entwined: sisters and secrets in the silent world of artist judith scott

Entwinted: Sisters and Secrets in the Silent World of Artist Judith Scott by Joyce Wallace Scott (Beacon Press, 2016).

Outsider Art has become a rather vague term to describe any artist outside the mainstream art world. It’s further complicated by the surge in galleries and museums selling work by these artists who are unaware of the sociopolitical economic landscape of the art world. Many scholars have returned to Jean Dubuffet’s original definition of Art Brut, Outsider’s predecessor, with a focus on the marginalized and institutionalized. It is here, in Raw Art, that Judith Scott is a creative genius.

I first learned about Judy when I saw this photo.

I was a textile major in graduate school and in this image I saw an artist who understood the emotive quality of fibers. Like Judy, threads are silent storytellers that contain memory, both literal and figurative. Though Judy could not hear or speak she could see and feel, recognizing that fibers can be shaped into bodies of comfort and sculptures of joy.

Entwined is Joyce’s story, Judy’s twin. Among her many accomplishments Joyce is a poet, evident in her lyrical narrative about helping Judy, and herself, ultimately find that joy. This only happened much later in life, after Judy survived a lifetime of violence due to neglect and unknowing. Born at a time when no one understood (or seemingly cared to understand) (dis)ability like Down’s Syndrome or deafness or learning (dis)abilities, Judy was institutionalized. This harmed Judy, but also Joyce who struggled to live independently of her twin.

As an adult, Joyce was determined to find a different way for Judy to move through life. She moved Judy to California and daily brought her to Creative Growth, a studio space for adults with various (dis)abilities. For two years, Judy rarely participated. When fiber artist Sylvia Seventy visited the studio, Judy recognized the material that would give her voice.

Judy worked doggedly on hundreds of sculptures during the final years of her life, a process in which Joyce and her family were able to participate. Her book is both an important account for understanding Judy’s work and a remarkable memoir about family and (dis)ability. Though Judy, who died in 2005, is the internationally acclaimed artist who introduced Outsider Art to the American public, we have Joyce to thank for this. Through dogged determination and blind faith Joyce reunited with her twin and then shared her with us. We are all forever changed.

Please note: I received a free copy of this book from LibraryThing in exchange for a review.

tchotchke

A Denison University art professor, Joy Sperling, curated a delightful show at the Gund Gallery at Kenyon College. Tchotchke: Mass-Produced Sentimental Objects in Contemporary Art is a group show of contemporary artists who have taken the mass-produced, the kitsch, from low-brow junk to high-brow sculpture.

Dr. Sperling took her Denison classes to see the show and I know three artists’ works really resonated with the students because they all wanted to do research projects on them.

Yoko Inoue is a Japanese-born artist whose work instantly smacks of criticism on consumerism. On closer look, you begin to also consider religion, politics, and the global economy. Inoue talked at Kenyon and the presentation was written up in the college newspaper.

inoue1
detail from Mandala Flea Market Mutants: Pop Protocol and Seven Transformations of Good Luck National Defense Cats, 2012
inoue3
This is a detail of Inoue’s wall of ceramic masks. I wasn’t familiar with all of the images, but many seemed to reflect cartoon characters. They are child-sized.
inoue4
Mummified Bunny, 2012 by Inoue

Another favorite of the students was another ceramic artist, Beth Katleman. I was unfamiliar with her work before this exhibit and I’m completely thrilled to learn of her! Katelman’s work is about gender, excess, and innocence. I immediately thought of Henry Darger‘s Vivian Girls fighting the calvary. This is certainly because of the imagery in Katleman’s ceramics but also because of the noticeable attention to detail.

detail from Katleman's Girls at War, 2012
detail from Katleman’s Girls at War, 2012
katelman3
detail from Katleman’s Girls at War, 2012
katleman2
detail from Katleman’s Girls at War, 2012

Lastly, students were introduced to an old favorite of mine, Betye Saar. Saar’s work is clearly about race, but through the lens of consumerism. She uses black collectibles – caricatures of African Americans produced as cheap, ugly humor objects for a white audience – to speak about race, gender, and history. Her objects are at once obvious, but become so layered that you spend time in awe at the complexity.

saar1
Saar’s Rhythem & Blues, 2010
saar2
Saar’s Weight of Time, 2013

The show is well-executed in selection of artists and arrangement of the work. Each work is distinct yet works in narrative with other objects in the rooms. It’s a show where you can move from the gallery’s front to back, then back to the front and suddenly turn around to head back again. I’m glad I had a chance to see it and to know that students were introduced to so many great artists.

 

 

 

fiber: sculpture 1960 – present

This past weekend I went to the Wexner Center for the Arts to see Fiber: Sculpture 1960-present.

As an undergraduate I focused my art major in fibers, mainly surface design and weaving. Then, as a graduate student, I majored in fibers and textiles. To this day, the loom is the most amazing tool I’ve ever encountered. It’s simply constructed and its parts are obvious, yet it helps us create one of the most complex of man-made materials, cloth. Warping a loom requires extreme attention to detail while weaving can become trance-like; it’s easy to be absent, only able to hear the melody of the shuttle and reed moving in time to your own internal rhythm.

The Wexner press release states “there has long been a bias against compositions involving fiber” – domesticity, gender, and the exhausting polarity of art and craft. To see such works in major exhibition spaces, first at the ICA/Boston and now the Wexner does help validate these artists – mostly women and many non-American.

The exhibition is divided into five sections: Architecture (sculptural or site-specific), The Grid (reference to warp and weft), Gravity (materiality, soft and fluid), Feminism (both in process and context), and Color (with and without). The big names are here: Magdalena Abakanowicz, Sheila Hicks, Lenore Tawney, and the like. My favorite work was one with which I am well familiar and have never experienced: Beryl Korot’s 1970s work Text and Commentary.

Video from Art21’s profile of Beryl Korot because you just have to hear the threads and the loom!

A newer work I really enjoyed was Ernesto Neto’s SoundWay (2012). I wanted to walk through it and hear the sounds of the small bells and seed pods attached to its base. Neto suggests in his statement that he wants viewers “to caress, manipulate, enter, or wear” his work. Yet there was no indication in the Center that this was permissible. Like many museums and galleries, I was confronted by security guards at each turn and heard a few times “please don’t touch the artwork” (directed at others, of course).

from the Columbus Underground's exhibition review - see everyone hovering near, not in Neto's work? Also, great article on the show!
from the Columbus Underground’s exhibition review – see everyone hovering near, not in, Neto’s work there on the left? Also, great article on the show!

Perhaps this is part of why fibers has never become mainstream. Mainstream relies on prominent venues with an old school approach to art appreciation – you learn the piece with only your eyes and perhaps sound. Fibers is tactile, emotive, and performative. You can’t stand and stare at fibers. This is why Korot’s work is still transformative after all these years. She provides the viewer with the process (through patterns, notations, and video) and the product.

The show’s catalogue is really beautiful. It includes even more work than is in the exhibition and profiles both historically significant and contemporary fiber artists. It’s a must-have for an art library collection. Also check out Jeff Regensburger’s review of the show on the Columbus Underground – glad we have a new convert to the world of fibers!

 

masculinity/femininity

In collaboration with my institution’s Center for Women and Gender Action, my library partially funded bringing filmmaker Russell Sheaffer to campus for class visits and an open screening of his film Masculinity/Femininity.

Russell is an Indiana University PhD student and filmmaker. His 2014 film Masculinity/Femininity was an official selection at Inside Out, the LGBT Film Festival. Shot entirely on Super 8 film, Russell asked filmmakers, theorists, and artists to create performative works that examine normative ideas surrounding gender and sexuality. Included in the film are responses from prominent queer scholars and artists such as Jack Halberstam (a visiting scholar to Denison last year), Barbara Hammer, Carolee Schneemann, Susan Stryker, and Sophia Wallace.

Russell’s visit was an overwhelming success. The director of the Center for Women and Gender Action had her student workers promote the event and guide Russell around campus between his three classes – one on exploring masculinity, one on the history of cinema, and the last covering queer theory. About 30 students and faculty had round-table conversation over dinner with Russell before heading to the screening. There were well over 100 students and faculty at the screening and about 20 students remained afterward for a talkback with the filmmaker.

The inspiration for the film, Russell said, began when he questioned how to visualize what queer theory does in writing. He wanted something else (dare I say something more?) from the queer theorists and film scholars he was reading. Like a classic anthology of theoretical essays, Russell’s film moves from one artist scholar to the next. While most of the scholars had about five minutes of screen time, some felt like they went on forever and others you wish could have continued performing for hours (much like reading queer theory).

Using 8mm film is analogous to the conversations about gender norms. It’s laborious; he can only get about 2 and a half minutes of footage per reel, IF the film even captures the shot. This means there are continuous visual interruptions and the image is granular, unclear. As an artist and former art teacher, I welcomed hearing another artist encourage students to consider medium and how it pertains to context. The content of Masculinity/Femininity is experimental and unpredictable. The medium is too.

Russell was an excellent speaker. He had immediate rapport with the students; he is funny, intelligent, and, most importantly, radical. I think his film may have made some students (and faculty) uncomfortable while it simultaneously assured and encouraged others. Also, he has great hair.

This was a tremendous opportunity for the library to collaborate across departments. A film screening and discussion focused on breaking gender norms exemplifies research as a conversation, not just a classroom lecture. It brings complicated and controversial issues to campus through a safe and welcoming venue. As the liaison to all the relevant academic programs, it was important that I was involved in this conversation. It repositioned the liaison librarian in a collaborative role as organizer, activist, and networking agent.

the heidelberg project

The Heidelberg Project started with one man, Tyree Guyton. Growing up in Detroit during the riots of the late 60s, Guyton was dismayed at the decay and segregation that followed.

In 1986, he decided to transform his childhood neighbor, focusing on Heidelberg Street. There were plenty of vacant lots and empty houses to use as his canvas. Guyton’s environment is made of paint and discarded objects, many toys.

Though Guyton has won awards for his work, the city demolished parts of the environment in the 1990s, bulldozing five houses. Fortunately, the court ruled that the Project is protected under the first amendment. However, that didn’t stop arsonists who destroyed another nine houses last year.

The Heidelberg Project is now a community organization that encourages residents to use “artistic expression to enrich their lives and to improve the social and economic health of their greater community.”

Guyton brazenly uses the tools of blight and abandonment, empty houses or buildings burned to their foundation and trashed household goods, to bring attention to those issues. The Heildelberg Project is an excellent example of activist art, continuing to rise form the ashes and encouraging the community to discover hope in debris.

It was a unusually sunny for a midwestern winter day, so the photos are great. Here are some overview shots of the two-block environment. I’ll post more detailed photos on my Instagram account.

The infamous polkadot house.
the infamous polkadot house
an empty lot piled high with discarded toys
an empty lot piled high with discarded toys
collection of trophies; painted clocks are everywhere
collection of trophies; painted clocks are everywhere
the doghouse
the doghouse
overview of artwork on empty lots
overview of artwork on empty lots
stuffed animals sit on a burned house's foundation
stuffed animals sit on a burned house’s foundation

kathleen montgomery at the mattress factory

Kathleen Montgomery is an artist in residence at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh. Her sculpture and installations in Body Memory Architecture are sensual and quiet. Many of the wood and found object sculptures suggest heads or torsos. The canvas forms are filled with mud from her own garden. The work is subtle and suggestive without being boring.

Though the materials – wood, mud, string – imply a primitive or tribal influence, I think more about the feminine and the earthly.

You can see works from a few of the other residents on my Instagram or Tumblr pages.

montgomery1 montgomery2 montgomery4 montgomery3 montgomery6 montgomery5

 

ohio outsider artist ben hartman

Ben Hartman was a molder for the Springfield (Ohio) Machine Tool Company. He and his wife, Mary, lived with their three children on the corner of Russell and McCain Avenues.

During the Great Depression, Ben lost his job at the tool company. Struggling to keep active, he built a cement fishing pond in the backyard. This was just the beginning. Over the next 12 years, Ben kept building a variety of small houses, walls, and figures, all deriving from religious and American historical subjects.

By 1939, Ben was back working at the tool company and spent less time perfecting his stone garden. He died in 1944 of silicosis, likely from his molding work at the company. Mary maintained the garden for the next 53 years. After her death in 1997, the garden went in to neglect. In 2008, the Kohler Foundation purchased the lot and restored the backyard. A year later they transferred ownership to the Friends of the Hartman Rock Garden.

Ben’s backyard is a visionary environment, a work by a self-taught artist that was primarily created for his own joy. Like many Outsider Artists, Ben’s artwork is highly religious (Christian). The work is monumental, not only in its physical scope. A visitor to his garden is left feeling an intimate connection to Ben, a soul laid bare in a rural suburb’s backyard.

(biographical content from hartmanrockgarden.org and the brochure available at the garden)

Springfield Central Fire Station (concrete, red brick, dolostone, and stream gravel)
Springfield Central Fire Station (concrete, red brick, dolostone, and stream gravel)
detail of one of the many houses
detail of one of the many houses
detail near the Liberty Bell; below the Bell is WWI's Flanders Field with crosses and fallen soliders
detail near the Liberty Bell; below the Bell is WWI’s Flanders Field with crosses and fallen soldiers
detail of the Cathedral, a 14' tall structure; this niche is The Last Supper
detail of the Cathedral, a 14′ tall structure; this niche is The Last Supper
another detail from the Cathedral; Ben wasn't Catholic but there are many Virgin Mary statutes in the yard
another detail from the Cathedral; Ben wasn’t Catholic but there are many Virgin Mary statutes in the yard
The 12' tall Castle had a moat, drawbridge, and over 100 windows
The 12′ tall Castle had a moat, drawbridge, and over 100 windows
Fort Dearborn
Fort Dearborn
an overview of the yard; in the back right is the Tree of Life (country, school, and church)
an overview of the yard; in the back right is the Tree of Life (country, school, and church)

I’ll post more photos on my Tumblr and Instagram @artistlibrarian

 

 

seward johnson

Seward Johnson is a New Jersey native known for his life-like and life-size sculptures. Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, New Jersey has a retrospective of his work through September. I recently attended the (very crowded) exhibition.

Johnson, an heir to his grandfather’s medical company, Johnson & Johnson, started his art career as painter. If the quality of his painted trays in the retrospective are any indication, he was terrible. However, his first cast sculpture won an award and Johnson, now in his 80s, hasn’t looked back.

Johnson started Grounds for Sculpture with the construction of the foundry, Johnson Atelier, in 1974. In a recent interview, Johnson described it as “an art school that would service the needs of people who were not academically proficient in the arts.” The grounds now permanently exhibits works by local and international artists including Magdalena Abakanowicz, Peter Voulkos, and Kiki Smith.

Many criticize Johnson’s sculptures as “kitsch.” I’d call it that too, but without negativity. Johnson has created artwork that welcomes those uninitiated into The Art World to enjoy art. You can get up close to the work, touch it, take selfies with it. The imagery is vaguely familiar – Impressionist paintings, mythology, and everyday moments cast in bronze.

The work is amusing – a gigantic Marilyn Monroe with her skirt aflutter – but it’s also alarmingly confrontational. Turn a corner and see a father and son fishing; I can’t recall the last time I saw a real parent and child quietly bonding. Tucked into the trees is Johnson’s interpretation of Manet’s Déjeuner Sur L’Herbe. As visitors crouch next to the nude woman and well-dressed men, it suddenly becomes very silent and serious. In contrast, you can hear children shouting with laughter and Halloween fright at The Three Fates (a boy peering into the cauldron asks, “is that an eyeball?”).

Below are some highlights from the retrospective. I’ll be posting more on my Tumblr, Nostalgia for Mud.

Marilyn Monroe
Marilyn Monroe
Unconditional Surrender
Unconditional Surrender
one of Johnson's painted trays showing George Segal's sculpture
one of Johnson’s painted trays showing George Segal’s sculpture
The Awakening
The Awakening
Double Take
Double Take