Saturday, May 16, 2015

Mother's Day Special: "Nothing Personal," by poet Marina Blitshteyn

Mother's Day has just passed. I'm interested in the variety of conversations it starts among women in our era. No longer a simple holiday of greeting cards, flowers from the garden, or fixing Mommy breakfast in bed, Mother's Day has become a subject for debate.

This year I heard among my acquaintance objections to a holiday initiated by a greeting card business (false: it was founded as a national holiday in 1914 by Woodrow Wilson; the commerce followed); complaints that not every woman is a mother; that not every mother is happy to be one or has the means to be one. In short, like every holiday celebrating any occasion, it is as exclusive as inclusive. As many people suffer it as celebrate.

So Mother's Day has entered the new mainstream, which includes a broader and more searching awareness of women's real lives. Women of no stripe can escape the culture-wide reexamination of traditional roles and society's gendered habits. All women live with daily testing and pressure from outside and within. Wars rage around the idea of feminine empowerment in the US contrasted with that in the developing world. Liberation of the female body is in the news daily—as are matters of family duty, poverty, and proscribed ambition.

Nothing Personal by Marina Blitshteyn is the first title from Bone Bouquet Books, which extends the excellent Bone Bouquet Literary Journal in New York, a small press that publishes women writers. Blitshteyn's volume has nothing that links it directly to Mother's Day, but everything to do with the being the daughter of a mother who, like most, haunts her. Her poems implicitly ask parents what they think they are doing and what world they think they are raising their child for. This book constitutes acute confessions of a brilliant, female outsider in the clubby man's world of letters. Her dreamed ghostly, primal parents offer little guidance and considerable obfuscation. Did they ever imagine such a woman in such a world? Did any of us, raising our girls?

Blitshteyn's world is one few of us visit, that of a young professor and a poet. It's Academia, and, as her poems demonstrate, it's a world that young women are even less likely to visit, let alone to prosper in. Sexism has its particular flavors, and she has savored Literature's, to exquisite effect. Using careful word choice and placement, Blitshteyn uses an everyday convention—the call for submissions to a literary journal—as a way to bring the reader directly into an emotional situation she experiences daily, which few of us even imagine:  


would like to solicit
YOUR work for its annual
WOMEN's issue. We're self-
reflexive enough to publish
the best in critical and hyper-
critical poetry, in any form,
style, or length. SEND US
your finest work on the theme
WOMEN, open to your
interpretation, along
with a brief bio and
cover letter, using our
online submission system.

Despite the specificity of the situation, Blitshteyn has written a poem that puts any woman directly in a position to feel red-hot anger while her blood runs cold. The journal dedicates an issue to "Women" yet advertises in a demeaning way. The editors get credit for their liberality while the poet feels twist of their deeply ingrained contempt. 

YOUR…WOMEN…SEND US…WOMEN. These words, suggestive of the Neanderthal with club in hand, stand out like the few blades of grass that haven't yet been salted in the landscape by withering phrases like, "we're self-reflexive enough to publish the best in critical and hyper-critical…" The editors set the standards; they are the best. But how do we know they are male? 

Because women are the "theme" of their journal issue. Theme is indeed open to "your interpretation." Theme has to do with qualities and major concerns that inhere in art. Editors feel free to judge anything in their domain of "critical and hyper-critical poetry."

Topic is the subject itself, which would include women's realities, their experience, emotion, or truth. This is not being solicited. Ambiguously then, Blitshteyn shows the editorial door opened enough to be slammed in a common and terrible tease. If it comes through the door, the editors are automatically authorities, empowered to judge.

"Journal of American Poetry" ends alluding ironically to another standard practice of the literary profession, getting one's poetry to the editors via the submission system, a phrase that Blitshteyn uses brilliantly for her feminist and personal purposes. That it is an online submission system highlights the permafrost that underlies the whole sham of this satirized journal's interest in "WOMEN, open to your interpretation." Submit, Dorothy. 

Several of Blitshteyn's poems bring the reader with similar directness into the professional world of a female academic. She invokes the misery of any academic conference in "Club," where females are scarce and automatically at a disadvantage. She tells another woman,

"All the boys here love each other
You'll get the hang of it

At night they go out drinking so they can talk
They won't invite you

Unless you give them something to flirt with…

They all get a hotel room together
But it's really not homosocial

I just mean they all stick together
In case there are too many of us here."

As if there were too many women there. But her point is made with a loud, resounding slap. Of course the boys avoid the women. And it has to do with more than the flirting and sexual objectification. Can anyone talk about the possibility of their fearing the woman who has had indeed to be better educated, have a better strategy, to be better turned out and quicker on her feet? By appearing to instruct her colleague in the inevitability of the boys' hegemony, she adroitly shines the light on the deeper issue of protecting the power status quo.

Blitshteyn's daily experience of womanhood, no less feminist, is equally powerful, poignant, satirical, and funny. Trapped with no way out from masculine inspection and rules as she pursues her academic and literary career, she struggles even more with her heritage as a girl raised by parents with acculturated gender expectations. She is influenced by her mother's domesticity and by her father's wish for women to be just that way. How do we grow past our parents' wishes into the ideals we, in our own era, wish for ourselves, especially if we are in the vanguard of our times?

Nothing Personal opens with the poem, "I'm good," a title that certainly sets on edge the reader with any shred of feminist self-awareness. Every little girl is raised to be good. Feminine goodness can become a chronic disease of adulthood, often passed to daughters as if it were a gene to select for. Blitshteyn communicates the struggle with goodness in lines that cross the whole page, breaking in the middle instead of at the ends and changing modes as quickly as tired, useless habits rip us back from acting on liberating knowledge. Her confessional form leads us to expect a certain linguistic registers, and she foils this expectation with formidable skill. From early in the poem:

                                                                                                 it's about a power dynamic
particularly with respect to sexual politics        the man dominates, he communicates
in particular forms of violence                        I also occasionally enjoy the sensation of 
feeling trapped or suffocated during the act               with a woman the dynamics
have not been culturally enforced and are more ambiguous                I want to add
that at no point have I felt myself devoted to                            a particular kind of
domestic existence         short of my infatuation with my professor no man has ever 
made me feel in danger of kitchen work      my mother still lays out clothes for
my father             insofar as I am my own woman I believe it's time to experiment
with a particular kind of sexual freedom    the loss of one's virginity is a turning
point in any young writer's development   depending on the conditions and 
social pressures of her time, a woman can feel abandoned or exposed during 
the sexual act…

The wit in this passage ("short of my infatuation with my professor no man has ever/made me feel in danger of kitchen work;" "the loss of one's virginity is a turning/point in any young writer's development") is winning in any event. But in the big picture, here Blitshteyn brings together an amazing assortment of topics. Who would think to put these side by side, in the open? It no doubt takes years to develop and refine the high level of self-consciousness that permits the poet  to create so many concurrent streams—her thoughts about the sex act, her memories of her parents' relationship, and her fantasies about her professor as both dominator and husband. She confesses her bisexuality; her intimate feelings about the violence of the sex act and its implicit power struggle. She tries to separate sex and domesticity; she recognizes the unhappy connection between her intimate and her public, professional life. Does sex make her more vulnerable to the powerful? Did the loss of virginity give her more material, or more access? 

I think this is an outstanding passage for the way it unties a knot and shows us each thread of a tangle that adds up to something surreal, something that sounds insane. But it also reveals a perfectly logical and not unfamiliar way of being a woman. When and how can she be who she is? How would she know? When is she not in a power relationship, from cradle into maturity and career? How does she keep power voices out of her head? Why can't sex itself be freedom or bliss? Goodness is servitude, defined as it from without. Whose poem is this, anyway?

Nothing Personal is unusual for being both poetry, narrative, and sourcebook all at once. Surely Blitshteyn speaks to us through personae, but they are so deeply drawn on believable experience that every poem feels transparent.  

I suspect that many readers recoil at the very idea of feminist poetry. No doubt about it: This is feminist poetry. And does it ever merit widespread attention. It is keenly observed, self-aware, funny and sharp. It isn't mean, but it is smart.  It asks as many questions of the self as it does of a misogynistic society. Best of all, there are no stereotypes here, but an introduction to one very intelligent, capable artist in whose voice I can hear my own. Many will hear theirs too.

Nothing Personal by Marina Blitshteyn, copyright 2015, ISBN: 978-1-934819-52-4, is available from

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Walkin' Down the Long Street: Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson at 75

Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, Hog Hammock
Buttons, beads, crayon,
 pen on paper. Framed: 19 x 16 inches
Courtesy Hammond Harkins Gallery
It would be so easy to frame the story of Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson as the great American tale of rags to riches. Brought up in an African-American family in Columbus, Ohio public housing, soaked in the stories of a great aunt who recalled the horrors not only of slavery but of the Middle Passage, the child of material poverty grows up to be an abandoned single mother, raising her child alone on welfare, then to have her son die as a young man. Yet she endures and works, refusing to let poverty interfere with art-making, her calling. She relies on the support of artist mentors in the African-American community. She sells her work to anyone she can persuade to buy it until one day, after years of focus, one day after she's turned sixty, the MacArthur Foundation rings her up. Finally, she's rich! And, the world discovers, she's a genius!

Great story, and in certain facts true, but essentially all wrong. Robinson's story is of riches to riches, or perhaps from rags to rags. In the great body of work on display now at Hammond Harkins Gallery in Bexley, Ohio, the show celebrating Robinson's 75th Birthday, we see no changes of theme or even materials in work that spans over 60 years. Wherever she's been in time and place, whatever she's owned, we see that she's an artist who has always had access to what she needed. Past. Future. Community Memory and Race Memory. Love and Anger in passionate degree. And the sharpness of observation that we call Vision. With those, rags will always do. In fact, they are the most precious material of all.

Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, The Crowman.

Buttons, beads, cloth, thread, crayon, pen on Hosho
 paper. Framed: 16 ¾ x 14 inches. Courtesy
Hammond Harkins Gallery

Robinson was trained in drawing by her father, to whom she attributes her ability to see quickly and deeply. These skills were enhanced at what is now Columbus College of Art and Design. Were she to have made a career of draftsmanship alone, she would be one of our great artists—a great portraitist, for she reveals worlds in her drawings of individuals. 

The Crow Man appears many times in her works memorializing Poindexter Village, where she grew up. Many of those works are on a grand scale, picturing the whole neighborhood, where individuals are represented with only a stroke or two. In portrait drawings like these, we see who they are and what they mean. As in nearly all of Robinson's work, she does not allow the elegant drawing itself suffice to portray the depths or to communicate the importance of this person. When she was a child, the Crowman was a king—a source of wonder, friendship, and awe. He may have been someone most of us would see as a street person. She bestows upon him a winged crown—a bird that trusted him—and gives him brilliant rags that serve the role of royal robes. Rags are central to his richness.

Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, Themba.
Cloth, gouache, cowry shells, string on heavy stock
Framed: 57 ¼ x 28 ¼ inches. Courtesy
Hammond Harkins Gallery
Another form of Robinson portrait reverses the proportion of drawing and collage in a way that makes the drawing even more forceful and tender. In this life-sized portrait of her great-aunt Themba, It's clear where the woman's force lies. The swaddling fabric scraps give her volume and definition in the sense that they delimit her: they keep her human. The simplicity of the forms in this piece help us understand Themba as more human than goddess, while the size hints that her impact transcends the mortal.  

The size of the hands in this portrait is a hallmark of Robinson's women and elders, who are protectors and vessels. They preserve history, mores, and cultural wisdom. In doing so, they watch out for the current generation and those to come. This Themba, so simplified yet so particular, is both the wise woman who suffered horrors, yet endured to pass her spirit and knowledge into Aminah; and she is the mother of us all, the mother who asks us to continue her inherited values of love, respect, and reflection.

Robinson uses cowrie shells to sew together the two sheets of paper that form this drawing, those shells being reminders of Africa, whence Themba was forcibly carried to the United States. The picture that opens this article is also of Themba in the Hog Hammock community where she first lived on Sapelo, a barrier island off Georgia. In that portrait, her vision is enhanced with glass button eyes as she stares into the future of her community (the current population is under 50). Robinson does not make of Themba a goddess, but she does admit her role of seer.

Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, Themba, Healer,
Herbalist, Prophet.
First page of fabric book. Author photo.
The current Hammond Harkins show is particularly rich in Robinson's fabric and book works, works in which the artist not so much moves beyond drawing, but into it. In many works on paper, she begins with dry or wet drawing media, then enhances or ennobles her subject by the addition of scraps, buttons, or beads. These collaged materials serve the role of riches: They are the incrustations with which Medieval artists responded to devotional needs; they are the decorations with which animist tribal artisans responded to their spiritual communions. 

In the large format book, Themba: Healer, Herbalist, Prophet, the woman is portrayed with features represented by cowrie shells and a green button mouth. behind her (on the right side of the page) a wide-eyed, shadow Themba exerts (or shares) a forcefield with the figure to the left—another representation of Themba? 

For Robinson, the same person is, I believe, rendered observationally in every form of representation she makes. Themba with shell features sending stitch powers; the one whose face and hands dominate her physical being; the one with beads sewn onto on a portrait head drawn as if by Leonardo: In the mind and in the eyes of Robinson, all these portraits are one and all are real. Rags? Riches? Distinction is absurd; category and compartmentalization are absurd. The reason Robinson gets up at 4:30 in the morning and works in solitude all day is because expression of insight is such difficult work, requiring endless effort. To overcome the viewers' habits of distinction, to cultivate awareness of common wisdom, is the work of a lifetime for Themba's legatee.

Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, Aminah’s Blackberry Patch,
 1800-1930: Before Poindexter Village. 
Carved, dyed, and sewn
leather with five insets (insets are mixed media). 18 ½ x 11 x 2 ¼"
 (closed). Dedication: “Gift to My Son – Sydney E. Robinson on
his 15th Birthday, 1982.”
 Courtesy of Hammond Harkins
Robinson's brilliant books are well represented in this show. The book as an art form is a favorite form for contemporary artistic exploration. Shows of artists' books often concentrate on what can be made of the codex form. Robinson experiments with the codex as vehicle, but she does not play with the central concept of the book as The Word—as the means of communicating  enduring, valuable content. In her hands, the book is why we weep over the floods that destroy libraries, and why we shudder to hear of the Taliban's wholesale destruction of ancient monuments. By means of books, civilization preserves the memory of culture. This is emphatically what Robinson's books are meant to do.

Opposite side of Aminah's Blackberry
1982. Author photo.
Aminah's Blackberry Patch takes the form of a large leather portfolio into which smaller cases fit, holding fold-up, paper books of drawings that picture the busy African-American neighborhood of Aminah's childhood in Columbus. A gift for her son in 1982, this too is a vessel and an embracing, a gift that passes along memory and heritage. As a work of art, it manifests all of Robinson's quickness and control: the supreme confidence of her direct carving into the leather—the way she gives the impression of spontaneous writing on the inner flaps, paired with the neatness of the lacing and the perfectly-fit composition of the faces on the cover and back panel. 
Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, Vol. 3 -- “Life Throbs, the Neighborhood (1800 – 1930), Blackberry Patch.” Crayon, pen, buttons, thread on paper. Contains four “pages.” Closed: 9 ½ x 11 ½ inches. Open: 10 x 41 inches. Courtesy, Hammond Harkins Gallery.

Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson,
Emancipation Day, September 22,
1900, Blackberry Patch.
Author photo.
Aminah Robinson, detail of Emancipation
Day, September 22, 1900, Blackberry
Author Photo.
Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, detail from Emancipation Day,
September 22, 1900, Blackberry Patch.
Author photo.
Robinson creates books of overwhelming size, books so big that they are banners, so big that they fill walls. These are books that I compare to stained glass windows because they tell stories of broad cultural importance, and do it in a form that glorifies the content. Her commemoration of Emancipation Day is a collection of individual panels, each of which could stand alone, but which, all together, remind the viewer of many reasons to celebrate everyday African-American life. This, as so often in Robinson's work, takes the form of the folk life that binds the two continents. Emancipation is understood as a holiday of American Black folk. But Robinson strives to link the emancipated American to a heritage of first freedom, when Americans were Africans. She makes these connections through allusions to folk life fed by deep ties to legacies people might not even recognize as ancestral. In this panel, children play the game "Bird in the cage." In Themba: Healer, Herbalist and Prophet, she illustrates the custom of jumping the broom. This was a practice of enslaved couples trying to form permanent, wedded unions, which hearkens back to West Africa.
Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, scene of
jumping the broom from Themba: Healer,
Herbalist and Prophet.
 Author photo.

The "bird in the cage" and "jumping the broom" pages illustrate two manners of Robinson's work in "folkloric" styles, which are clearly masterfully considered and controlled. Whether she uses stick figures or expressive, exaggerated figures, each of her many styles is chosen carefully and used to convey the values invested in her subjects. 

One of the materials Robinson uses as prolifically as she uses paint or ink is buttons. In some of the work, buttons are virtually the sole material—buttons and some underpinning to hold them all together. Many understand these bright, common, utilitarian closures as her popular signature. I sometimes wonder if the charm of buttons don't lure viewers not merely to the work but straight past its passionate messages. 

The use of buttons, pins, and similar trinkets, however, points to yet another aspect of Robinson's almost explosively-laden art. Buttons have the functional and symbolic power to bring two sides together, but they can also serve, as any pretty small thing can, as a medium of exchange. Like coins, marbles, beads, or shells, buttons can be traded, offered, acquired. They can make a person rich. They can be used as people in European traditions use gemstones, to decorate and to denote special objects as precious.
Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, book cover, Family Treasures. Author photo.

The cover of the large, wall-mounted book, Family Treasures, shows a document that is twice-precious. It is family history, which is sacred, and it is preserved in book form. This comes literally encrusted, literally like a treasure that tempts the hand to scoop into it. The appliquéd title appears to be sunken beneath a layer of gems. Yet if the reader clicks on this photograph for a larger view, it's clear that none of the buttons are particularly noteworthy in themselves—just as an aggregation of coins in itself need amount to nothing. Rags to riches. Riches to riches.

Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, first page, Family Treasures. Author photo.

The page that follows depicts two women dancing, the one in a dress fashioned from a showy beadwork appliqué. Along the edge of the adjoining cover are tubular beads that Robinson may well have acquired on one of her trips to West Africa. If those beads have the significance we usually assign to items of exotic origin, that value sinks quietly into the fabric of the book. The detail our eyes value is the gaudy appliqué that forms the dress, which could be a scrap cut from a an elderly relative's castoff. Exotic commonness and familiar exotica; riches both.

Robinson works in so many ways that have arisen and disappeared only to rise again in the the current of her long career; and since she works literally without interruption in her home, where she eschews media connections and keeps her landline phone number most private; it is difficult to generalize about anything that may be representative of her "current" work. But I was mesmerized by a tiny work from 2014 that appears to bring to refined, essential form all she values of African and Western traditions; of nurture, elder wisdom, and of cultural memory preserved in word and in artifact. This is a "roll book" that incorporates a doll figure of a woman into the structure of a book.
Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, 2014. Roll book
with female figure. View 1, exterior. Author photo.

Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, 2014. Roll book
with female figure. View 2, exterior. Author photo.
The piece is made of black and white cloth  and knitting scraps, ornamented with buttons and beads of white and silver. The fabrics are homely, but the ornaments, applied with red thread, are most artistically chosen to lend a luxurious trim and texture to a figure that would once have been considered (and is, no doubt still, in some quarters) a "Mammy." The sparkling glass; the variegated ceramic beads; the magnificent silver butterfly brooch are like a lifetime's accumulated wealth in which this woman is garbed. Her riches are at once real and metaphorical. 
Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, 2014. Roll book
with female figure. View 3, interior. Author photo.
In an exquisite condensation of meaning and materials, though, we find that the doll is in fact the opening of a book. Its tiny, velvet pages turn wordlessly, each decorated with a beautiful frame of  virtual gems and pearls. In this book there are no words, and no representations of historical or autobiographical scenes. The work itself seems to represent the value of memory itself, or of history. The doll is a kind of guardian angel, a woman whose dignity is earned from her age and experience of labor in the past, all refined now to pearls of wisdom, placed in the hands of the bearer. It's an invitation to use the future as wisely as others have preserved the past in written and spoken history. Perhaps she suggests that our books of days—so tiny, precious, and intimate—will fill up and wipe themselves clean effortlessly in the course of time.

Since she was ten, it's been Robinson's mission to preserve and transmit the values she learned from Themba, a visionary born in Africa, brought to America as a servant beast, who lived for a century to reveal the importance of history to an intuitive great-niece. Robinson's gift comes without hauteur, powered by the heat of conviction and of talent, raw and practiced. In what most of us call scraps and discards, she uses her talents as thread and buttons to sew together African prehistory with the stories of her own childhood and her mentors for the benefit of untold kin for millennia to come. 

At 75, Robinson reveals through a lifetime of work that she is an artist comfortable in her own inheritance as seer, historian and conservator of her culture. This isn't work that could be done by anyone who thinks of herself as a genius. It's the work of a woman who doesn't see rags.
Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, detail from Folklife in Columbus Ohio 1957, altered spinning wheel sculpture. Mother pushing baby carriage; baby with bottle. Inscription reads, "Walkin' down Long Street." Music box installed in Mother figure. Author photo.
For other articles on Aminah Robinson in Starr Review, see:
May 3, 2012: Aminah Robinson's Oral History for the Hard of Hearing
August 29, 2011: Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson: Knowing Love from Where She Sits

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Ohio Art Council Presents "A Century of Ohio Watercolor"

Clyde Singer (1908-1999), The Onlookers, 1937. Author photo.
I spent an enjoyable afternoon at the Ohio Arts Council's show, which opens their centenary year, "One Hundred Years of Ohio Watercolors." A survey of watercolorists from our mixed-use state, where rural and urban are equally dominant, the show defines place and conveys a sense of time's passage. Some of the artists are famous (Roy Lichtenstein, Jim Dine) and most merely—superb.

I emphasize that I had "an enjoyable afternoon." Is there any other kind to have in a watercolor show? This high-risk medium inspires artists who practice meticulous technique that exposes any error. But it's a medium that equally rewards spontaneity and confidence. Watercolor is often used for story-telling or to crystallize magical moments in nature, two beloved subjects.

The image of Clyde Singer's The Onlookers in one of several that I had to photograph through glass and glare because it isn't part of the official media package prepared by the Riffe Gallery. But it's worth a few stray spots to show such a charmer. The Onlookers seems to me a wonderful use of watercolor. The paint is applied with a loose hand so that we get a clear sense of the watery quality in the variations of color, which usefully imitate the play of light of the backs of the men's coats. Singer doesn't insist on fine details like facial features; the hint that the woman's attitude is slightly haughty suffices to complete the humorous story told by body positions. Instead of catcalling girls, the men are all occupied with something even more interesting: A construction site? Earth movers? It's a scene of the battle of the sexes, the civilizing impulse of women and the boyish instincts of men, all laid out in bright, loose brush strokes that convey broad attitudes, not obfuscatory details. The sense of the passing moment is keenly conveyed by this fluid medium.
Ralph Fanning (1889-1971), Yellow Tree in Landscape, 4 x 5,"
date unknown. Courtesy of the Riffe Gallery.

Ralph Fanning uses the wetness of his medium to blur the yellow and green in Yellow Tree in Landscape beyond the vaguest of shapes. He does not, however, dilute his colors: The blue mountains in the background offset the shock of brilliance formed by the tenacious leaves. The blurring quality of the medium gives this painting its life, which is in the color: summer green giving way to golden autumn, yielding to the bare limbs and depth of winter darkness in the background. The fields of strong color, punctuated with streaming and staccato strokes pack a powerful, universal message about passages.

Fred Fochtman (1959- ), Pear Study, 2014. Author photo.
I like the way that Fred Fochtman uses similarly undefined, layered strokes of color to create an impression of reality. Though Yellow Tree and Crockett's Pear Study are apparently dissimilar, neither conveys reality through the use of drawing techniques, but only by the use of layered color. 

Mark Russell (1880-1967), Orchids and Lalique,  30 x 24,"
1937. Courtesy of Riffe Gallery.
In Fochtman's painting, edges are simply where neutrality ends, interrupted by the pretend forms that his manipulation of daubed color create. While his pears look warmly real, how could we ever grasp them? They are invented by the layered application of color in blurred and damp gestures. These are frankly illusory, paint on paper. The artist has painted color, not pears. He's created art and a question about where reality comes from—whether we create it or whether copy it. 

A lot of the work in this show is more scenic or descriptive, comparable to the purposes of photography. One such piece is Mark Russell's timeless "beauty shot," Orchids and Lalique. Stunningly posed and simplified, it is what fashion photography would become: dramatic, elegant, and focused on the product set in a consumer fantasy. With meticulous sculpting by means of mastery over his paint and brushes, Russell removes the natural beauty of stemmed orchids from nature and drapes them over Lalique crystal amphora, the height of decorative refinement. The flowers are hyper-real relative to the background and even the brand-named support. The Deco style, simplified design supports the central figure, but that figure causes not a ripple in her perfectly balanced and well-arranged setting. Does attribution of the minimally-described vase to the famous glass studio of Lalique increase the pictorial impact of painting for those who know the status of the company? Russell has brought not only great discipline to the creation of visual beauty, but our associations with different artistic media and social responses.
Emerson Burkhart (1905-1969), Street Scene, 19 x 22, 1940. Courtesy of the Riffe Gallery.

Emerson Burkhart uses similarly descriptive techniques in his watercolor street scene that depicts a view of the "other" side of a viewer's imagined tracks. His image does not, however, leave a sky simple blue background of possibility to highlight the figure. Burkhart's painting is all about specificity, and he spares us no shingle, rubble, drainpipe or power pole. The one element that is not specified is the figure at the center of the composition: This is essentially a stick figure amid the accumulation of rubbish and decay. This pictorial strategy and Russell's are opposite, though they both use watercolor meticulously to describe scenes. Burkhart is the documentarian to Russell's fashion photographer.

Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997), Sheriff,
author photo

I'm delighted that this history of watercolors includes abstract works. Fred Fochtman's fine pears, above, hit a sweet conceptual spot between abstraction and representation. A large-scale painting by Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997) of an abstract figure, is a merry piece of work and uses watercolor on a surprisingly large scale and in an unusually brutish way. No subtleties of technique here, he goes straight for what transparency can do, creating gradations of just a couple of colors. He uses it as scrims that can subtle cover or uncover, as if he leaves us scratching the surfaces to understand. How many figures are in the picture (a sheriff? a horse?) Who's going what direction? He makes us wonder who's good and what's bad and, Do you know them by their reds, whites, or blues? The watercolor appears to be crudely swabbed on here, not brushed in the painstaking manner of most watercolorists . A cartoonish image appears to have been made by an artist with primitive skills. Lichtenstein upsets our expectations of the medium. 

In other works artists use the transparency and the brilliance available in this medium to full effect, creating compositions of gemlike color and dynamic balance. Looking at Alan Crockett's Untitled (2007), one might be looking at a piece of translucent art glass. The medium's greatest beauties are on display, but as they can be only in the hands of a master. In this small but very busy, complex, and layered passage of his painting, Crockett has allowed no bleeding of color or line; each color is brilliant and distinct, each laid down as if he'd had the time a collage artist would have to consider every placement.  What a joyously confident display of technique and spontaneity!

Alan Crockett (1941- ), Untitled, detail. 2007. Author photo.

I'm sure this show is a treasure trove for art historians or critics interested in the development of the magical medium. For me, the delight is in the discoveries of artists I'll be looking for in the future, and of these and several other wonderful works.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Call It Something or Call It Nothing: Maika Carter's Progress

Maika Carter, from Call It Something or Call It Nothing.
View of gallery wall in Maika Carter's Call
It Something or Call It Nothing
In the small Project Room in the Gallery at Columbus College of Art and Design, recent graduate Maika Carter is having her first solo show, Call It Something or Call It Nothing, up through February 20. I haven't seen a lot of publicity for it, but I'm delighted to recognize this work of questioning beauty and maturity.

The show is arranged like eight
chapters of a photographic narrative. Its progression from subject to subject is clearly delineated; the content of each unit is presented in distinct, striking images, and the movement from section to section feels organic. Best of all, the last chapter constitutes a synthesis up of all that has come before. What has it added up to? Something essential and true packed into the the mundane and happenstance? Or an affirmation of meaning in life's trivial accumulation? 
Maika Carter, from Call It Something or Call It Nothing.

The first photographic grouping—of images large and small, matted and pinned in well-considered groupings to the wall—features shoes, mostly empty. The black and white photograph of ballet flats facing one another across a break in the asphalt has the punch of confident simplicity. We've begun a march or a tour, but there's a question of direction and purpose from the first step. How will we fill the shoes, what is the purpose, where will we go? Carter's photographs, black and white mixed with others of saturated, strong color, don't suggest to me ambiguity so much as they suggest the very human condition of eagerness and determination even in want of a map. The images are all bold. Does the confusion of direction among the shoes indicate folly or indecision? Or simply the fact that life offers little direction?

Maika Carter, from Call It Something or Call It Nothing.
We walk to chapter 2 only to find us in the place of the Missing, where things have vanished or are fading from our sight. This is a grouping of photos that arrest you not with a pounding message, but with an ache of sorrow that accumulates as you have to move up close to the many small images gathered around the larger ones. Many of the photographs on these walls are no larger than 3 inches square. When Carter blurs the content, it increases the intimacy between viewer and picture, leading to heightened emotional impact. The picture of the yellow warning tape leading across the unadorned pavement square causes by suggestion more sorrow than would a lurid, graph crime scene shot.
Maika Carter, from Call It Something or Call It Nothing. Group
photo including the artist.

Maika Carter, from Call It Something or Call It

But the next section of  colorful photographs moves us in the way we respond to the scrapbook of a big, happy family. Carter brings us to a large, rambling spread of smiling relatives and friends of several generations—people happy to be together, happy to do what they are doing, feeling special and loved. I feel certain that this passage of the exhibition will leave no viewer unmoved. Carter's casual arrangement works beautifully here, where we feel the high spirits and warmth including us too. I think that it's partially the scale of the pictures and the fact that we have to approach them closely—as if we were indeed perusing a scrapbook—that makes it feel so inclusive. I reacted to these not as to pictures of strangers, but as to people whose happiness I shared. I felt no barrier. The viewer is one of the company, and happy to be be there as a familiar of these people.

Maika Carter, from Call It Something or Call It Nothing.
Collection of friendship photographs.

Are we reading an autobiography or are we a character in the artist's? Are we following a tale of Everyman? The question cannot help but come to mind at many points, but especially as the narrative descends from confident, social well-being to a chapter of literal effacement—a Slough of Despond if you will. 

Maika Carter, from Call It Something or Call It Nothing
Carter gives us many alluring images of humans, but with their faces or head blurred out or cropped from the frame. The smiles, the friendly connections are gone in a new milieu of isolation and anonymity.
Maika Carter, from Call It Something
or Call It Nothing.

The narrative continues through several more chapters that alternate roughly between presence and absence, between happily socialized security and images of vacant, drifting society. 

A chapter focused on the photographer herself is particularly arresting. It would be poignant were the pictures not so bold and frank. As usual, many pictures—large and small—are assembled, but the viewer has to think twice to grasp that the subject is the artist, so they must have been staged. Every one of them has the air of complete spontaneity: funny faces, dramatic poses, but of artistic quality far beyond the photo booth. They are so natural, in fact, that they raise doubts about everything that has come before. Maybe the show really has been the work of an anonymous third party.
Maika Carter, from Call It Something or Call It Nothing.

The cluster of self-portraits focus on large, matter of fact images in full color and in sepia, of the artist in the hospital, recovering from abdominal surgery. The brilliantly-well lit hospital room with the bloody tubing emanating from her belly is unnerving except that she faces the camera as if she were in conversation with you, the friend close enough to be visiting. Throughout the show, you have been reeled into her world and point of view and now, here you are, paying a post-op visit, the kind you wouldn't be able to stomach with any but your very best friend.

Maika Carter, from Call It Something or
Call It Nothing.
Maika Carter, from Call It Something or
Call It Nothing.
By the time I arrived at the last section of the show, everything that came before had prepared the way for a rich consideration of the title proposition, Call It Something or Call it Nothing. The photographs in this area switch back and forth until their messages of anxiety and hope at last intuitively merge. The artist wonders, given where she's been and what she's experienced so far, what life is? Something or nothing? Love or anomie? Do we invest in the future? Or do we lie down and see what hits?

Maika Carter, from Call It Something or Call It Nothing.
The landscape Carter has chosen for this final reverie is far from dreamy, bucolic, or reassuring. The images are urban, spray-painted, tattooed, and seem remote from the reassuring sense of middle-class order and safety many of us associate with a life and with a future meaning "something."

I'm not sure that Carter is acquainted with John Bunyon's The Pilgrim's Progress, but in this show I feel a connection with that tale of moral trial and resilience. The artist takes us through eight passages of pleasure, doubt, and grief. Without denying beauty, she doesn't stop to lament when it's absent. A calm, even-handed air of acceptance runs throughout the show, whether we witness happy camaraderie or pictures of lost of identity.

I think Maika Carter's first solo show is a knock-out. She shows her powers as a photographer, as a story-teller with an excellent editorial sense, and as an individual with the wisdom and intuition that make her skills important. I, for one, will be following with great interest an artist who shows such maturity straight out of the box.

Maika Carter, from Call It Something or Call It Nothing.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Poetry of Pia Fries

I have the Pizzuti Collection to thank for introducing me to the work of Swiss painter Pia Fries. Though widely shown and awarded in Europe, her work is in only three public collections in the US: the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Detroit Institute of Art, and the Albright-Knox Museum in Buffalo. The Pizzuti's like her: The subject of this post isn't her only work in their collection. Perhaps we will see even more. I will hope. 
Pia Fries, one of five panels, Les Aquarelles de Leningrad,
2003, oil paint and facsimile on panel, 31-1/2 x 23-5/8."
(Print subject: Red geraniums and butterflies)

One of the most delectable moments of the current Now-ism show is Fries' five-panel work of paint and collage on wood, "Les Aquarelles de Leningrad," "The Leningrad Watercolors."

Each panel of blonde wood, planed to serene smoothness, has attached to it a print torn in half. (These are plates from an early 19th century book of botanical watercolors.) The halves are positioned in different ways vis-a-vis each other from painting to painting. Their placement sets the stage for extravagant, luscious streams, snakes, ridges and ribbons of oil paint, laid down with the élan of a pastry chef—Fries is sure to have used some of the same techniques and similar tools. 

The painting shown to the right includes all the elements that Fries combines in each of the panels: the torn botanical print and mounded  paint (not spread), raising the surface high above the board. There are soft, translucent designs directly on the wood that are made by oil paint so thinned that it appears like a stilled flow, as if it were marbled paper, or prepared microscope slides of simple wetlands plant life.

Pia Fries, one of five panels, Les Aquarelles de Leningrad,
2003, oil paint and facsimile on panel, 31-1/2 x 23-5/8."
(Print subject: caterpillar and moths on flowering plant)
Fries responds to the content and palette of the print with paint. But she does not engage in imitation of nature as we expect painters to do from a very long tradition of representation in various degrees of exactitude. Fries uses paint as construction material abstractly—suggestively—to imitate the shapes of the botanical and zoological life depicted on the collaged prints.  

I find it delicious that in the two paintings shown, the expression can strike us as both very abstract and strikingly literal. Above at the right, a stem breaks the print and muscles its way up to end in a crimson flower that pushes beyond the frame. The vitality is enormous, and it is buoyant too, thanks to the vernal green and brilliant yellow that shake off the shades from which the blossom emerges.

So too with the painting to the left, Fries uses her paint to imitate the subject of the print, which shows a caterpillar and moths. She creates her own, the worm ascending just as the one in the collaged picture does.
Pia Fries, detail from Les Aquarelles de

Pia Fries, detail from Les Aquarelles de Leningrad
From an angle, one can appreciate just how "real"—how substantial, how present, almost living—are the forms that Fries posits with paint. These aren't the result of trial and error, but of serene certainty: of a divine improvisation, it's so fearless. Her creation of reality from masses of paint is also rich, as in wealthy, confident that there is and will always be a sufficiency. Again, there is a divine confidence, a creative urge that takes your breath away.

Pia Fries, Les Aquarelles de Leningrad, 2003, oil paint and facsimile on panel, five panels, each 31-1/2 x 23-5/8."
These paintings, magnificent in their combined delicacy and assurance, attract the viewer to themselves by their rapturous rhythm of design and color. From across the gallery, they dance with an abandon of gesture that makes an irresistible invitation. Long before the eye can discern their botanical, sylvan, springtime subjects, the body knows them. They are a dance of sophisticated and elaborately choreographed gestures, costumed with flowing, dramatic garments. 
Pia Fries, detail from Les Aquarelles de

Fries' suite of paintings is so beautiful and so sensual that one can be completely satisfied simply with her bravura mastery of her materials. The power and freedom of her composition and her raw creativity are sources of infinite delight.

But beyond even the powerful appeal to body and eye, Fries' work packs an enormous punch to the understanding of what painting is; of what we mean by artistic representation; and of how we denominate the real and the represented—what's art and what's nature.

In Les Aquarelles de Leningrad, Fries seems to start with the proposition that the printed plates are already two removes from their natural subjects. They aren't watercolors at all: Any freshness of plant or insect—any connection to life that the original paintings may have had is gone by the time they have been translated into prints. The colors and unpredictability of the subjects are long gone. What relationship do these detailed, "accurate" representations of nature bear to their distant, living originals?

Pia Fries, one of five panels, Les Aquarelles de Leningrad,
2003, oil paint and facsimile on panel, 31-1/2 x 23-5/8."
(Print subject: caterpillar and moths on flowering plant)
In the space—"on the ground"—between the halved print, Fries goes not on a mission to find a better way to represent those flower- or butterfly- subjects. Representation is, of course, what we expect painters to do with their wonderful medium. Even abstract expressionist painters represent something, even if it is not tangible. Through the medium of paint, artists translate the real into Art.

Fries, though, uses her brave applications of paint to attempt creation of Reality from art "originals." Starting with the prints that are twice-removed from nature, she takes an approach that is in truth divine. She models organisms that have dimension, movement, and vigor pulsing through them. Her paint creatures/creations are suffused with an uncanny life that does not "capture" growth, movement and natural color, but performs them.

Once created, though, there's no getting around the fact that her beautiful lives have become art. But are they are like the printed watercolors? You can't close the book on these. They are specimens for a natural history museum; they come as close as a human can come to making a living thing. 

Is this Dr. Frankenstein? Is this a cloning experiment? I don't think so. It is a phenomenal exploration, though, of raw creativity; a fearless trip to the intersection of "real" and "artistic" or, as many like to say, "false." Fries is close to breaking the sound barrier in her headily original work. How magnificent I find the idea of breaking through two levels of flat representation to make life from oil paint; to evade traditional representation with an aggressive ideal of creativity. 

I can't get enough of art at this level: beautiful, masterful with materials and technique, and wildly ambitious in thought.