Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Articulation 2017

I am pleased to be showing four of my recent works in the Articulation 2017 show, at the Viva Vida Gallery in Pointe Claire, Quebec. The interplay between words and art is an ongoing theme for the annual Articulation shows, but this year another layer was added, as the submissions were to be inspired by the work of Leonard Cohen.

I am excited to see how the other artists have interpreted the multi-layered poetry and lyrics by this beloved Montrealer.

To see the four pieces that will appear in the show, please go to my original post of April 9, 2017.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Expo 67 Live!

The McCord Museum, the Stewart Museum, the Centre d'Histoire de Montréal,  the Musée d'art contemporain à Montréal: so many venues this summer celebrating our World's Fair, Expo 67, staged 50 years ago.

But this is the one that captures the real excitement and spirit of the event. Imagine yourself in a large, rectangular courtyard, surrounded by multiple screens of all sizes. The sun has just gone down, and the sky overhead is darkening. Images begin to flash on the screens, accompanied by the lively music of the sixties. It is impossible to take it all in. You stand in the centre of the space, surrounded by hundreds of people, turning again and again as new images capture your attention.

Just as the visitor to Expo 67 was continually diverted by new sights, sounds, tastes and experiences, so the viewer of this film is beguiled by ever-shifting visuals that evoke novelty, energy, and the diversity of the human experience.

Produced by the National Film Board of Canada, Expo 67 Live runs for only two weeks, ending September 30. We can only hope that it returns next summer. 

For more information, please visit the website.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Outremont: A City Beautiful

Once again this summer, Heritage Montreal offers a series of walking tours of Montreal neighbourhoods. Recently we joined a small group for a guided tour of Outremont, led by an affable and well-informed guide.

It was on this tour that I learned something about the City Beautiful movement. This philosophy was prompted by the overcrowding of urban tenements in American cities, caused by a high birth rate, immigration and the relocation of rural inhabitants to the cities. Its aim was to improve the lives of city dwellers; its critics thought there was too much concern with aesthetics and not enough with social reform.

About 90% of the Outremont that we know today was built between 1890 and 1930, when the City Beautiful movement was at its height. The city used architectural zoning laws to control its development. For example, the northern end was designated as industrial, with working-class housing nearby, transitioning to homes for the middle-class and, near the southern border, to residences for the most affluent. Commerce was restricted to two main arteries.

All homes were required to have 20-foot setbacks from the sidewalks, meaning that everyone had a front garden. Back alleys concealed delivery trucks, power lines, clotheslines and trash pick-up. Even though only a small number of architects was responsible for the vast majority of houses, an attempt was made to have a variety of facades, giving visual texture and interest to the streetscape.

Much space was devoted to parks, roads were wider than the norm, and apartment blocks, when they were finally accepted, were only three or four storeys high, and had to meet quality standards, like stained glass detail, marble-tiled lobbies, and carved wooden balustrades.

Residential architecture in Outremont has aged well. What were originally planned as homes for the working class now strike us as a notch or two above that.

Our guide scoffed at the ideals of the City Beautiful movement, whose advocates believed that its principles would foster "upright moral character" in its inhabitants. But I think that people are affected by their environments, and that a quiet and orderly neighbourhood, with access to green spaces, will go a long way to alleviating stress in urban dwellers. When you observe which neighbourhoods have held their value over the decades, you'll often find that those with the most stringent building codes fare best.

Too, the parks and the alleyways, as well as the public institutions, all afford residents opportunities to form connections and a sense of ownership.

What wasn't mentioned on the guided tour is that the community is now somewhat divided, between a large Hassidic minority and the non-Hassidic majority. Zoning restrictions on synagogues are one source of conflict. Even the best-intentioned building codes cannot always resolve such issues.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Annual SAQA Benefit Auction

Three hundred and sixty-eight art quilts, each measuring 12" x 12", are up for auction in this year's SAQA Benefit event. Starting tomorrow, September 18, prices will begin at $750 US, then be reduced daily until the end of the week, when $100 bids will be accepted. The whole event begins again for a second week with Batch #2 (starting September 25), and then again on Week 3, starting October 2.

Three batches, three weeks, six different price points. and an infinite variety of subjects and styles. To learn more about the auction, please visit the website.

Though I'm not a contributor this year, I will be following the action closely. It's exciting to see just how quickly the works of my favourite artists are snapped up. In fact, eleven works have already been sold for a premium $1000 each!

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction @ MOMA

Big Black, by one of my favourite artists of the period,
Louise Nevelson. Painted wood, 1963

The first day of my recent visit to New York was a rainy one. The Museum of Modern Art was very busy and my experience was constrained by the wet crowds.

This show was one I was determined to see, as it was due to close on August 13. It is one of the many current shows in New York and beyond that focus on the work of women artists. The postwar period is seen as a difficult one for women artists because of a retrenchment of gender roles. As well, abstract expressionism was seen as a particularly "muscular" style and women were not readily admitted into its inner circle, in New York or elsewhere.

An example of "gestural abstraction", Ladybug by Joan Mitchell, oil on canvas, 1957

From one of the wall panels:
"In the postwar climate, the Abstract Expressionists' fervent gestures came to signify the artists' existential struggles and, particularly in the case of large-scale paintings, their grand ambitions and bravado. A masculine mystique that attached itself to the movement essentially trivialized or excluded the work of women artists. Few commercial galleries would show women's art, and even when they did, those women struggled to have their work considered outside the lens of the feminine. Efforts to recover and reconsider these artists' works are still ongoing sixty years later."

Untitled, Alma Woodsey Thomas, 1968

A 6-minute video gives an introduction to the show, including commentary on several pieces made of fibre:

The museum's website has a comprehensive description of the show here, including images of the featured works, audio commentary and more videos.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Rauschenberg & Friends at MOMA

My first stop on a recent visit to New York was at the Museum of Modern Art. I was determined to see the Rauschenberg exhibit before it closed on September 17. Unfortunately, it was a rainy day, the galleries were very crowded, and it was difficult to appreciate the works on display.

With Rauschenberg, it's not so much that he produced a few singular works of excellence, but rather it's about the audacity of his oeuvre, its range, and the innovative hybrids he created, mixing disciplines to create something entirely new.

To get an idea of the exhibit, you can watch the 30-second intro to the 35-minute video above. The show focuses on the collaborations Rauschenberg forged with other artists, in other media, over his six-decade career. For example:

Short Circuit, 1955, Robert Rauschenberg with Jasper Johns, Susan Weil and Elaine Sturtevant.

Oil, fabric, notebook paper, postcard, printed reproductions of Abraham Lincoln
and of Lorenzo Credi's painting Venus (c.1493), autograph of Judy Garland, and program
from an early John Cage concert, given with David Tudor, on canvas, pine and poplar wood
supports, and pine cabinet with two hinged doors containing a painting by Weil and "an Original Sturtevant"
captioned by Rauschenerg and created by Sturtevant in 1967 to replace a Johns flag painting
that had originally been included but was stolen in 1965.

Another innovative aspect of Rauschenberg's work is his use of found objects, something we are used to seeing now but that was revolutionary in its time.

Charlene, 1954

Oil, charcoal, printed reproductions, newspaper, wood, plastic mirror, men's undershirt,
umbrella, lace, ribbons and other fabrics, and metal on Hemasote, mounted on wood,
with electric light

Charlene (detail)

Charlene is considered to be one of Rauschenberg's first "Combines". He explained that people would argue whether something he had made was a painting or a sculpture, instead of looking at what was in front of them. "So the next time someone asked me, I said 'combine'. After that no one asked."

Combines evolved from a series called the "Red Paintings". When they were first shown, Rauschenberg invited his friend the composer Morton Feldman to give a concert among the paintings. This was among the first of many collaborations across disciplines for Rauschenberg. The same year, the choreographer Merce Cunningham asked him to design the set and costumes for his dance Minutiae.

Kite, 1963
oil and silkscreen-ink print on canvas

In 1961, Rauschenerg began concerted efforts to create a painting with readymade images – with "current worldwide information", as he later put it. A visit to the studio of artist Andy Warhol in the fall of 1962 provided him with a tutorial on the silkscreen technique, commonly used in commercial art. Rauschenberg clipped images from the press and sent them to be made into silkscreens, specifying the scale at which they were to be reproduced. He built an inventory of over 150 screens, combining and recombining them to print them on canvas in various configurations, and adding passages of paint. Rauschenberg won the grand prize at the Venice Biennale in 1965, in part in recognition of these works. The artist's response: he called a friend back in New York and asked him to destroy his stock of screens in order to avoid the pressure of repeating himself.

Glacier (Hoarfrost), 1974
solvent transfer on satin and chiffon, with pillow

The series of Hoarfrosts was inspired by the gauzy cloth used to wipe the inky residue off lithography stones and metal plates after printing – Rauschenberg appreciated the way the translucent material maintained traces of fragmented imagery. For these works, Rauschenberg used solvents to transfer images from newspapers and magazines onto unstretched fabric. 

Nabisco Shredded Wheat (Cardboard), 1971
Cardboard packing boxes and metal nails

Looking for a way to escape the pressures of the Manhattan art scene, Rauschenberg established a workshop on Captiva Island, in Florida. On first arriving there, he was drawn to working with the simplest, found materials. Cardboard packing boxes were the focus of the first series of works he produced there; "A desire built up in me," he recalled, "to work in a material of waste and softness." Other works were made from materials scavenged on the island: driftwood, tires, and an old bathtub.

Gull (Jammer), 1976
sewn silk, rattan poles, and twine

In 1975, Rauschenberg traveled to India to collaborate with artisans at the Sabarmati Ashram, a school in the textile centre of Ahmedabad, founded by Mahatma Gandhi and dedicated to teaching the crafts of making prints, paper, and fabric. There he fell in love with the silks he saw everywhere, rich and sensuous in both feel and colour, and often appearing against a backdrop of material poverty, and he bought yards and yards in textile markets. The silks prompted him to recognize what had been his own hesitation to explore beauty and colour in his work: "I mostly work in trash," he would recall with a laugh, "and the idea of a beautiful piece of silk, a beautiful colour, consumed in its own vanity, didn't interest me.... It was a prejudice."

Back in Captiva, Rauschenberg began making his Jammers, embracing, like many artists did during his time, textiles as material and the forces of gravity. He stitched together the silks from India and hung them simply, with only the most modest interventions, directly from the wall or from rattan poles. The nearly weightless fabric would flutter and dance in response to the breezes and people passing by.  The titles of the series evokes the windjammer sailboats that Rauschenberg could see from his studio, which were likewise designed to catch wind.

Bible Bike (Borealis), 1991

screenprinted chemical-resistant varnish and patina chemicals
on three plates of brass, bronze, and copper

Bible Bike (Borealis), detail

In the Borealis series to which this work belongs, Rauschenberg silkscreened photgraphs he had taken onto plates of brass, bronze, and copper, integrating these images with sweeping gestural marks made from the patinas, chemical compounds, and varnishes often used in printmaking. He applied these varnishes in various ways – sometimes barefoot, with rags, skating on a work's surface, sometimes with a range of implements, including mops. Bible Bike (Borealis) shows Rauschenberg, now in his mid-sixties, inventing new techniques and processes from the basic tools of printmaking.

As I write this post, from the perspective of several weeks post-visit, I realize that seeing the MOMA show Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends has given me a whole new appreciation for the artist, a long-time favourite.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Adventures in Dyeing

It has been a month since I posted anything about my own work. I have been busy looking at art, but not so much making art. A January deadline looms, when I have committed to a solo show of large pieces.

As I have described to friends, I feel as though I have one foot on the dock and one foot in the boat. The boat is leaving and I have to commit to the boat or the dock. Do I make big collages on paper, or large abstract works with cloth and stitch? Either one will require a lot of prep.

Top row: hue gradation from tangerine to fuchsia to navy blue
Bottom row: hue gradation from strong orange to mixing red to grape

The collages will require me to make a good variety of large collage papers to work with. The art quilts will require me to dye large pieces of cloth in a range of colours.

About a year ago I ordered 30 yards of linen, in three different weights. I had been inspired by Colleen Heslin's work, shown last year at the McMichael Gallery in Kleinburg, Ontario, and thought working with linen would be a welcome change. Heslin works with hand-dyed linen, piecing shapes together with stitch, and stretching the work on supports, without quilting layers together.

And so I find myself in my studio, up to the elbows in dye buckets.

The linen is lovely to work with. It has a bit of a sheen, even when dyed. How the different weights of linen will work together, and whether they will pair up with hand-dyed cotton, remains to be seen.

Diane Franklin's "Dyeing Alchemy: An Interactive Workbook" is my go-to resource for dyeing recipes. Her method uses precise amounts of solutions (dye, salt, and soda ash) to allow you (in theory) to replicate past results. There is little waste of dye. Everything is weighed, including the fabric.

Mostly I work with the 14 unmixed dye powders available from Pro-Chem, plus black. I learned about these from Ann Johnston's Color by Accident. They are
  • 108 sun yellow
  • 114 lemon yellow
  • 112 tangerine
  • 104 golden yellow
  • 202 strong orange
  • 305 mixing red
  • 308 fuchsia
  • 802 boysenberry
  • 801 grape
  • 410 turquoise
  • 406 intense blue
  • 400 basic blue
  • 402c mixing blue
  • 414 deep navy.
All other dyes, including black, are blends of these basic colours. I do have some mixed dyes on hand from years past, and I sometimes reach for them, but I don't intend to replace them when they are used up.

On the Jacquard website is a helpful list of formulae for mixed colours, using of course their own brand names for the basic pigments.


1. When doing a range of intensities, there's not much difference between 1% and 2%, or 2% and 3%. So instead of doing a range of 1 - 2 - 3%, I'm better off doing a range of 0.5 - 2 - 5%.

2. If I happen to produce a couple of large pieces with very similar colours, it's a good idea to "over-dye" one of them with a different colour.

3. It's useful to keep notes.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Elizabeth Catlett @ the Whitney

I am the Black woman

On a recent visit to the Whitney Museum in New York, I was introduced to the work of Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012). I have since learned more about her remarkable and inspiring life story.

On display at the Whitney were prints from her linocut series, "I am the Negro woman", 1946-47, retitled "I am the Black woman" in 1989. I found these prints to have great visual and emotional power.

I have always worked hard in America
In the fields
In other folks' home
I have given the world my songs

In Sojourner Truth I fought for the rights
of women as well as Blacks
In Harriet Tubman I helped
hundreds to freedom

In Phyllis Wheatley I proved intellectual equality
in the midst of slavery

My role has been important
in organizing the unorganized
I have studied in ever increasing numbers
My reward has been bars between
me and the rest of the land

I have special reservations

special houses

and a special fear for my loved ones

My right is a future of equality
with other Americans

The granddaughter of freed slaves, Catlett spent much of her life as a teacher. She completed her undergraduate work at Howard University.

She was also admitted into the Carnegie Institute of Technology but was refused admission when the school discovered she was black. In 2007, this came to the attention of the president of Carnegie Mellon University, who was deeply appalled that such a thing had happened. The next year, President Cohon presented Catlett with an honorary Doctorate degree and a one-woman show of her art was presented on the campus of Carnegie Mellon.

While a graduate student at the University of Iowa, she was required to live out of residence because of her race. After graduate school in the 1940's, she accepted a position at Dillard University in New Orleans. There, as a person of colour, she was required to make special arrangements to attend shows at a particular gallery.

Catlett received a fellowship which allowed her to travel to Mexico to pursue studies in printmaking, choosing the venue because it aligned with her interest in social activism. Because of the Communist affiliations of her associates in Mexico, she was ultimately barred from re-entering the U.S. In 1962 she renounced her American citizenship and became a citizen of Mexico.

Catlett turned from printmaking to sculpture in later years, receiving recognition and awards. Art historian Melanie Herzog has called Catlett "the foremost African American woman artist of her generation." In her later years, she regained her American citizenship.

Wrote Catlett,

"No other field is closed to those who are not white and male as is the visual arts. After I decided to be an artist, the first thing I had to believe was that I, a black woman, could penetrate the art scene, and that, further, I could do so without sacrificing one iota of my blackness or my femaleness or my humanity."