Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Beauty and the Beast

JoAnne McFarland: Still-ed Life: Tamir Rice

I was visiting JoAnne McFarland recently before an open studio in her Gowanus studio in Brooklyn. Two walls were filled with uniformly sized cards-- they were her "race cards" and  "woman cards."  JoAnne is a published poet as well as an accomplished artist and these cards play with words as well as imagery. These powerful works of art are painted, collaged or stenciled, many with with words or phrases sewn on with beads. They are provocative, sometimes very direct and other times more subtle. Check out JoAnne's website here for more about her art.  

JoAnne McFarland: Still-ed Life, Michael Brown

As I took it all in I noticed this small 5" square painting of an artichoke. It seemed an anomaly at first, unrelated to the rest of the work. The colors and construction of the split flower/fruit were simply lovely and as I drew nearer I noticed the pale stenciled word: Tamir.  JoAnne then pointed out the second part of the name "Rice" painted on the wall outside the frame of the painting. Tamir Rice was the young 12 year old boy who was shot to death several years ago by police who were responding to a report of a man with a gun. Tamir had been playing with a toy pellet gun. 

JoAnne McFarland: Still-ed Life Amadou Diallo

JoAnne's art does this sleight of hand. Like a hammer cloaked in velvet or a filigreed but lethal letter opener, she draws us in with beauty, wit and wordplay and then tells a story of pain, death, abuse and loss. Her work embodies the idea that incredible beauty and unimaginable suffering often co-exist in an intense spiral: greed and grace, virtue and vindictiveness. JoAnne's work pierces the heart with stories of cruelty and injustice, but the understated narrative is the indomitable will to survive by wresting joy and beauty from  bitter soil.

 JoAnne McFarland: A Woman of Color


Sunday, July 17, 2016

Art and Politics

Woodcut by Nomi Silverman in 440 Gallery's group show 
"Personal is Political is Personal" juried by Sue Coe 

The past few weeks have been an escalating nightmare across the world and at home: the Orlando massacre, then the bombings in Istanbul and Bangladesh followed by the police shootings in Baton Rouge and Minnesota, the bloodbath in Dallas, then terror in Nice and the attempted coup in Turkey.  When 440 Gallery chose the theme several months ago for our summer juried group show “Personal is Political is Personal” we were focused on the fact that it is an election year.  National elections tend to magnify all sorts of issues—from gun control to women’s rights, the criminal justice system and the scourge of racism and bigotry. The unspoken dread was that, unfortunately, the chances were high that by the time the show opened in summer—there would be blood. 

We are artists.  What can artists possibly do to effect change? This exhibit, juried by Sue Coe, is one lamp lit in the darkness of despair. It is not an escapist fantasy nor a dirge but a kindling of ideas.  Some of the work is heavy, sad or provocative but when these emotions are channeled through the mind and hands of an artist the art object itself becomes the reality, we are one step removed from our own trauma.  We have space to breathe, to process and to respond.

Ibn Randall’s work is commentary on race, inclusion, beauty and judgment but these works on paper are also captivating as art: boldly graphic, deftly drawn and technically mirroring the philosophical content of the piece.  Black text is stamped over the images, the lettering slightly abraded like a fading billboard.  The shading and half tones of black and white imagery, a combination of exquisite drawing and screen printing, echo the struggle to overcome the limitations of a life reduced to black and white.

Dale Williams’ paintings and drawings evoke the angst of our times. His paintings are populated by pathetic creatures, antlike, wearing cement shoes, wielding weapons or begging for something.  These tortured souls are the descendants of Ensor’s “Scream,” fragile humanity trapped in a hostile environment. 

--> We are drawn into the guarded exchange of  border control with Ann Stoddard’s video installation.  Our presence in the gallery is recorded by a camera and we become part of the video.  Innocuous questions flashed on the screen are weighted with criminal innuendo.

Divine Williams’ photograph of two young children stirs a conversation. They are holding hand scrawled signs that say “Hands Up” and “Justice for Mike Brown.”  Are they part of the somber Black Lives Matter march in another of William’s photographs on view here?  These two children completely disarm the viewer with their innocent faces, smiling reflexively for the camera.   

Textiles have been featured in juried shows at 440 over the past several years and Sue Coe has chosen some exquisite examples in this traditionally feminine medium.  Bethany Taylor’s medieval banners depict contemporary  conflict with embroidered titles in English and Latin.  Eva Capobianco’s homage to her childhood cowgirl outfit is a tour de force of lush needlepoint that invites discourse about our violent culture and girl-power.  Katrina Majkut uses cross stitching—a style of  needlework associated with prim religious axioms sewn by virginal young ladies-in-training to show us images of pregnancy tests and the morning after pill.

This is a show that provokes and engages us or enrages us.  It creates a space for thought, for discussion, for hope, revulsion and empathy.  This is what artists can do to effect change: we can provide a safe place to work all this out.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Story Portraits: A Visual Memoir

I have been working on a series of portraits based on old family photographs. In my last post I featured the screen print of my parents when they were first married. I am placing these portraits within a fantastic context-- sort of a magic realism-- that creates a mystery and gives some insight into the lives of the people in the photograph.  In my parents portrait they were encircled with the flames of young passion and a spiral at my mother's abdomen indicated the beginning of their childbearing years. The photograph of my paternal grandmother, above, is placed against a background that suggests her childhood home of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Of course the first thing you notice might be the skull and staring eyeball echoed in the sphere of a full moon. I call her "Baton Rouge Beauty"

I hung the painting as part of an installation with a root that I harvested from my garden last year.  I saved the root because it was so interesting. Not visible in this photo, the top part of the upturned root is beautifully whorled.  The two branches or trunks are also twisted around each other like the last verse of the old folk song Barbry Allen: the thorns growing from the heart of the buried Barbry Allen and the rose from the heart of sweet William "twined themselves in a true love's knot, the red rose round the briar." The portrait on the opposite side of the upturned root is my grandfather.  He holds a bundle of cigars in his hand, although someone mentioned that it also looks like dynamite.  I call this painting "The Appalachian Sorcerer" I happened across these whitewashed and weathered frames for the portraits which suggest the passage of time.  I like the mystery, the curiosity it stirs. Though the paintings are personal with very specific imagery, I am pleased when people interpret it and give it a back story of their own.  I like to hear what they think, to see how close they come to the story I am trying to tell.

So here is my grandparent's story: They met when my grandmother was a student in an elite girls school in Baton Rouge.  My grandfather was her teacher.  She was sixteen and he was twice her age when they married. It was a relationship that, although not unusual for the time, would have been illegal in most places today.  She was Catholic, from an urban, comfortable, warm Delta family and moved with her new husband to Appalachia in 1911.  He was from a family of Baptist schoolteachers and musicians in the mostly poor, rural and austere mountain culture of Western North Carolina.  She never really adapted to her home over the next seventy years of her life. She bore nine children and cared for many of her grandchildren at one time or another, including myself and my siblings.  She had a glass eye from an illness and, while she could be affectionate on occasion, she was a harsh, bitter woman. She was very outspoken about the ignorance and general backwardness of life in the mountains and told stories of her childhood that sounded like fairytales.  My grandfather was never without a cigar stub between his fingers and was as reticent as a cigar store Indian.  He was a slight, peaceful man and the undisputed head of the household.  He put a suit jacket on every day for the dinner my grandmother cooked for him.  He played the fiddle-- the "plinky-planky music" my grandmother hated as well as well as the classical sheet music pieces she played on the piano.  He was penniless and a poet and carved tiny wooden fiddles and banjos that my aunts later turned into brooches.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Boom Baby Boom

Boom Baby Boom, Screen print, 22" x 30" 2016 

This print is based on an old photograph of my parents from the year they were married. My father was in the army and the photo was taken in their hometown of Asheville North Carolina although they lived on the West Coast that first year in army housing. 

This is a relatively new medium for me-- screen printing.  The registering of the colors is a bit difficult, so I was going for a bright cheap holy card look so that if it turned out a bit fuzzy, I could salvage a few with the rationale that I was going for the clumsy quick print look. It turns out they lined up pretty nicely after all.  

I referenced Our Lady of Guadalupe (and a thousand other iconic Madonnas) with the position on the crescent moon and framed, not in a halo, but flames. I'm not exactly placing them in hell although as young teenagers married too soon they saw their fair share of hell. The flames are the all encompassing halo of carnal passion and the spiral in my mother's Blessed Mother blue dress is the spiral of life growing in her womb.  

I call it Boom Baby Boom as they represent the beginning of the post war baby boom and, in microcosm, their own private baby boom that progressed through thirteen children.  The title also echoes the epithet "Burn, baby burn" from a few decades later after the Watts riots in LA.  That particular reference doesn't relate to my parents personally but the suggestion of fire, anger and self destruction in the face of powerlessness is apt. 

Here are a few images from the print shop as the work was in progress:

Here are the film color separations. There were five colors printed with white the paper.

Spread out on the drying racks.

Touching up a few glitches where the red flame didn't print.  I also touched up Mama's milk mustache that is still seen here. The blue on this print is slightly off-- too much to the right. I was going to toss it but Roni Henning, the master printer in the studio where I print, showed me how to delicately scrape, paint and fill in to make it all work. 

It's been great working with Roni.  I was struggling with my five color separations and she used to print 27.  She literally wrote the book on non-toxic water based screen printing and has printed for Andy Warhol,  Romare Beardon, Red Grooms, Alice Neel and so many more.  She is also the most down to earth person you could imagine.  Also, her father played violin and the young man that is my father in the image above was a bluegrass fiddle player. 

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

African American History Notes

I'll begin with Sojourner Truth because truth is beauty.  I grew up in the Southern United States during a time before the Civil Rights Movement and I have been trying for the past several decades to educate myself about a part of our American history that is still unknown to most of us. We were just not taught as children about African Americans contributions to our collective culture.  When I read some of these stories now, stories of incredible talent and strength in the face of tragic injustice, I am so moved and inspired by their courage and indomitable spirit.  I know that some of my ancestors were probably the source of some of their pain, and I know some helped to alleviate their burdens, but this is not about me or white guilt. This is about black power and black beauty, an essential interconnected part of our American DNA.
I am posting some images of remarkable women here today in the hopes that just a glimpse of their amazing faces might inspire you to look them up and discover some of the buried gold of our American ancestry.  Some you will know already, some are relatively unknown.  When you click the wikipedia link-- read about their childhoods and education and the paths to their accomplishments. 

 Sarah Breedlove, or Madame C.J Walker-- one of the wealthiest women in America, was an entrepreneur, a philanthropist and the first woman self-made millionaire. 

  Edmonia Lewis-- an American sculptor

 Zora Neale Hurston, a great American writer of novels, short stories, plays and essays. She was also a folklorist and anthroplogist.  One of my favorite writers.

Here's another sculptor, Augusta Savage.  Beautiful work from an artist of the Harlem Renaissance

Marie Maynard Daly was a chemist. She was a researcher and teacher and worked with the American heart Association studying the effects of hypertension on the circulatory system.

Harriet Tubman, abolitionist, humanitarian, Union spy during the Civil War and suffragist. She helped countless refugee slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad.

I will close with this glamorous image of Joyce Bryant, a singer and performer with a voice and sex appeal that catapulted her to fame in the 1950's as the "blond bronze bombshell." She sang in nightclubs and  with opera companies. Still alive at age 87. 

Friday, January 15, 2016

Small Rituals

January brings promise. In the chill of winter we are warmed by the hope of a fresh start. and that's the key: just start and keep starting again and again each day. It eventually adds up. I have been making small crowns of seasonal flowers for my garden Madonna for years. A few decades ago on a trip to Thailand I was entranced by the custom of placing a small handmade daily offering, an arrangement of flowers on the threshold of a home or business.  That gesture, along with my childhood Catholic school memories of the crowning of the Virgin in May combined in creating my own simple ritual.

I consider it an offering for the health and well being of my garden. It is something I do after spending time on chores, weeding or sweeping leaves. It's a final quiet moment when I walk around my small backyard city garden finding just the right flowers for braiding into a tiny crown. 
  The cement statue is only about 18 inches tall and the crown of her head is about the size of a ping pong ball. The challenge is not only to get a harmonious arrangement of colors and textures, but to find blossoms and leaves on stems delicate enough to weave into a diminutive circle, yet strong enough to hold together. The process is meditative yet purposeful: I pluck branches of thyme or narrow grass-like leaves to form the basic braid while choosing a variety of more fragile flowers to add to the crown. Part of me is focused on the task at hand but my mind floats. 
  Since last year I have been photographing the crowns. The meditative state of the repetitive action in the weaving of the crown morphs into the more focused creative state of framing and capturing the crowned Madonna. Crouching close to the small statue to get just the right angle has given me a new perspective. The mass produced concrete virgin, bought at a roadside stand, has, through the lens of my iphone, taken on an anthropomorphic visage that I never experienced before. The play of light and shadows on the mottled surface of her face, combined with various camera angles, can give one the impression of subtle emotional expressions.
  I have not been as diligent as the Thai shopkeepers with their daily flower offerings. Days, even weeks might pass before I am in the garden again. The crowns I make dry out and shrivel, falling from her head to circle her neck. The dried fallen crown and the virgin's bare bowed head struck me one day as particularly poignant and so I began photographing that as well. Sometimes she looks like a stylish young girl with a scarf or stole and the crowns themselves suggest a grand Victorian hat, something I would love to wear in the Easter parade. 
I have photographed her through the four seasons, from spring through a summer harvest and winter snowfall. I'm not sure how much longer I will continue to photograph my crowned garden Madonna, but I know I will always be making a crown for her. It is something insignificant and ephemeral and I don't really believe it brings me luck or prosperity. It just makes me happy, it is very calming, to take the time to make some small beautiful thing for it's own sake. It makes me feel like I am part of the garden, part of the cycle of life.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Caught in a Blizzard

I am just now in 2015 writing again. I have moved my actual physical home and studio address a few times and am trying to restart this blog. My misadventures in updating the info in my account matches the velocity of the winds outside my studio window this blustery blizzardy day. I have posted an old sculpture of mine I call "The Portuguese."  Her glance over her shoulder captures my own wariness as I try to move forward. If all goes well, I shall continue with a new energy and approach. Wish me well.

The Empress of Outer Bloggonia