laid on top of a photosensitive plate and exposed, then the plate was inked up, paper placed on top of it, then put through a press under pressure to print the image. One of the textile pieces was on display in the case of ephemera from Schapiro's studio. The series elevates women's work in a straightforward fashion: these are printed impressions from the actual (most likely) woman-made objects.

Some open copies of issue 1.4 of a feminist collective's magazine Heresies were also on display, with the article, "Waste Not Want Not: An Inquiry into What Women Saved and Assembled--FEMMAGE" by Schapiro and Melissa Meyer describing the term "femmage," on page 68. You can download a pdf here. (You can choose a topic and read all the issues here.) I also found the complete article and more in the tome that was right there on my bookshelf when I got home, Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings edited by Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz (1996, p. 152).

Out of fourteen criteria, Meyer and Schapiro write that a work could be considered a femmage if it contains at least half (seven) of these (direct quote): 
1. It is a work by a woman. 2. The activities of saving and collecting are important ingredients. 3. Scraps are essential to the process and are recycled in the work.4. The theme has a woman-life context.5. The work has elements of covert imagery.6. The theme of the work addresses itself  to an audience of intimates.7. It celebrates a private or public event.8. A diarist's point of view is reflected in the work.9. There is drawing and/or handwriting sewn in the work.10. It contains silhouetted images  which are fixed on other material.11. Recognizable images appear in narrative sequence.12. Abstract forms create a pattern.13. The work contains photographs or other printed matter.14. The work has a functional as well as aesthetic life.
Curious, and just for fun, I wondered if my pin cushion eggs fit this description and started down the list. 1. By a woman; 2. made of something saved or collected; 3. contains scraps; 4. refers to women's life (if we are applying traditional gender to sewing, yes); 6. addressed to "an audience of intimates" yes?; 14. is functional as well as aesthetic, yes. Score: 6. Seven or eight and yes, if you count hand sewing a kind of 9. drawing or handwriting and the egg as 5. covert imagery. Interesting.

While there were these numerous stellar examples of Schapiro's work, overall they seemed to be used as the context for work by contemporary artists: Sanford Biggers, Josh Blackwell, Edie Fake, Jeffrey Gibson, Judy Ledgerwood, Jodie Mack, Sara Rahbar, Ruth Root, and Jasmin Sian. While I would have liked to have seen a more in-depth analysis of Schapiro's work, it was good to see how concepts continue to be investigated, reinterpreted, and revitalized. I think it is important to show older work with younger work; there is always a new audience for it. Sometimes it helps us see one or the other works more clearly. For this reason, it would have been interesting to see Schapiro's work in its historical context as well, to trace the artistic lineage further back.

You can see a connection to Schapiro with this work by Sanford Biggers. He incorporated the tumbling block quilt pattern that Miriam did in her heart piece, above. It has embroidery stitching, sequins, and velvet, all scraps working together to create a new whole.

Ooo Oui, 2017
Sanford Biggers
textiles, fabric, antique quilt fragment

This work, in its own way, is seamless in the blending of materials to make one overall pattern referencing the tumbling blocks.


The quilt fragment he incorporated looks a bit like the one I just acquired.
I'm not sure I can bring myself to incorporate it into anything just yet.

I was particularly inspired by and felt the "call to action" from the energetic wrapping and stitching in these colorful woven pieces by Josh Blackwell. The wall text says Blackwell "uses recovered plastic bags and colored fibers such as wool, yarn, silk thread, and patterned cloth to create his Neveruses" linking them with marginalized objects, craft, and marginalized people. The work ties in intent, theory, and concept to Schapiro's work. 

Blackwell describes them in theory as "queer" or "androgynous" as, for one example, they subvert hierarchies and use stitching as mending rather than as surface "embellishment." The works call our attention to craft and materials, things that may be overlooked or not taken seriously, and are made with the flavor that Schapiro intended in her works, elevating them, placing them in a new context and new light.

All of these works point to seamlessness, asking us to question and rethink the notion of craft and "decoration" and "patterning." From them we can explore their perceived meanings,  and the constructed hierarchies of high and low art. What work gets marginalized and why? The exhibit provides continued inspiration for exploring textiles and fibers and our place as makers in the world.

Miriam Schapiro died June 20, 2015, aged 91.

It's hard to stop there. Upstairs, MAD has an arts studio, where in one glass-fronted room a school group had been making things, and in another, the jewelry artist Emiko Shinozaki was in residence. She called us in, and we talked with her about her new work making jewelry on which you could play music. Emiko had been a violinist for many years, but after studying fashion fell into jewelry-making and loved it. The new work of wearable sounds bridges her worlds and adds computer programming and working with arduino to the mix. Her website is here.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

A Couple More Eggs

I made two more enchanted egg pin cushions and posted them at nevermindtheart. I'm out of the stuffing, the garnet emery, so that's it for the moment. Projects are backing up, so I'm not sure when or if I will make any more. If you like, get one now. They are about 2 inches and 2 ounces and feel nice nestling in your palm. Added: Power of Pink and Deep Purple here.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Book Arts as Egalitarian Practice

We like to name and sort, it helps us make sense of the world. One of the earliest stories of naming is in the Bible when Adam is asked to name each animal. It would have been cumbersome to say "the black one with wings that hops around" or "the one with four legs that comes up to my knees and barks." 

But in some cases, we don't have to agree on the names or properties of things. Is weeding also gardening? You aren't growing anything, you're pulling it up. But, of course weeding is necessary to enable the plants you want to grow. With many activities, we don't have to codify and standardize what they are and are not. They just are. Bureaucracies organize and reorganize/rename to gain power or money, among other things. Historians tend to classify and create movements and groups that may or may not have existed formally. It helps organize theories and timelines, and may make a more coherent story.

What I've always liked about book arts and the book arts community is the open and inclusive nature. So many different practices work side by side under the umbrella of the book. Papermaking, printmaking, letterpress printing, bookbinding, boxmaking, painting, drawing, textiles, sculpture, and more—you can make any kind of book in your own quirky way. We share some common terms in order to understand each other, but overall, the boundaries are loose.

The community has no king or queen, no hierarchy. There are no book art police. Sure, people judge, but that happens no matter how you live your life.

Part of this fluidity comes from the wealth of talent and creativity from a variety of media, each with its own focus. There is some codified information, mostly that derives from longstanding traditions of craft guilds and apprentices. But in making a hard cover, for example, one teacher may teach the application of glue to the boards, another may suggest applying glue to the paper or book cloth. 

Another part of the openness is from the generosity of the makers and the sharing of information. We don't keep secrets; we are excited to pass along what we have learned, created, and discovered.

We know that naming can be powerful. But occasionally structures and techniques are invented simultaneously and named differently. Once taught and over time, structures and terms also may be renamed. 
The structure many of us learned as "Secret Belgian Binding" for example, was actually named "Criss-Cross" by its creator, Anne Goy, but many people continue to call the binding by the name they first learned. While it helps to have names that we all understand, it doesn't take long to discover one person's X-book is another person's O-book. In this case, the diversity of practice and of naming can open a conversation, and it may actually inspire new ways of seeing.

Thank You

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Bookworks in Museums, NYC 2018

On a recent visit to New York we knew to seek out the exhibit The Codex and Crafts in Late Antiquity at Bard Graduate Center but were also happy to discover some beautiful books and calligraphy at The Met as well.

According to the website, the Bard exhibit was a "Focus Project," which is one of a series "developed and executed by Bard Graduate Center faculty and postdoctoral fellows" working together with graduate students. 

A large screen caught our attention first: a video that showed the making of a Coptic binding with headbands, leather cover, and clasps. We were transfixed by the process, and I feel I will have to try this out, as it takes the binding several steps beyond what I usually make. I've never seen anyone put covering material over a Coptic binding; most people leave the spine visible and unsupported. But clearly the books don't have to remain that way.

There were a few authentic books and objects and several facsimiles precisely made by Georgios Boudalis.

Tablet codex, 4th century AD
wood and wax

The origin for the term "codex" is "caudex" from tree trunk. The wooden frames for some of the codices in Egypt, like this student's "exercise tablet," had a wax surface that could be incised, then melted and reused. Each board was sewn to the next.

Someone once said this book was much like the "magic slate" toys with the black waxlike substance coating cardboard, the two plastic sheets (one clear, one frosted), and the red stylus. You drew or wrote on the top sheet, then lifted the sheet to "erase." The toys still lurk around the web, on Ebay and such (not in the exhibit). It turns out that our household has one. The back suggests: Write Your Name / Make Fun Designs / Draw Pictures / Play Games / Scribble & Erase. Nothing about practicing writing or arithmetic.

I suspect the magic slate has been erased by the magic tablet: the iPad. Similar, but the tactile sensation is missing. Moving along…

Facsimile of tablet codex, 2016
Georgios Boudalis
"the original tablet codex was smoothed, burnished, and coated with sizing, possibly gum arabic" and black ink could be used

It included a cord that wrapped around it like a carrying handle. From this example we are led to understand that the wax tablets were like notepads and the burnished and sized tablets were for permanent information storage.

Facsimile of a single-gathering codex, 2017

Tackets (rolled strips of parchment) and leather stays reinforce the binding and hold the folded pages (which would have originally been parchment) in place. The cover, wrapped around and tied shut, would have kept the springy parchment book from popping open and provided a portable case.

Codex of a Psalter, 18th century
Coptic, paired needles
This book had no cover over the boards and spine, and it was kept in a leather satchel.

This Coptic stitching is a model for what we do today.

The Bard Graduate Center sells a catalogue of this exhibit here.

Downstairs, in the Reading Room, many shelves held many artist's books and zines. 

On the wall was a 2016 textile piece by Francesca Capone, courtesy of Nationale (Portland, OR gallery: shown on her website in "Text means Tissue" show and her book of the same name available at Printed Matter here),  that reminded me of Lisa Kokin's asemic work from 2015-16. Capone's piece invokes ancient writing, such as Greek, that was written one way, then written back the other like an ox plowing a field, a boustrophedon. (The snake book structure, developed by Scott McCarney, was originally referred to as a boustrophedon for this reason.) Capone's thread-writing seems to mirror itself, the edges like tabbed or marked pages.

PLEASE DON'T FIND ME I'm bellowing still. Experiencing loss in the woods. Lost is me. Seeking actual touch (TBL)
Francesca Capone

Armchair travelers can search the Met collection with the word "book" and see what happens. Here were some of the books and calligraphy that we saw and that excited me, primarily for their design. I think you will agree that they relate to both Kokin's and Capone's work and to the Bard exhibit.

Turkish Qur'an Manuscript
15th-16th c.
sewn endbands

page view

Folio from Qur'an Manuscript, Egypt or Iraq
9th-early 10th c.

Folio from the "Qur'an of 'Umar Aqta'"
Calligraphy attributed to 'Umar Aqta'
reconstructed page, each page originally over seven feet tall
Present -day Uzbekistan
late 14th-early 15th c.

Second Volume of a Qur'an
Iran or eastern Mediterranean
9th c.
"second volume of a thirty part Qur'an meant to be read over the course of a month"

I liked how these displayed together. 
Folio from the "Tashkent Qur'an"
Syria or North Africa
late 8th-early 9th c.
"based on early form of kufic script with no diacritical marks to distinguish the letters, and with very little illumination"

Album of Calligraphies
Turkey, ca 1500
Calligrapher: Shaikh Hamdullah, d. 1519 "the most famous Ottoman calligrapher"
Each line of text was by the Prophet Muhammad regarding moral and legal behavior, pasted onto marbled paper.

Panel of Nasta'liq Calligraphy
Calligrapher: Sayyid Amir 'Ali
mid-17th c.

Section from a Qur'an Manuscript
twenty-ninth section of thirty-section set
each page only has five lines "providing a sense of monumentality."

  • Books, texts, textiles 
  • Ink, thread 
  • United States, Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, and India 
  • Fourth century through the twenty-first century 

Different museums. Various purposes, different religions, variety of meanings. All are related, interwoven. Whether they were chosen consciously or not, the contemporary artwork calls back to the ancient crafts. There is something powerful, dynamic and electric  in the lines—and in-between the lines—that speaks to us. A continuation of a chain.

I'm reading The Peregrine by J.A. Baker. Birds know about the plow and the lines of the plow; it provides them with food: worms and bugs for gulls and small birds; gulls and small birds for the peregrine. It seems we can all find nourishment in the lines.