Monday, April 27, 2015

Obsolete: Books IX through XX

(Above:  Book IX, 9 1/2" x 13 1/2" plus the dangling cord.  Antique book covers, zigzag machine cording, two old pulleys and part of a rosary.  Click on any image in this blog post to enlarge.)

Last Thursday was the annual Artista Vista art crawl in Columbia's downtown Vista area.  My studio is located in one of the cooperative spaces called Gallery 80808/Vista Studios.  It is one of the anchor locations for the event.  For me, it is an excellent deadline.  It requires me to "find the floor" (which is always on the very bottom! LOL!), sweep, dust, organize, throw out clutter, and rehang the walls.  I always like to hang at least one wall with absolutely NEW WORK.  Why?  Well, many of the people are "regulars". They come to all the shows at Gallery 80808/Vista Studios.  Only fourteen years ago, I was one of them. (I hadn't admitted that I wanted to "make art" and be an "artist" until 2001!)  Back then, I enjoyed seeing "new work", not the same old things I saw the last time I visited.  So, I created twenty mixed media pieces ... altered book covers.  I hung them on my largest studio wall ... four rows of five each.  (I forgot to snap a photo of the arrangement but perhaps I'll get it tomorrow!)

(Above:  Book X, 9 1/2" x 13 1/2" plus the dangling cord.  Antique book covers, zigzag machine cording, and some sort of large, wooden shuttle.)

I made the first eight pieces during another big weekend, Open Studios and the Elmwood Park Tour of Homes.  I blogged about them HERE. I received several comments.  One came from Linda Laird ... identifying the mysterious "found object" on Book VI as a buttonhole spacers.  WOW ... and did I have fun asking people what they thought it was during Artista Vista!  Thank you, Linda!

(Above:  Book XI, 9 1/2" x 13 1/2" plus the dangling cord.  Antique book covers, zigzag machine cording, old wrench, screw-eye, latch, U-clamp and horseshoe.)

Another comment came from my cyber friend Margaret Blank.  She wrote:  As for the book pieces...I confess...I don't quite 'get' what you're 'getting at'...    Back story would be appreciated! :-) 

It took me a day or two and a great conversation with my husband Steve ... but I really, really THANK Margaret for stimulating my thoughts about the work, its reasons, and my process.  My husband Steve hit a nerve when he called the found objects "obsolete".  Thus, the collection of books is now called by that name.  Each volume is now Book I - XX.

(Above:  Book XII, 9 1/2" x 13 1/2" plus the dangling cord.  Antique book covers, zigzag machine cording, and old shears.)

So ... most of this blog post is what I wrote to Margaret.

Hi!  Thank you so much for this message. It provided a great conversations with Steve, much thought, and new ways in which I hope to articulate the subtle symbolism, thought-process, and narrative behind these pieces.  Why?  Well, I sort of knew what I was doing and why ... but it really hadn't occurred to me to "write a statement" quite yet.  I'm still very much in the mood and production of the work, letting my hands and mind "just work" ... nail, screw, compose elements, drill holes, and simply watch the work unfold.  Although I generally approach work conceptually, I am not so tied to an academic, verbal meaning that each piece must have a clear intention, a definite symbol, or an exact reason for being used.  I work much more intuitively and allow the deeper significance to surface during the process. In fact, my conceptual ideas are often rather vague at the onset.  They become clearer and clearer to me while working.  I don't know how else to describe it. 

(Above:  Book XIII, 9 1/2" x 13 1/2" plus the dangling cord.  Antique book covers, zigzag machine cording, two rusty coat hooks, and a treadle sewing machine wheel.)

Personally, I know more than one artist who makes work in an "academic" manner, by setting out to construct every work with design and color theory firmly guiding each motion, with associations to art history and an already written statement in mind.  They are almost all university art faculty members.  One young lady can explain each of her pieces, step-by-step, element by element, with precision.  There is a historical or social or political association for everything.  Her work is rather boring.  Her career is rather limited too. She's very, very nice and has actually asked for my advice (which stuns me since I haven't the first course in studio art and she's teaching them!) I don't really know what to tell her.  How can I say that I think her reasons for making art don't really come from her heart because her mind has exclusively taken control?  She reminds me of all the art quilters who pursue perfectionism in craftsmanship and principles of art, worshiping these ideas as if they alone create a masterpiece.  This is only my opinion.  I don't really know if there's any truth in it or not.  I simply know that all the high-faluting talk about the "principles of art", the need for academic training in order to "see", and the quest to "find one's voice" leaves me cold ... or at least, uninterested.  These time-tested notions DO work but often result in more formulaic art ... where the pieces all begin to look relatively "the same".

(Above:  Book XIV, 9 1/2" x 13 1/2" plus the dangling cord.  Antique book covers, zigzag machine cording, two rusty old cuticle scissors and an antique set of mother-of-pearl nautical buttons with matching buckle.)

Of course, the untrained and/or "wannabe" artists are producing work straight from the heart but they often seem to lack understanding of craftsmanship. Everything appears headed straight for a DIY esty shop and the work is too pedestrian to be considered "art" with a capital "A "... if you know what I mean. They are easy targets for those who know how to express their work with the acceptable vocabulary.  The distance between these two art approaches is the width of an ocean.  For me, I'm hoping to be adrift in the sea ... with an anchor in two ports! LOL!  Personally, balance is needed.  I can't give myself over to either side because I feel both equally.  I hope this makes at least a bit of sense!  Does this make me "nowhere" at all?  Maybe!  I'm still working on it!

(Above:  Book XV, 9 1/2" x 13 1/2" plus the dangling cord.  Antique book covers, zigzag machine cording, old scissors and pliers.)

Although I've never had studio art classes, I do have a solid background in the history of medieval and renaissance art ... my excuse for "the principles of art".  Although I don't draw, sketch, or use 2D processes to "see" and thus produce better art, I have years and years of experience viewing work and designing custom picture framing to enhance it.  Thus, I think I "see" inspiration and potential art subjects and ideas despite my lack of formal education. As far as "finding one's voice" ... whoever said it was "lost"?  I don't think one needs to go looking.  Listening is a better idea!  I look at my pathetic, early attempts to make fiber artwork (circa 2001 - 03).  They are all "pretty" pictures ... embroidery ... hell bent on being perfectly stitched.  They also have all the things with which I now identity myself.  Found textiles, variegated threads, a sense of yesteryear, text and texture ... everything is actually there.  I just had to learn that this was my language, my voice, and to accept it.

(Above:  Book XVI, 9 1/2" x 13 1/2" plus the dangling cord.  Antique book covers, zigzag machine cording, two old keys and two old locks.)

Now, as far at the "Book Series" goes ... There will likely be a total of twenty pieces.  Already sixteen are hanging on the wall as more were made during the last two days.  I asked Steve what he thought, what he saw, what resonated with him, and if he thought the work had merit. Our conversation put into words the many things I was thinking when simply playing with the found objects.  I adore all the parts.  I wonder where they've been, how they were used, who owned them.  I wonder why I have them and what they mean to me.  Holding each piece is like cradling a second from the past, a frozen moment in time.  Putting them together suggests a narrative but it is a story that will be different in each viewers mind ... depending on their own stories, their own associations, and their own relationships with the familiar (and not so familiar) found objects.  I don't always try to have a certain meaning behind every part.  I'm not even sure myself what some of the items mean; they keep their secrets.  

(Above:  Book XVII, 9 1/2" x 13 1/2" plus the dangling cord.  Antique book covers, zigzag machine cording, and parts of an old clock.)

The books were purchased at a specialty auction house.  There were four or five boxes of them ... heavy. They failed to bring a $20 minimum bid.  Upon check-out, I agreed to pay the $20 and we loaded them into the car.  It seemed so sad even then that these volumes were so little valued.  The covers were becoming detached from at least half of the volumes, probably due to improper storage over many generations.  They were published between 1890 and 1910.  Yet, I could understand why they'd been so neglected.  They were all in Swedish.  Sure, classics in Scandinavia but just a pile of old books in much of North America.  No one really wanted them.  Some of the pages weren't even cut apart ... proof that no one had ever read them ... ever!  Even in Sweden, these were likely just "old classics", falling apart, past their prime, useless.  The same sort of narrative can be said about almost all the elements placed on the old covers ... locks without keys, keys to unknown doors, door knob plates that were discarded, treadle sewing machine bobbins, rusted shears, dull scissors, and pieces of old junk ... some of which I can't even identify.  The overriding concept here is a word Steve used: Obsolete.  This is quite apparent with the rusty 110 conibear trap.  I knew it was a trap ... because my Dad told me it was.  Did I learn how to set it by going to the library?  Looking it up in a book? No, of course not.  I googled for a UTube video!  There's something, in my humble opinion, about the bittersweet truth that all these things are perhaps nostalgic because they no longer have much use ... even the books.  We now have the Internet, a quick and easy resource that almost instantly provides a tidbit of information, far quicker than scouring the chapters in a book for the one paragraph explanation.

(Above:  Book XVIII, 9 1/2" x 13 1/2" plus the dangling cord.  Antique book covers, zigzag machine cording, parts of a clock's chiming mechanism, and a razor blade sharpening kit.)

While I was working on the pieces, however, I wasn't necessarily thinking in an overt way about how obsolete these things were but of a story my mother has told over the years.  It had to be 1960 or thereabout.  She and my Dad hadn't been married long when Dad said that everything worth knowing could be found in a book and that a person could learn anything by reading.  Mom disagreed.  She told him, "Go iron a shirt!"  Not to immediately admit defeat, Dad went off to the library ... I think it might have been in the Home Economic's building at The Ohio State University.  He found the appropriate book, read it, and proceeded to ruin the shirt.

(Above:  Book XIX, 9 1/2" x 13 1/2" plus the dangling cord.  Antique book covers, zigzag machine cording, straight-edge razor, treadle sewing machine's tension gauge and bobbin casing, and a draftsman's compass.)

I love the old books.  I want to believe Dad.  In part, I do believe Dad ... but I also love the Internet and modern contraptions and new ways for doing things.  I'm not really nostalgic for a treadle sewing machine ... though I own the one on which my Grandma Lenz taught me to sew (only to earn my Girl Scout badge ... and then, never again)  I love my Bernina; it has a computer.  Time changes everything ... in some ways for the better ... in some ways for the worse.  The new "Book Series" is simply a grouping of obsolete things, once useful ... once important ... once as we are now.

(Above:  Book XX, 9 1/2" x 13 1/2" plus the dangling cord.  Antique book covers, zigzag machine cording, wooden shoe form, treadle sewing machine's stitch length gauge, and parts of a Victrola.)

I hope this makes sense.  Thanks so much for prompting the thoughts and conversations enjoyed yesterday.  I might use this message when blogging about the additional pieces made.  As a matter of fact, I might be entering this as an installation for Craftform, an international juried show outside Philadelphia.  I don't know that I would be considering this if it hadn't been for your question!  Thanks!

So ... I still haven't written one of those nice, neat, professionally polished art statements ... but this is the back story!

 (Above:  The unveiling of Cedar, Fog, metal sculpture by Stephen Chesley.  Stephen is with Wim Roefs, owner of if Art Gallery, while television crews were only a few feet away during this official occasion.)

Artista Vista was also very special this year.  My mentor, Stephen Chesley, (a self supporting artist for nearly 30 years who generally paints outstanding, impressionistic oil land- and seascapes but dabbles in welding) got to unveil his sculpture Cedar, Fog.  This is the corner of Lady Street and Lincoln Street, a block from our cooperative studio setting.  The Congaree Vista Guild recently purchased the work for the community. 

(Above:  Artist Stephen Chesley and his sculpture Cedar, Fog.)

Of course I'm thrilled for Stephen but I'm also really happy that the entire city will enjoy this piece.  The metal came from a great opportunity in July 2001.  South Carolina Bank and Trust purchased an entire city block ... only about four or five blocks from where the sculpture stands.  They allowed artists to scavenge for found objects and "anything for art" in the three building that were to be demolished for their fancy, new bank construction.  Stephen and another local artist/friend rented the equipment to haul out I-beams and all sorts of metal.  Fourteen years later, the sculpture has found its way back to its Vista home!  For me, it gives me hope that my older work might one day find homes.  Plus, that original opportunity to scavenge for found art objects was the very first time I ever got to participate in anything as "an artist".  It was a wonderful day ... and it's a wonderful sculpture.


Yael said...

Gorgeous, thank you for all these thoughts!
Also intuition-ally I understood the book series - and loved it and still do - I nevertheless enjoyed all your explanation, and the addition of your outlook on art, and the process of creating in general.

But - in my humble opinion - all the fancy words sometimes thrown on artwork, all this deliberate tearing and picking apart the thoughts of the artist during the creation of his work, seem to me often exaggerated and maybe unnecessary. I wonder then if the artist himself would agree to what is said, or just maybe have a silent smile about it.

Unknown said...

I really love the Obsolete Books Susan! But I'm in love with books in general and worried that *all* books will soon be obsolete! We have an Indy bookstore in our town but few towns have any bookstores these days so we are lucky. I think the only reason we still have one is because of the high percentage of college educated due to the only industry being a government research and development facility that is heavy with engineers and physicists. And, for a small community of under 30K we have a rather large college. Our libraries are being shuttered in many county towns but ours is not slated to be shuttered (Thomas Jefferson oh how we need you now!) yet. I have a Kindle but almost never use it. Imagine a time when your books will be "really obsolete" and "artifacts" of a bygone time! I fear we are regressing to pictures as communication. If so, then, even more than now, your books will convey a message! It's "sound bites" that have take over. It is utility words like "awesome", it is texting "LOL" into oblivion. It is getting and giving information faster and without contemplation, without forethought and often without meaning. Your Obsolete Books have meaning, they show forethought and I thank you for an oportunity to contemplate them.