Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Artist or Fabricator? (part 2) Lynn Moor.

A while back I cited a successful artistic collaboration beween two artists, Hans Enger and Eberhad Schultze, a painter and a mosaicist. The purpose was to contrast their artistic collaboration with the deplorable subordination of the mosaicist to the cartoon maker, whereas a "real artist" does the cartoon and signs the final work and a artisan-mosaicist puts it together anonymously, often in some third world country.

Today I shall feature a different collaboration.

Lynn Moor had been a successful artist and teacher for a good number of years when, upon a visit to the Children's Museum of the Arts in New York where her daughter teaches animation, she was impressed with the artistic simplicity and the "soul" of the works that line the walls of the museum. She was moved to translate what she saw as the "creative purity of the children's art" into mosaics (I shall quote extensively from a ditty she sent me regarding her experience). She "hoped to experiment with how cut and placement and the technique of mosaic can serve to further the design and expand upon the original design, adding [her] own impressions in the process." The museum curators greeted her idea with enthusiasm and Moor committed to interpret 12 children drawings for the permanent collection of the museum.

Children are indeed natural design editors. They tend to forgo details and focus on lines and colors. When we look at a child's art we know immediately what that child saw and felt and not what was there. The kind of disproportions and exaggerations that took centuries to be accepted and become common pratice in modern art come naturally to a child's canvas. When I look at children's art, I see the launching pad for artists like Matisse, Braque, or Magritte.

Moor writes "On the New York Bridge, I particularly loved the big broad brushstrokes, the splashes of color. The boldness and ‘pop’ of the piece. To capture this feeling, of course I would use big chunky pieces of smalti with no formal opus."

We see the hand of the mosaic artist particularly in sections like the buildings, where Moor adds gradation and irregular cuts to render the random composition of the building, and in the sky, where the andamento translates the bold brush stroke without trying to copy them.

This girl's face is very static. Only her expression "speaks". I can see in her face my own daughter rolling her eyes and twisting her mouth when I reminded her to make her bed.

Moor translated the girl's temper with a regular, orderly andamento for the body and clothing, leaving the family storm for the blue background. I also like the fact that she did not attempt to construct the face in a realist way, following the lines of the face structure, but made the flow go against our normal perception of light and shade in a face.

By contrast, in this mosaic the static staging and double frame contribute to setting the skater's movement apart and making it HER image.

Moor comments: "I feel in love with the unique perspective presented by the artist of the ‘Skater’ design. I wanted to draw the most attention to the design itself, so I kept the cut and andamento very clean and non-intrusive so that the design was the star."

I left my favorite piece for the end. Here is a child's typically charming stickman.

And here is Moor's rendition and comment: "On the Stickman, I was not only taken by the simplicity of the design, but also the paper on which it was created. Big Manila paper. The paper of my youth. The rough yellowed paper which invited unlimited creative possibilities. It was the richness of these memories that I chose to focus on when fabricating this design, using marble and an undulating substrate to duplicate the feel and effect of Manila paper."

To convey her appreciation for the rough paper, Moor opted for a complex, double decked background.

The top layer is handmade with cement and fabric and undulates like a paper creased by children's unskilled hands. It translates beautifully Lynn's own reminiscence of the paper of her youth and in so doing, it becomes the real "subject" of the mosaic.

I shall leave the last word to Lynn Moor:

"So what is there of ‘myself’ to express when doing a fabrication? After all, am I not just copying the art of someone else? I asked myself these questions but the reality has been interesting. While choosing the images to mosaic, I had to find what is it about the piece that so charmed me, making me want to spend 2-3 intimate weeks with it. I am attempting to express these feelings of mine into the work through the choices I make in building the mosaic."

Lynn Moor is also the owner of Mosaic Smalti, and exclusive importer of Orsoni smalti.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

George Fishman's Mosaic of Arts Blogtalkradio

Mosaic of Art Blog Talk Radio is the brain child of George Fishman, a veteran mosaic artist, and former editor of Groutline magazine. It cleverly opens at the mammoth Art Basel Miami, with George roaming the exhibits and stringing interviews with gallery owners/curators and artists of all stripes (painters, sculptors, photographers, holographers, etc.). The discussions range from artistic techniques, materials, and approaches, to the nitty gritty of contacting dealers and galleries, finding representation, or, for a gallery owner, selecting appropriate artists and "composing" a show. This opening sets the tone for the rest of the series.

There has been six episodes so far. George has interviewd artists and gallery owners, but he has also hosted Ariane Goodwin (artist coach), Richard Davis who commented on a slide show of mosaics that he had taken on his recent trip to India, Nancie Mills Pitpgras who blogs enthusiastically at Mosaic Art Now and is lovingly involved in everything mosaics, Judy Hoffman who run a youth center in Haiti where needy children are taught art (especially papier maché which can provide them with an income), Laurie Hoffman from the Greater Miami-Dade Adopt-a-Pet program of the Humane Society, and I must have forgotten some.

George's interviews dispel the false dichotomy between artist and artisan. Artists discuss their visions, their experiences, their dreams. They compare materials and techniques. They dwell in particular on the fabrication of their works. They also address the vagaries of the art market to which their livelihood is subjected. The picture of visual art that emerges out of these interviews goes beyond the romantic vision of a plain air painter who cares little about the "real world" and works in a quasi trance, best incarnated by the legend of Van Gogh. Talent and artistic vision may be the cornerstone of art, but the work itself cannot be realized without technique and know-how. And once they are realized, works of art still need to be shown and sold.

So far, the radio show has given mosaics a prominent place rarely found in the art world. We have heard Gina Hubler, Carlos Alves, Brit Hammer, and Eric Rattan.I am heartened by the fact that mosaics are discussed along other arts with which they share familiar considerations about techniques, materials, tools, forms, colors, inspiration, marketing, etc. It is, I think, a giant step in the right direction, and one I advocated in an earlier post. And indeed, Gina Hubler mentioned that galleries are more likely to be receptive to mosaics than they were a few years back. SAMA, about which I shall write another time, is another venue that brings mosaics to the attention of and in a dialog with the art world.

The "ghettoisation" of any field is its kiss of death. I have learned that much in my long academic career: universities and programs encourage multidisciplinary approaches, and scholars who once spent their life on one narrow subject or one writer (I come from literature) now offer courses in which the same writer or subject is examined in context, through various disciplinary filters, along with other signs of his/her times. Mosaics are not there yet, and I suspect that George's current listeners are primarily artists, perhaps even primarily mosaic artists; but it is only the beginning and I am sure that many more art lovers, artists and non-artists, will find their way to the pages of Mosaic of Arts Blogtalkradio.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Artist or fabricator (part 1)

On my site I wrote: A degree of artisanship is clearly inseparable from the creative process. A mosaic is the end result of a myriad of choices and manipulations none of which should be left to chance or to a third party. Some mosaic manufacturers choose to commission a design (also called a cartoon) and to outsource its execution to Mexico, China or Peru. I do not consider those works of art.

Sensing that this statement was too radical, I added:

This is not to be confused with a mosaic that interprets a painting, in which the choices made by the mosaicist can be of more interest than the source. The same can be said of the close association of a painter-cartoonist with a mosaic artist who become equal partners in authoring and signing their mosaics as did Hans Unger and Eberhard Schulze

I have not been able to find out much about them and what I did find is not verified, but here it is anyway. Unger and Schulze created mosaics roughly from 1960 to 1974. Unger died in 1975. I do not know if Schulze kept creating mosaics, but soon after Unger's death, a spinal injury forced him to quit mosaics. He then launched a very successful second career as an aquarist, becoming England’s leading discus fish specialist.

We have all seen endless mosaics depicting fish. Few designs are easier. This one goes beyond the representation of a fish to create an atmosphere in a way that shouts "Mosaics!". I find it spectacular. The sectioning, the colors, the andamento, and the irregular cuts of the material are just magnificent. (Click on any of the images to see an enlargement).

The man on the right is another example of the artists' talent. The design is highly stylized and simplified (I do not know the title of this piece, but I see it as Moses). Nor have I seen the cartoon, but it is clear that Unger's design was created with an eye to its translation into a mosaic and that Schulze's interpretation draws on his artistic mastery of mosaic techniques.

Here are two more examples of this remarkable collaboration.

Another artistic trait of Unger and Schulze's creations is their backgrounds. They are not, as is unfortunately often the case, just fillers added once the motif is completed. As much skill and thought goes into them as in the motif. It is often hard to decide which is main motif and which is background. And certainly, without the "background" the work would not have the same impact.

Conversely, to set off their main motif without cluttering the mosaic, the artists opted for paint on highly textured wood.

No longer a hidden component, the visible substrate becomes part of the final work, and its painted grain functions like another tessera.

The same goes for the rustic frame. Rather than being an add-on or an afterthought, it is an integral component of the mosaic.

For another giant mosaic with Schulze's own commentary look here.

There will be a second part to this post, featuring the work of mosaic artist Lynn Moor

Friday, January 22, 2010

Why blog?

I've taken part in a number of forums and discussion sites about mosaics. I've discussed and debated every aspect of the art with other mosaicists. It has certainly been highly satisfying. But these discussions spin in a circle. We preach to the choir. In my ideal scenario, this blog would indeed be read by fellow mosaicists, but also by non mosaicists. I would like it to be visited by art lovers who wish to enhance their ability to appreciate and enjoy mosaics by understanding what goes into them.

Maybe this is wishful thinking. Cyberspace is teeming with blogs on every imaginable subject and I doubt that anyone would wake up one bright morning and say "Oh, today, I really need to find out more about mosaics." A more likely scenario would be someone's chance encounter with contemporary mosaics. The occasion may be a show, a gallery, public art, a radio talk like the series launched by George Fishman (thank you George for a wonderful initiative), a TV program, a visit to an archaeological site, a fleeting image on the web, or even a panel hanging on the wall in a friend's living room. But it would start with exposure to the art. Only then is there a chance that anyone may seek more information, A web search may lead that person to a few sites and blogs and open for them the world of mosaics

In other words, neither creating mosaics nor writing about them is enough. What the mosaic community needs is more exposure. Mosaics shows are an excellent venue, and fortunately, they are more and more frequent; but they are not enough. One has to be already interested in mosaics to go to a mosaic show. In my ideal scenario, mosaics should figure in any art event, be it a show, a gallery a book, a catalog, etc. This is not to say that there is not room for mosaic shows. On the contrary, they may even be the ultimate goal. But mosaics should not be segregated, as if they did not belong in the general world of art.

Recently I reconnected with a friend from my distant past. I mentioned to him that I am about to shorten my university career to be a mosaicist. This friend is what we would call a renaissance man: highly educated, and generally interested in the arts (very proud of his daughter's art degree). His email signature includes the line homo sum; humani nil a me alienum puto, which translate roughly -- my Latin is rusty-- as I am a man, nothing human is alien to me. He takes part in literary discussions groups and is currently toying with the idea of opening an art gallery. And still, when I told him that my mosaics were not necessarily intended for the kitchen or the bathroom, he snapped :What do you mean? Where else? You cannot put them on your living room wall like a painting!"

Well, I can and I do. And he can too. Anyone can.

We are up against this ingrained perception of mosaics as purely utilitarian, or, at best, merely decorative. Mosaics lends themselves to it, since they can go and last where few other art form can: outdoors in all kind of weather, in shower stalls, in swimming pools, on backsplashes... but they can also go in living rooms, in galleries, and in museums of contemporary art.

Their ubiquity and their utilitarian aspect should be an asset, not a liability.

In short, we need to better reach out to the public.

And that's where I hope this blog becomes a project of the like-minded... what can we all do to share this art form we love so much with the world? Ideas?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

I have often wondered at the ambiguous status of mosaics in the art world. On the one hand, mosaics are one of the most ancient art forms and art lovers go out of their way to view mosaics all over the world in their original sites. Museums collect them and move them and great expense. Government restore and maintain them. Art books feature them.

But for some reason, this valorization of ancient mosaics does not always extend to contemporary creations. Today, modern mosaics struggle under the burden of the craft designation. Shows still do not offer a mosaic category in which mosaicists can compete in order to exhibit their works, while the same shows list ceramics, textiles, photography, woodwork, metal, leather (and I have probably forgotten some) in addition to the more traditional painting and sculpture. "Mixed media," the alternative for a mosaicist, has become a grab bag, even a dumping ground, that does not do justice to the special language of mosaics. And many galleries and curators still shy away from mosaics for fear of that craft label.

Granted, some mosaics are not high art. Some are Sunday productions by hobbyists. But after all, the same can be said of painting, and this has fortunately not stopped painting from being the most recognized visual art form. In fact the same can be said of any art form. We like them, we enjoy them, we want to try our hand at them, and for the most, anyone can produce a work in a few hours. Community and art centers offer classes in sketching, painting, coloring and what not. The creations are usually not on par with the masters' art. And yet the co-existence of the amateurs' works and artists' has not damaged the perceived value of the art as a whole.

I shall try another day to better understand the historical reasons of this aberration. For now, however, I intend to bypass the vexing craft/art distinction, and instead reflect on what makes a mosaic, or more importantly, on what makes a good mosaic. This is the purpose of this blog, and I invite its visitors to share this enterprise by contributing their comments and experiences. Together, we can elaborate a grammar of mosaics that will enrich the pleasure and appreciation of contemporary viewers.