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.