Friday, November 4, 2016

“Riverwork Project” and "Watershed Cairns" at the Jacoby Arts Center

by Carmen Alana Tibbets

The Mississippi is not my river. I was born to another, spent my childhood adjacent to a second, then  my youth with one drained dry (the rios San Pedro, Grande and Salado). I am from an arid region where rivers and the water therein are serious matters. Everyone is aware of water's status, distribution and use.  Life is centered along a thin, bright line through each valley, clear in everyone's mind, day in, day out.

When I moved here and met the Mississippi, I was a little disappointed - with the waterway itself and the people's response to it. I thought it would be bigger, lovelier than its parched cousins, respected, integrated into the daily life of the citizens. But none of those things were true. Historically it looms large, and it shaped the history of the region (geologically and culturally), but sadly, except for its flood potential, most people don't give it a second thought. Over the years, the indifference of the locals has rubbed off on me and I no longer publicly opine on nature-based topics. Conversation is difficult when there is no point of reference between parties. (Full disclosure: I am a former biologist and worked on endangered species of fish.)

Installation view: "Running Water: Riverwork Project" and "Watershed Cairns" at the Jacoby Art Center, Alton, IL. Photo by Carmen Alana Tibbets.

Visiting "Running Water: Riverwork Project" and "Watershed Cairns" at the Jacoby Art Center in Alton brought my ambiguous feelings to the surface. I meant for this to be a straight-forward review of the art itself, but each time I sat down to write, the topic veered off into my own thoughts about the natural world, large-scale art projects that incorporate the topic, and why I think they are failing the public. I felt as if I were short-changing the exhibit, but then I realized that perhaps it did reach its goal with this viewer. I've certainly spent a lot of time over the past few weeks thinking about water issues as I repeatedly rewrote this post.

Sun Smith-Fôret. (detail) Riverwork Project. Photo by Carmen Alana Tibbets.

Sun Smith-Foret’s "Riverwork Project" is a circuitous track of textile collage created by improvisational piecework (only a portion is exhibited at the Jacoby -it is nearly as long as a football field). The sprawling segments were embellished using a variety of fiber techniques and provided by over 60 regional artists, from all walks of life and all ages. Poems, quotations and imagery refer to rivers and their influence on human lives.

As I strolled along the length of a longer section, I realized relatively few of the references were about the Mississippi or Missouri watersheds. Considering that the work was created by people living adjacent to one of the most well-known rivers in the world, I thought this was a lost opportunity. If all politics is local (as the saying goes), then to promote change we must foster personal efforts - the distillation of local.  Using artwork to call attention to social issues has a long history, and although useful as a touch-point for discussion, I think projects like these are losing their punch. It has become all too easy for someone to stroll into and out of a gallery, momentarily celebrate the call to action, post something laudable online, then fall back into his or her comfortable routine.

Watershed Cairns. Libby Reuter, Joshua Rowan. Transgendered Frogs. May 2012. Howell Island Conservation Area, Chesterfield, MO. N38.664411   W090.677908.

Admirable as it is to bring attention to the issue of clean water (or lack thereof), I am left with the impression that viewers will continue to think of water conservation as a large-scale concern - and therefore, something beyond one person's power to change. Part of this attitude is influenced by modern American cultural habit, as evidenced by the contributing artists themselves. When creating their own textile pieces, many looked out of the neighborhood, out of this continent even, and over into the realms of philosophy and literature for commentary. Few looked at their gutters, faucets, or newly purchased cases of bottled water in the panty. I wanted to see a closer connection to what is nearby; a sense of immediacy, both temporal and physical, a recognition of the tenuous grip we hold over public water resources. What is needed is artwork that touches the viewer in a less abstract way, something to bring them up short. "Watershed Cairns" has that potential.

Watershed Cairns. Libby Reuter, Joshua Rowan. January 2015. Devils Prop Nature Reserve, East Beal Road near Tolle Lane. N38.420392   W088.840353.

As a counterpoint to the textile work, Libby Reuter's glass cairns and Joshua Rowan's photographs of them in situ suggest a more direct reference to aquatic systems. The sculptures themselves are lovely, reminiscent of the sparkle of light on water. The cairns were stood as sentinels around the St. Louis metro area. In some locations, the artifacts blended with the environment; in others, they were a stark contrast in color, texture and mood.

My persistent thought was that it would be marvelous to be hiking along a riverbank -or just down the street- and find one of the cairns. What person, when presented with a delicate glass tower in an unexpected place, wouldn't take the time to look around, wonder what's going on, really think about that spot?  The perfect chance to ponder.  Ah, but the sculptures were not given the leisure to interact with the public. Yes, I realize they are delicate and could pose a danger if broken , but what if?

We are left with only the photographs and that brief moment of time. Is this good or bad? I'm not sure. Plenty of people will look at the body of images and continuity of subject, and form an opinion shaped by those static portraits. That experience will be totally different and, I suspect, far less emotional than the possibility of the jolt of discovery en plein air. Which would they remember best? Which would inspire most?

It is true that "Watershed Cairns" allows viewers to mentally visit new locales (hopefully promoting an actual corporeal transit) and think about the diversity of regional aquatic habitats. But what will they do next? For me, that is the burning question. I want artworks like these to be appreciated and create inspiration. But not just a transitory lifting of the soul or a brief twitch of the grey matter. What I really want is for art to start making a difference, one that can be measured by a shift in action, not just an uptick in "awareness."

Because I grew up and lived in the desert, I love rivers. The scents, sounds and feel of wetlands are dear to me. It is an ingrained habit to stop what I'm doing to go outside and watch the beginning of every rainfall, a habit left from a place where rain may not come again for months. Not many urban dwellers appreciate mud puddles and rivulets in gutters as I do. Because of this, I acknowledge and applaud the efforts of the artists in "Running Water." This is important stuff, folks. Water is life. It's super important. Here, in St. Louis. Right now. And everywhere else, too. For everyone else. We need to be paying attention. But we're not. Visit the "Riverwork Project," think about it, discuss it, then DO something to change your habits.
Riverwork Project” and "Watershed Cairns" are on display at the Jacoby Arts Center, 627 E. Broadway, Alton, IL through November 19, 2016 and admission is free. 618/462-5222.
Carmen Alana Tibbets is Creative Director and Owner of Agosia Arts. Based in Illinois, Alana exhibits her one-of-a-kind fiber artworks locally, regionally and nationally.

Monday, June 6, 2016

"Little Black Dress" at the Missouri History Museum

by Carmen Alana Tibbets

Last week, I visited the "Little Black Dress" exhibit at the Missouri History Museum and decided to make it the topic of my next "Ten Good Things" post. I can hear you: "But wait, history museum, dresses? Your posts are supposed to be about art!" Well, first, I am a textile artist, and I consider educating myself about all forms of fabric manipulation essential to my craft; and second, clothing is one of the most democratic of art forms - available to and approachable by nearly everyone.

Although many of us think about fashion on a regular basis, there is a growing appreciation that clothing can be high art.  The turning point was the Alexander McQueen retrospective, "Savage Beauty", at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2011. Huge crowds turned out to see amazing creations that were the embodiment of McQueen's artistic vision. Museums are now realizing that the public appreciates beautiful, interesting clothing, not just for its historical value, but its aesthetic value as well.

Black and white "mod style" striped shoes, ca. 1960s. Made by Andrew Gellar.

It is easy to understand that something on display in a museum has achieved a mark of artistic recognition, but less simple to realize that our everyday wearable choices reflect the powers of our own creative expression. Perhaps this is because clothing is usually viewed as a generic item. Think again. Today, we are spoiled by choice. Most of us are not limited to some undies, a dress or two and a coat; a set of clothing that was the reality less than 100 years ago in the U.S. and still is in many parts of the world. We can obtain clothing in bright colors that were literally unknown decades ago. We can have ruffles and lace and buttons and zippers and beads and anything else we want. Such is our sartorial freedom that we can change the length of sleeves and hems (pants, dresses AND jackets) with every outfit. Most of us wear a variation of jeans and t-shirt daily, but the variety therein is also astounding.

Even so, there is always a vague sense of what is fashionable, what looks right in a particular situation.  That sense of appropriateness affects the decision of which shirt to buy, and then what pair of jeans and shoes we combine with it (how about those shown above?). That sense of what is correct has always been a mainstay of fashion. Designers have pushed and pulled us into new directions of personal expression, and viewing an exhibition like "Little Black Dress" gives us a window into our current choices as we decide what to wear each morning.

Silk dress with tulle and lace overlay, ca. 1918. Unknown maker.

Before I delve into discussion about my favorite items at the exhibit, I will point out that I requested images of those I thought were photographed to best advantage and would be easiest to view on a computer screen. All were photographed by Cary Horton; many thanks to the Missouri History Museum for providing them for this blog post.

The exhibit is arranged chronologically, explaining how the perception of black has changed since the Victorian era.  Beginning with black as a color of mourning, the exhibit showcases a series of Victorian-era dresses and mourning accoutrement. You are then drawn to gowns made at the turn of the last century, when public opinion began to associate black with style (e.g., the gown shown above), and further along to dresses for work and special occasions.

One of the mourning dresses (Two Piece Silk and Crepe Mourning Dress with Organdy Trim, 1875) typifies what comes to mind when we think of a typical Victorian dress (the idea of which has been colored by the popularity of the Steampunk movement). The dress is black, but also an extravaganza of ruffles, notched tucks and textured fabric. It is an interesting contrast to an adjacent dress (Two Piece Silk and Silk Faille moiré evening dress, ca. 1880. Made by Josephine G. Egan) that is flashier due to its fabric and beading, but structurally much less complex. For me, the comparison between the two dresses is interesting: one, supposedly somber and made for introspection, the other made for show, but the details of each somehow contradicting its purpose.

Velvet day dress, ca. 1919. Made by Chanel.

Chanel coined the term "Little Black Dress," and there are a few examples by her on display. My favorite was a simple dress embellished with a small ruffle around the waist and an apron of velvet in front. The silhouette is typical of the time, but translates well to the fashion of today. Modern women have an expectation of comfort in everyday wear, and this garment would deliver. You often hear the phrase "timeless" used for Chanel designs, and this is a perfect example.

Wool jersey dress, ca. 1960-1966. Made by Jane Franklin Juniors.

Along similar lines, it is interesting to note how many other dresses on display would be considered quite sharp today. The wool shift shown above has a spare, elegant cut with subtle, diagonal style lines across the front of the bodice that extend to the back waist. I think most would be hard pressed to date it accurately by visual inspection alone.  A nearby silk dress by Hattie Carnegie features a notched placard (the part that buttons) embellished with tabs of self-fabric. The 1950s were the highpoint for women's suits (in my opinion), and this is a good example; classy then, classy now, wearable anywhere. Here are two garments made over five decades ago. Obviously much has changed in the national aesthetic since that time. What aspect of these pieces of clothing makes them just as "right" now as then? It can't be the designs themselves, as they are quite different. Is there some minimum set of characteristics that make a garment appropriate for a situation? Perhaps someone has done the mathematical analysis of garment attributes and has an answer. (As an aside, I'll try to find out.) Still, it is an interesting question to ponder, and probably similar to what goes through our minds as we try to pick out something to wear for a particular event.

Bias-cut crepe evening dress with spaghetti straps, ca 1939. Made by Mainbocher.

Few people make their own clothes today, so some respect for what is going on inside these dresses may be muted. We often appreciate elaborate embellishments (pleats, beading, many seams) because we understand the amount of time required to produce these details. Less obvious, but more important, is what the dressmakers have done to create the shape of the garment itself. The dress in this exhibit that typifies the highest form of craft is visually the simplest. The bias evening gown shown above creates its body hugging silhouette with few seams and perfect control and understanding of the fabric covering the body within. There are no embellishments, just the quality of the cloth and the skill of the dressmaker on display. Contrast that with a modern sheath a few yards away  (Polyester spandex backless evening dress, 1999. Made by Arden B.), in which a nearly identical silhouette is created by utilizing spandex instead of skill.

Belted taffeta dress with added lace collar and cuffs, ca. 1949. Made by Traina Norell.

Another contrast of interest was between two dresses of a similar age. One is restrained, the other energetic. Both feature white lace as embellishment. The WWII-era dress (Rayon crepe dress with scalloped lace trim and bow, ca.1940) has a prim look. Its restrained style is softened with an abundant number of buttons along the bodice, lady-like gathered sleeves and a smidgen of lace on the breast pockets. The post-war Norell dress (shown above) features clever seaming to achieve its recognizable "New Look" shape. In addition to princess seams in the bodice, it has curved, hip-hugging panels that redirect and lower the gathers of the skirt . The result is greater control of the fullness of the skirt and less bulk at the midsection, both working to emphasize the idealized tiny waist of the era. The luxurious amount of lace at the collar and cuffs reinforces the feeling of exuberance of the time.

Sleeveless cocktail dress with pattern of cut velvet dots and velvet bow, ca. 1961. Made by Christian Dior.

My favorite dress of the exhibit was created by the House of Dior in 1961. Essentially a simple sleeveless shift, it would make anyone, 19 to 99, look great today. It features simple styling, but best of all, pockets. I had to spend some time examining this dress because the details are so subtle. For example, there are two pleats off center from the waist which form a gentle curve of fabric to mid-hip. In back of these curves, the pocket openings are perfectly hidden. Beautiful.

I'm already over the limit of ten good things, but I do have to mention two more. The mourning hair jewelry was great, but even better was the reprint of a Victorian-era book on how to make your own. The DIY movement was alive and well back in the day! Can you imagine losing a loved one, then sitting at home making a necklace from their hair? It boggles the mind. Also of interest is the collection of sewing tools. Similar variations of many exist today, but are not as beautiful. And don't pass by the deadliest buttonhole cutter I've ever seen.

If you've never thought of clothing as art, take an hour or so and enjoy this exhibit. When I was there, ninety-nine percent of the other visitors were women, but it needn't be so. Take a look guys, there is some interesting geometry and engineering going on in these dresses!
Little Black Dress” is on display at the Missouri History Museum through September 5, 2016 and entrance is free. Visit the Missouri History Museum website here for information about hours and other concurrent exhibits. You can also phone the Museum at 314/746-4599.
Carmen Alana Tibbets is Creative Director and Owner of Agosia Arts. Based in Illinois, Alana exhibits her one-of-a-kind fiber artworks locally, regionally and nationally.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Ten Good Things and "Printmaking in St. Louis Now"

Hello All,

I decided to write about art for a selfish reason. As an antisocial studio artist, I know I need to get out more and experience the art scene, but I also realize the only way to do this is to be obligated to do so for someone else. Hence, the promise for monthly posts for Art St. Louis' blog. The topics will be determined by my interests and every month I will visit some art related venue in the St. Louis Metro area, be it a show, museum or artist. My goals with these posts are threefold: 1) broaden my artistic horizons, 2) encourage others to experience local art, and 3) promote readers to think about their own reactions to works of art.

These posts are not intended to be reviews, they will simply be my impressions and thoughts shared with you. You may not agree with my opinions, but because interpretation of art is quite subjective and flexible, lively discussion is encouraged. My only request of you, the reader, is to elucidate to yourself the source of your interpretations and be able to express them clearly. So often we decide we dis/like something without clear consideration why we feel or think this way. Spend a few moments thinking about your reactions before you share your comments.

While writing this introduction and the first post, I felt as if I should have a cohesive theme, or at least a title for my monthly column. Whenever I find myself in a tight spot, I nearly always hark back to memories of my grandmother. She was full of aphorisms and had a ready supply of commentary for every situation.  As a child I was quick to voice my opinions (rarely appreciated by others) and my grandmother repeated something to me often; it was the concept of "ten good things." When discussing someone else (i.e. gossip), you should say ten good things before you say anything bad. There was more to her concept, but I like the basic idea and so, when I visit a venue and write my posts, my goal is to find at least ten good things to share with you. Ten good things every month - how difficult can that be?

— Carmen Alana Tibbets, Art Saint Louis/Art Dialogue blog contributor

Mark Katzman. Nhà. 2013. Chine Colle Photogravure on Revere Ivory Suede by Cartiera Magnani and Handmade Yamaguchi Gampi Tissue, 11”x14”. Edition of 15. Courtesy of the Artist.

Printmaking in St. Louis Now” at the Sheldon Art Galleries in St. Louis is a diverse introduction to the world of printmaking. The exhibit highlights work by local presses and artists. As with any group exhibit, the collection of works explores a wide variety of methods and themes.

Definitions of types of prints are placed throughout the show, a helpful study guide for the untrained visitor. Many were familiar (engraving, lithography, monoprint), but others were unknown to me. One such is photogravure, a method combining photography and intaglio printmaking. Mark Katzman's prints of this type are in a corner, and small, so one is prompted to take a closer look. The darkness of the prints themselves further increases the gravitational pull. My favorite of the group was Nhà (2013). The first impression is of a moody scene, but further inspection reveals what must have been a beautiful day: a man in a white jacket riding his bicycle along a country road. It is a haunting image - so clear, yet so murky. I felt as if I was peering through a lens into an alternate world in which the sun shines both brightly and dimly at the same time. Of all the works I saw at the show, this one has remained intense in my mind.

Always drawn to animal imagery, I chuckled while scanning Stan Gellman's small prints portraying caricatures of French nobility. Each has a distinct personality, clearly meant to be humorous, with extravagant costumes verging on the ridiculous. Although they are different 'people,' I realized they all have the same bird head/face. Whether due to the intention of the artist or stylistic habit, it doesn't matter - the images are immediately comic and also a thought-provoking commentary on politics and human nature.

Tom Huck's 8'x10' triptych, The Transformation of Brandy Baghead (2007-2009) is a visual blizzard of black and white, both from a distance and at close inspection. The prints depict a story that is crazy/funny/disturbing and perhaps so complex, that I got it entirely wrong. Featured are beauty queens, vegetables, chickens (live and cooked), body parts, an impressive array of power tools and so much more it defies belief. Unlike some of Huck's other work, there is less contrast between the featured characters and background images. My eye was constantly roving from one detail to the next, trying to piece everything together. I particularly appreciated that the triptych is unframed. Although it is visually weighty, its physical delicacy is highlighted by its mounting - paper pinned directly to the wall.

The collection of works by Terrell Carter drew me from across the room. Indistinct human forms depicted in reds and yellows give the impression of happy people, perhaps on the way to a garden party. The background provides a darker context. It is comprised of fine lines of chalkboard punishment-like handwriting: "A good negro is/has ______." The work is best viewed as a collection and I think a single image would lose much of its emotional punch. I suspect that the brighter visuals could override the text so completely that you could slip these into a display of matted prints at a big box store and no-one would notice. I imagine one of these innocently chosen without a thought and cheerily displayed in someone's kitchen - what a shocker when the text is finally read and understood.

Benjamin Pierce. Praescientia B VII. 2013. Lithograph, Relief, 11”x38”. Edition of 15. Courtesy of the Artist.

Towards the end of the exhibit are two large works by Benjamin Pierce, Praescientia CV (2014) and Praescientia B VII (2015) In each, a collection of characters populates a scene, pulling the viewer through a mind-altering tale of his or her own creation. The citizens of these works are a perfect and disturbing blend of human, animal and childhood dream images to which everyone can relate. I stood there with my skin crawling, but couldn't look away. This must be a common reaction because the gallery has kindly placed benches in front of the duo. The entities inhabiting each landscape have a definite presence. They are together within the frame, but isolated from one another by conflicting purposes. Some gazed back at the me with glowing eyes, others were blithely floating through the air, but all remained in my mind's eye long after I left the building.

I enjoyed the contrast of imagery and color in Lisa Sanditz' Space Invader (2014). A large, agile snake dominates the foreground. It twines through spare, botanical etchings punctuated with light-hearted, candy-colored pops of spray paint. Incorporated throughout, like delicate flowers, are produce labels, the small vinyl stickers we casually peel off our apples and peppers without a thought.

Tom Lang. On the Floor (from the series 6.54). 2014. Polymer Intaglio with Blind Emboss, 11”x14”. Edition 1/12. Courtesy of the Artist.

In addition to the usual framed and vertical displays, some artworks are presented horizontally in bound form, either as books or newspapers. I was delighted by the digital representations of the books on adjacent small screens. The viewer can see the entire work, slowly revealed page by page, instead of being restricted to the single spread open for display under glass.

Travis Lawrence. Christening. 2014. Relief Print, Watercolor and Tea. 15 ½”x15”. Edition of 8/24. Courtesy of the Artist.

This is a diverse and visually rich exhibit - there are many things I would like to share, but I don't have space. Following my theme of Ten Good Things, I will restrict myself to ten favorites (something that I found memorable, not necessarily lovely). Completing the total, in no particular order: Tom Lang's simple image of the anterior half of a mouse (is it dead or merely asleep?); Travis Lawrence's collection of medieval-looking woodcuts; John Wahlers' Path to Enlightenment (2011), a patchwork of corporate logos; Cheri Hoffman's indigo blue Ancient Rorschacks series (2013); and last but not least, Courtney Millman's Breath of Fresh Air (2015), a bold depiction of lungs and spirit. Miss Millman, by the way, is one of the young artists featured in the complementary exhibit of prints by local schoolchildren in the adjacent AT&T Gallery of Children's Art.

I strongly encourage you to visit the Sheldon and find a favorite artwork of your own.
**An “Ask the Artist” event and closing reception will take place during First Fridays in Grand Center on May 6 from 6-8 p.m. The event will give gallery-goers an informal opportunity to talk with artists and printmakers from the St. Louis area who will be available to answer questions about their work. Artists in attendance include Terrell Carter, Stephen DaLay, Sage Dawson, Joan Hall, Cheri Hoffman, Kevin McCoy, Jeff Sippel, Ken Wood, and Maryanne Simmons from Wildwood Press. The Evil Print Crew will also be on-hand with the Evil Prints Mobile truck, parked in front of The Sheldon, and will provide live printing demonstrations and cool giveaways. Galleries remain open until 9 p.m. for First Fridays in Grand Center. Admission is free.**
Printmaking in St. Louis Now” is on display through May 7, 2016 at  The Sheldon Art Galleries , 6348 Washington Boulevard, St. Louis, MO. The Gallery is free and open to the public Tuesday 12-8 p.m., Wednesday through Friday, 12-5 p.m., Saturday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m., and also one hour prior to a Sheldon Concert Hall performance as well as during intermission. 314/533-9900.
Carmen Alana Tibbets is Creative Director and Owner of Agosia Arts. Based in Illinois, Alana exhibits her one-of-a-kind fiber artworks locally, regionally and nationally.