Tuesday, December 30, 2014

True Confessions: Art (Reviews) and Money

Mary Temple, 2010, Columbus College of Art and Design 

My New Year's resolution is to make Starr Review available for some support: Notice, if you will, that we now sport a little PayPal "DONATE" button in the sidebar to the right.

I've written this blog for love these several years. I continue to do so. Writing sends me out the door to see new shows; writing makes me see them more clearly and retain them in my thought and actions. I'm always glad to hear that the blog stimulates and informs readers too.

I've never wanted to offer sponsorships or advertisements on Starr Review. I don't want conflicts of interest, and my readers don't need the distraction of facing with every post that difficult relationship between art and commerce.

Lan Su Chinese Gardens, Portland

Still, despite my best intentions and my pleasure in what I do, my arts writing is chronically underfunded—rather badly. 

I won' discontinue the blog because of that, but I need to do a little more than try to convince myself that it doesn't matter.

But if you take a notion to chip in a little toward the maintenance of the Review, your contribution will help me. It might buy a tank of gas to get me back to the Toledo Art Museum. 

Starr Review is not a non-profit institution for tax purposes (however nonprofit it is for me personally) so I fear that you can't get a tax deduction for anything you donate. But my thanks to you are many, and they accumulate.

Ann Starr
Happy New Year
Sarah Fairchild, 2014, Hammond Harkins Gallery

Sunday, December 28, 2014

"As Above So Below:" Guide to Landscape by Teresita Fernandez

Teresita Fernandez's show, As Above, So Below at MassMOCA is so large that it occupies several vast galleries, one of which is so high that it can be viewed from three levels. Each gallery installation refers to landscape: "Black Sun" is landscape. 
Teresita Fernandez, Black Sun, 2014, from ground floor

Teresita Fernandez, Black Sun,
2014, from mezzanine

Teresita Fernandez, Black Sun, 2014,
from second floor balcony
"As above, so below," the title of the show, is a phrase 
that suggests a liberating point of view on landscape: It's already had a real effect on my experience of a wild landscape. 

The Museum website's page explains it thus: "Describing a universe in balance, the phrase “as above, so below” originates from the ancient Hermetic tradition central to alchemy, in which every action occurring on one level of reality (physical, emotional, or mental) correlates to every other." I'm used to thinking of presence and absence, one or the other—opposites.

It's the assumption of balance that that threw me, especially close to the winter solstice—in November, when I saw the show, and December, and when I was hiking in wetlands along the Columbia River in Washington State. Balance has never been in my thoughts at this gloomy season, when the myth of Persephone's capture and temporary release from the Underworld makes intuitive sense. Landscapes seem to reflect a natural cycle of abundance and deprivation. The light in the sky is either more or less present to us; lavished or withheld. 

In Fernandez's "Black Sun," however, she models this idea of balance in a work that is  visually arresting and at the same time can have a real physical effect on the body and senses. Created of translucent tubing in variously saturated yellow and gray, hung from the three-story ceiling. It is otherwise virtually impossible to describe. Even though it is fixed, it is never the same.
Teresita Fernandez, Black Sun, 2014, from
the ground floor

With every shift of the viewer's position, "Black Sun" appears quite different, and the new aspect of the installation reflects a new aspect of the viewer. As I moved along beneath it, and to different heights vis-à-vis the naturally lit work, only my position made the work present new aspects and moods. Sometimes the gray-black would block the yellows and make me cringe under its gloom. From other stations it could fill the room with golden glow; it could be a storm coming on, or the promise of life after the deluge. The light and dark, clouds and sun, hope and despair are divided only by the viewer's position, anticipation, and interpretation. As a model of a landscape through which we move, "Black Sun" remains in balance. Neither golden nor black ever dominates absolutely.

Fernandez shows us "Black Sun" even when we aren't looking at it. Reflection and shadow—secondary, we believe, and out of the artist's control—are nevertheless central to her visual awareness. This breadth of visual consciousness is a central connection to landscape. For Fernandez's work doesn't have only one, solid focal point. She recognizes that the viewer for  landscape has to keep moving. Landscape isn't something one takes in from a single place.

It excites me that Fernandez's work refers not to a genre of art but to real landscape. She's not referring to painting by Constable or Turner. Scale is crucial. Her works in As Above, So Below imitate natural landscape by being so large that a viewer cannot take a stand and claim to have seen them. Without movement, there's no way to know them. Hence the multiplicity of focal points, discovered with movement.

Viewers can find eccentric, personal points of orientation within "Black Sun" or any works in Fernandez's show. "Black Sun" enlivens one's peripheral vision and sixth sense. Shadows make or extend shapes beyond the literal limits of the work, where you might not normally even turn your eye. Moving under, around, and above this work, I discovered that I used my eyes and senses the way I would outside of an art gallery, letting them roam, return, and reorient.

Teresita Fernandez,
Bonsai, 2014. Object
and reflection.
Teresita Fernandez, Black Sun and painting from Golden
India ink on reflective gold-chromed panels, 2014
In open landscape, vastness can both stimulate and overwhelm. When we look into tremendous expanses, we are eager to find details to give us focus, lest we lose our bearings and flounder in the undifferentiated desert, field, or forest. To focus on tiny events, minute variations, and their immediate environs helps us tame our sense of vulnerability. We put on blinkers that allow us take in only what we can deal with. Naturalists construct our understanding of the world thus, by observing details that eventually add up. Their sum creates whatever ease humans can realize in outsized natural landscape.

Teresita Fernandez, Golden series painting, detail. India ink on
gold-chrome panel. (See full view, above)
Fernandez nods specifically to our search for focus in her painted landscapes, made with India ink on gold-chromed panels. Water-based ink brushed onto a metallic support does not take precise direction from an artist. Even to get coverage to the point of real blackness has to require very considerable patience. Ink will shrink from a metallic surface in unpredictable ways, forming its own shapes and textures. 

In the minute detail of the enormous painting pictured above, hanging in the gallery with "Black Sun," one has to search for any details in what appears to be a night sky that has drained all its life into the golden ground. Searching begets further searching as the eye is rewarded with specks of golden "light" that the ink fails to cover. This particular landscape painting turns the viewer into an explorer: We must keep walking the length of the huge piece, viewing it from different angles, to catch what "starlight" flashes reveal themselves.

Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Clamas, Washington
Since seeing the Fernandez work at MassMOCA, I've been in Washington state, hiking along the Columbia River Gorge in tremendous landscape of expansive sky, low clouds, distant cliffs, and vast, reedy marshes underfoot. Fernandez devised work large enough to make her viewer move and explore from many positions, but its scale cannot compare with the reality of a place like the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge. My photograph of the landscape reduces the complexity of experience a hundred times over: That is, it turns it into a scene, like a painting. A picture never contains the doubt one feels in the reality of contrasting scale between one's body and its position in that place. The camera produces distance and adds an idea of nonexistent control.

My reactions to such places mingle joy (in the beauty and freshness) and fear (awareness of the lack of knowledge and skill that make me vulnerable to accident). What delights me threatens me too. 

So how did my friend and I spend our day? We moved. Positioning and repositioning ourselves; measuring ourselves against the small things we observed carefully to give us a sense of where we were inside the landscape we saw when we arrived.

Leaning over a broken twig, trying to imagine how the grass got seeded in a tall tree stump, or admiring the world perfectly reflected upside down in a puddle—all were essentially comforting acts that allowed us to merge slowly with the landscape without becoming frozen in one position of fear, exploration's opposite. We knew the big picture because we sensed it constantly with our peripheral senses, in the shadows cast by moving clouds, the movement of the reeds in the wind, the rippling color on the water.

Beyond renewed awareness of the balance between the vast and small scales in the landscape, the idea, "As above, so below," provided a fascinating way to experience everything—not only the light (What did I mean by its being a "gray day?") but even the shapes in the landscape. Why were the clouds and the stream shaped as they were? Was it a balance with meaning? Reflections in the pond led my imagination further underground, to "see" more reflections. As above, so below.

When we left the Steigerwald Refuge that early December afternoon around 3:30, it was getting dark. It was night by 5:00. With a sigh, I began dreaming about the solstice when the light "comes back" again. Maybe it does come back. But I had to entertain a more sophisticated notion. Maybe I see the light from a different place, showing through worn spots in Nature, a naturally slippery and dynamic medium. 
Tersita Fernandez, detail from a Golden series painting, India ink on gold-chrome panel.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Timberline Lodge: Mt. Hood's Alpine Lodge of Art

Artist unknown. Painting of Mt Hood hanging inside Timberline
Mt. Hood, brilliant white with snowfields and glaciers, is one of the great beauties of the Cascade Mountains. Against blue sky, it rises spectacularly to the east of Portland. But it disappears just as often, like a god retreating into his gray, misty cloak formed by the fogs of the Columbia River and its rain forests, which block the eastern horizon from the city.
U.S. Forest Service photo by George Henderson. Mt. Hood and Timberline Lodge 1943.

Those who travel Mt. Hood above the tree line, as any devoted skier does, are greeted by the historic Timberline Lodge. This U.S. National Historic Landmark is one of many rustic lodges that provide fine accommodations for visitors to National Parks and Forests. It exudes a sense of yesteryear comfort. Certainly I'd expect to pull up my stool at the bar next to Bing Crosby in his ski togs and scarf.

Timberline was built, however, to relieve the hardest necessity, having risen over the period of fifteen months between 1936 and 1938. It was a project of President Roosevelt's Depression Works Project Administration. The WPA lodge construction put hundreds of Oregonians to work. Timberline is the largest of all the national, publicly-owned lodges. 
Timberline Lodge, Oregon Encyclopedia, Oregon Historical

Perhaps the most special thing about it though, is that it was funded by the WPA's Arts category. The building was constructed entirely by hand, by Oregonian laborers, craftsmen, and artisans. Works by its fine artists hang on the walls. 

Everything in Timberline—at the levels of framing, exterior design (shake shingles, carved entry door, cast iron fittings), interior decoration (tile floors, mosaic and carved wall mountings, purpose-made furniture with locally-fabricated textiles; carved beams and newel posts)—everything shows the hand that made it. And there were many hands. We are used today to glamorous and comfortable lodging with beautiful design, and sometimes even to original art on the walls. But to find a place with the sense of large completeness resulting from the detectable efforts of individuals is rare. The idea of Timberline is closer to the idea of a cathedral than to a luxury hotel brand.
Front door, with painted carving, wrought iron
fittings and decorations

Inside the hotel, the sense of handmade manifests itself in the approachability of every detail—furnishings and structural features alike. This hospitable feeling is communicated positively by the warmth of the materials. There is nothing high-gloss, cold, or shiny like stainless steel, marble, or glass. This is, of course, because with the goal of featuring Oregon's resources—its natural materials are on display. Wood, rawhide, loomed textiles, forged metal, and stone form the heart and the slow, steady pulse of the building.

Lodge interior, 2d level
The sense of slow time is indeed an important aspect of the place since, everywhere you turn you encounter the results of manual labor and craftsmanship. This may strike you, as it did me, as quite evident; if it does not, I think there is no escaping it subliminally. Foundations and walls of boulders impress in a way that concrete never can; support beams that reveal the character of the material and the judgments made by lumber workers involve the viewer and the dweller uniquely in consciousness of time. You are aware of time as muscular labor and patient craftsmanship, themselves the result of long training  and practice. You also feel the tug of the building's details themselves: It's not worth resisting the impulse to stop and admire the gifts of beauty and care where we expect none to be lavished. 
2-storey stairwell carving of pioneer travel
on the Oregon Trail

In Timberline Lodge, every detail is designed to fit together; nothing miscellaneous has been introduced. This made me think of my experiences of Frank Lloyd Wright houses—houses so thoroughly thought out that the furnishings and ornaments are designed for their effects in particular, designated places. Each building is designed inside and out.

In Wright houses, my aesthetic admiration is usually overcome by a sense of the repression the architect's sensibility would place over the lives of the occupants. I have a sense that life would be channeled by the house's strict aesthetic; that my life would be a rebellion against the beautiful tyranny of the architect.

Eagle newel post at Timberline Lodge
Timberline Lodge certainly has a defining aesthetic, and it's easy to believe that many find the rustic pine and stone roughness deeply not to their liking. In general, in fact, I am one of those. But the idea of this building is not defined by one artist's aesthetic. Rather, it is a series of coexisting narratives, all of which fit comfortably within the generous theme of "Oregon." Throughout the building, one sees that the artisans, craftsmen, and fine artists have taken their inspiration from their state's wildlife, colors, landscape, Native American culture, pioneer heritage, folk stories, not to mention the natural resources that provide the materials they use. One has a spacious sense of place and the many sources of "place." This is in contrast to a place designed inside and out by one person, where "place"is a single mind. 

Simply from moving about Timberline Lodge, I could find nothing that identified any of the artists responsible for the artworks that gave me such pleasure and collectively created such a potency of warmth and wellbeing. The newel posts, for instance, each of a different creature, had such character and charm. Were they from the same hand? I believe they were, but whose it was I don't know. The building, while financed as a public art project, was not intended to glorify artists, but to employ them as the workers they were.
Pelican newel post at Timberline Lodge

Will people ever stop questioning the benefits of government funding for the arts? It's difficult for me to imagine a time of enlightenment when this might happen. 

handwoven upholstery
But Timberline Lodge certainly struck me as an admirable art project, fully funded by the government in the bottom of America's worst economic era. I like it that it represents art as a cooperative undertaking, where many artists worked literally under one roof. These artists were laborers for pay, as artists always have the right and need to be. Here they worked anonymously but with evident joy on a communal project that would form an exquisite and vital whole of great use, delight, and benefit to all.

Detail of wildlife mosaic inside front hall of Timberline Lodge

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Oregon College of Art and Craft Visiting Artist Exhibition, Winter 2014-'15

Adrien Segal, Watertowers, #100-103, wood and cast concrete
I recently got to join two friends on an excursion to the Oregon College Art and Craft in Portland, where we saw a show of work by the College's many visiting artists of 2014. Each artist was represented by only one or two works, and from those we were left to draw our conclusions. I liked it. The  modestly sized Hoffman Gallery, a white room with a ceiling so high and dominant windows allowed a great diversity of works to be displayed without clutter or interference from one another: It was the curator, of course, not the room that made it so lovely.

Adrien Segal's Watertowers #101-103 was the instant hit with all members of our party. Three geometrical towers—engineered structures, uprights, constructions—do what water towers are meant to do by supporting shapes that we associate with water storage. These forms are disconcerting—funny even—because they don't take form imposed by rigid materials like their towers, but rather, they impart fluid form to elastic containers—balloons— that sag and droop under the weight and movement of their contents. Water wants to pool into a flat form.
Adrien Segal, Watertower, wood and
cast concrete

Yet in order to remind us of water balloons and liquid's rebellion against form, Segal has made the containers of concrete in three different finishes. Each seems to have been cast from a balloon, so they have indeed taken their form from the contents. 

As Segal asks us to consider our efforts to contain nature to serve human convenience and sense of architecture, Margie Livingston beguiles with order, disguise, and our assumptions in "Bumpy Grid #2." Livingston's medium is
Margie Livingston, Bumpy Grid #2, acrylic skin on wood, 12 x 14 x 3"
acrylic paint skin. This is created by layering clear acrylic gel and color (or painted design) in a process of spreading, drying, and repeating, until a smooth skin of the size and required weight result. 

Livingston's skin certainly seems to me like Caucasian skin pulled across a square that only in a forced sense can be called a grid: The placement of the "bumps" hardly suggests the evenness of a grid. 

Margie Livingston,
Bumpy Grid #2
The color and the smooth texture, which close-up can be seen to contain tiny bubble "pores," gave me reactions both of intense, human identification and of equally personal revulsion. The repugnance was a reaction to the bold and black nails, placed with martial regularity around the frame, almost crucifying the skin in place on the wood.

The sense of compassion it instills in me, though, has to do with the idea of disruption beneath the skin. It could in fact be no disruption at all, but an alternative structure, some other form of life or order within the grid. If we think of the skin as personal and human, we can imagine any of the phenomenal powerful process that work, break down, repair and reorder underneath it. Our bodies are fragile, durable, symmetrical, unique, flexible and brittle. I find that this piece—strange, yet bland, yet full of effort and stress—to be a haunting image of the wonder of corporeality.
Julia Heineccius, 1000 Steps, copper, silver, nickel
electroformed brooch, 5 x 5 x3."

I was delighted to find that a small sculpture I admired—an elaborately stepped, precious pyramid that would raise the pilgrim into proximity with golden gods—proved to be a brooch. As a sculpture, Julia Heineccius's piece was intriguing in its small size: The viewer has to collapse a little to get close and examine its details, its colors of copper and brass that could be paper or straw or metal, the mystery lay in the details that recommend it to the gods as well as to oneself.

Julia Heineccius, 1000 Steps, copper, silver, nickel 
electroformed brooch, 5 x 5 x3."
As a piece of jewelry, I love this all the more. Rather than a tiny sculpture, it is an outsized, show-stopping ornament. One could not with good conscience grab it to feel its heft and dream about the garment to which it might be attached, but I imagine that it could as easily be a man's as a woman's. It could be worn on a hat, a shoe, a belt: It's a piece that inspires even more than it decorates. This is jewelry that generates  persona.  

There are twelve artists in this show, certainly a great testimony to OCAC for giving so many artists studio space and time, and their students access to very innovative and deeply engaged artists. I'll mention only one more, however, Evan Baden.

Baden shows two large-format photographs selected from a project about the imaginary Taradiddle High School Yearbook. This portrait of two boys, from the "after school" section of the book would strike me no matter what the photographer's intended use or context for it, simply for its formal beauty. The deep peace communicated by the face of the boy who is being held is reinforced and heightened immeasurably by Baden's skill in composition, focus, and color. 
Evan Baden, "Daniel and Isaac, from the After School chapter of the Taradiddle
High School Yearbook Project, 2014-15." 40 x 50."
The beautiful boy, with perfect skin and a lovely mouth has colored lips and blue eyes that are not, in a work of this quality, only the gifts of nature, but of the photographer's sense of compositional balance. The palette of pinks and blues remains in a moderate range but it flows, from the blue shirt through the stripes of the pink one into the shadows or stains on the wall and even into the hair on the neck of the faceless boy. The pink is not only in the tee, lips, skin tones, and on the wall, but is highlighted on the ear, and, up close, on flaws on the main subject's skin.

The mouth, stacked eyes, stripes on the sleeve, stains on the wall, and forearm and fingers of the embracing boy all provide gentle verticals, where the major forms of the picture are triangles large and small. The shapes in the foreground sleeve and in the bodies of both tee shirts; the crook of the arm; the chin of the blue boy, and its shadow; the face of the pink boy. All these fit together gently, like a soft puzzle with a balanced variety and similarity of textures and tones. I find this photograph deeply pleasing. It communicates through its elements the rest and retreat it depicts.

I would be happy to have visitors like OCAC's, as I would be happy, were I more often in Portland, to frequent this beautiful gallery where such great things are happening.