Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Back in the Conversation

Before Two Artists Talking becomes a dim memory, I’d like to pump some air into it. You did a wonderful job last time with your two posts, Chris—on the Miami art fairs and Gee’s Bend Quilts--and I've been too swamped to respond. But it is my turn, so let me crank up the compressor.

Both topics still have relevance for me.

Gee’s Bend Quilts
I saw that wonderful show at the Whitney several years ago. The first time I saw it was on a weekend, and there were too many people—a good thing that many people went to see the show, a bad thing that they were all standing in my line of sight—so I returned during the week to see the show at a less crowded time. The work is extraordinary. Unlike the precisely cut Amish quilts, whose quilt stitching often features marvelously intricate patterns—a subtle yet stunning counterpoint to the geometric abstraction of their design—the Gee’s Bend quilts are more rough hewn. For a formalist like myself who thinks about process and precision, these quilts took some getting used to. That is, I loved them viscerally the moment I saw them, but it took my brain a bit longer to embrace the imprecision.

This comment of yours struck me:
The quilts were intended to be part of everyday life. The quilters and their families are the primary, original audience, and the primary users. There seems to be no gap between the maker, the intended object and its use, and people who use it. This wholeness is also unique because these quilters defied tradition by not settling into historical patterns, but instead used their eyes to compose and make, working by hand and responding immediately to their materials, learning from and working in the company of each other, day after day over the years. It's remarkable to see how these objects, made for a specific use in a particular place, can now function as powerful art objects for a much larger, more diverse audience.

So true. This is true of jazz, the blues—well, all indigenous music pretty much anywhere—as well other indigenous forms of expression: storytelling, wood carving, “native” crafts such as weaving, pottery and basketmaking, isn’t it?

There’s a town in Alaska, Nunuvit—funny name; sounds like “none of it”—where something like 90% of the inhabitants earn their living as artists. They make carved stone figures of animals that sell for thousands of dollars to a worldwide clientele. And having just returned from the Southwest, there’s no end to the creative expression there.
I’m not sure where “native”—or naïve—leaves off and a commercial intent takes over, or if one can remain native/naïve and commercial, but it will be interesting to see how success changes the Gee’s Bend quilters, because they are certainly meeting with success. Their work has begun appearing in high-end art galleries, see below. (Looking at Native American creative expression, I guess I’d say that there’s plenty made with integrity and tradition, and an equal amount made for the tourist trade.)
From the Greg Kucera Gallery, Seattle: Annie May Young, Bars, 2003, quilted fabric, 88 x 73 inches; $24,000
Anyway, I am certain of this: had it not been for the way feminism stretched the boundaries of art (embracing traditional craft elements, for instance), we would not likely be seeing the Gee’s Bend quilts at the Whitney or at SFMoma. At the American Craft Museum, sure, but not at these other institutions.
Feminism is on my mind because there are a number of shows in New York that are up right now, plus the big “WACK!” show in Los Angeles, all marking the 40th anniversary of Feminist Art. (I’m writing about some of them in my own blog. The F-Word , Part 1 and Part 2 are posted now, and I'm going back occasionally to add more as I get new information and find or receive additional pictures.)

Can we talk about the geometric abstraction issue? I disagree with you that the quilts and painting are two different issues. I think that’s an artificial division. True one comes out of life and the other out of art school, but the initial impulses spring from the same source.

The Art Fairs
Though you wrote your comments about the Miami fairs that took place the second week in December, the topic remains relevant as the fairs continue. I went to the Armory Fair on Pier 94 a few weeks ago, as well as the satellites that have sprung up around it: Scope (under a tent in Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park); Pulse (in the original Armory building on Lexington—site of the 1913 Nude-Descending-A-Staircase Armory show); Red Dot (a new Fair at the Park South Hotel around the corner from Pulse); and a few others.

Not all the art fairs are extravaganzas of size and price. At the Red Dot Fair in New York in February, each gallery had a room in the Park South Hotel. This is the room for Kenise Barnes Fine Art, Larchmont. My two small paintings are in the corner. It's hard work for the dealers, but for visitors like myself it's a great opportunity to see art from galleries around the world, meet friends and, often, get to meet the collector who acquires my work.

When some artists talk about the fairs they use works like “crass commercialism” and “stratospheric prices.” Well, yes, at one end of the spectrum this is true. But price and hype create interest in a market that can then expand to contain smaller galleries that show and sell the work of regular workaday studio artists—and ideally expand a bit more to include other artists seeking commercial representation. We tend to forget that galleries, like artists, come in all levels and degrees of financial success. So while the market may be overblown, that expansion has made room for many of as at far less stratospheric levels.

I appreciate your point about the “album” experience of listing to music, but art fairs are not meant to be albums. They’re not even meant to be an Ipod experience, which is essentially solitary. They’re a mixtape—a raucous jumble with everyone on the dance floor.