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PRAIRIE SMOKE
by Victor M. Cassidy
 
From puberty forward, women are objects of intense scrutiny. Men see women as prospective conquests or mates. Women view women as friends or as competitors. Society says what their bodies should look like, what they should wear and whether they are attractive or not.

All this attention -- and the power that comes with it -- ends abruptly when a woman reaches middle age. She becomes invisible to men who prefer younger, fresher faces. She discovers that fashions are designed for youthful figures and that motherhood has changed her body for good.

Metamorphoses
Loss of youth is the theme of "Metamorphoses," an exhibition of photographs that were collaboratively produced by Barbara Ciurej and Lindsay Lochman. "Metamorphoses" comprised six recent series of black-and-white photos, mostly measuring 16 x 20 inches. The show was on view in September and October at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

An artist’s retreat north of Chicago gave Ciurej and Lochman a studio for two weeks. They began photographing each other in the nude and learned what time and childbearing had done to them. Other women at the retreat agreed to pose, and they too were dismayed at the sight of their cellulite and sagging flesh.

The artists responded by making photo images of middle-aged nudes that subvert the idealized figures in Greek and Roman art. Pregnant recalls Parthenon sculptures, but the woman is about seven months along with a bulging navel and swollen breasts. Portrait suggests a Roman bust, but the subject is a matriarch instead of a patriarch. The artists placed each image on a black background and manipulated contrast to make the skin marble white.

"Sibyls," another series in "Metamorphoses," replicates the poses of Michelangelo’s bloated figures in the Sistine Chapel with nudes of normal dimensions. "Sibyls" pokes fun at these "heroic" images of women, imagined by a man who knew precious little about the opposite sex.

In "Divinations," the most recent series in "Metamorphoses," the artists abandon narrative for a fresh approach to one of the oldest subjects in art. They photograph a seated nude from behind in ways that emphasize her form and the beauty of her skin, but not her sexuality. Next, they digitally collage these images into designs.

In Reflection, a nude holds her hands over her head. Her image appears upside-down beneath her like a reflection. Inside the arms of the reflection is a tiny nude right side up. In Spiral, a seated nude holds her hands above her head and her image is repeated, making a spiral design in which her form suggests a plant, a vessel, a bottle opener and even a frog. Totem stacks five nude forms above each other in a design that has elements of the comic.

"Co-conspirators"
Ciurej and Lochman have been chronicling the rites of passage and domestic rituals of women for more than 25 years. As students at Chicago’s Institute of Design in 1977-78, they made their first collaborative series, "Still Wet from the Cocoon." In staged scenes, an older woman tells a girl what’s coming soon -- breasts (hideous plastic falsies are shown in the photograph) and pubic hair (we see a woman’s bush with rollers in it). Oddly lit, half out of focus and shot from unusual angles, these images shocked everyone at the Institute of Design. "The ID is a bastion of Modernism," says Ciurej, "and we were thrilled to horrify our teachers and classmates." From that day forward, says Lochman, the two became "co-conspirators instead of collaborators."

When Ciurej and Lochman found husbands and began to have children, they made a photo series called "Glory on a Budget: A Domestic Mythology" (1978-80), which marries housewifery to art history. In Glory Odalisque, a nude with a shapely derrière reclines Ingres-style atop a washer-dryer with light flooding in through gauze curtains and the cellar stairs visible at her right. In Glory Vacuum, a Degas ballerina sweeps the rug in ecstasy.

Collaboration is not as challenging as it might seem, the artists say. "We shoot with a 4 x 5 camera. When we’re working with a model, one is the stylist and the other takes the picture. When we started out, we switched between being the photographer and the subject. It’s always nice to have a model who understands what you’re trying to do."

"Black Air Space"
As Toshiko Takaezu builds her large, closed stoneware sculptures, she writes a poem inside of each work-in-progress, which no one can read unless the piece is broken. The most important part of these sculptures is the interior, she says, the "black air space that you can’t see." The 83-year-old artist promises to keep working with clay until she makes the perfect piece.

Takaezu recently gave her "Star Series," an installation of 14 stoneware vessels that range from five to six feet in height, to the Racine Art Museum. RAM is exhibiting the series with earlier work until Jan. 8, 2006. The show catalogue provides a lively background to Takaezu’s work -- fantastic narratives about Africa, the ancient Egyptians, primitive folklore and the stars.

The artist, who was born in Honolulu to Japanese parents, makes paintings, fiber art, cast bronze bells and ceramics in a wide range of scales. She began the "Star Series" in 1999 to "make a room full of big forms that you could walk through." John Perrault, an artist, critic and former senior curator at the American Craft Museum, calls the series her masterpiece.

All the vessels are closed, with secret vent holes that allow heated air to escape during firing. Unventilated, the sculptures would explode in the kiln. The artist builds the vessels on a potter’s wheel from clay coils, a process that takes five days. At first, they seemed so large that the diminutive Takaezu feared that she would fall in.

The sculptures have a roughly human shape with a round base, slightly swelling sides that suggest arms and shoulders, and a rounded top with a tiny nipple (vent hole?) at the center. Horizontal lines run around the sides, suggesting the artist’s hand. Takaezu pours dilute color on the top and sides of each piece, often making several layers of it in different shades. Next, she brushes on vertical lines or patches of dark color, a decorative scheme that recalls Japanese painting. Her imagery is abstract, though suggestive of landscape, vegetation and smoke.

Takaezu says that Unas (1999-2000) is her favorite piece in the series. She danced around it as she worked, something she cannot do with plates and small bowls. According to the catalogue notes by Robert Lentz, Unas ruled Egypt as pharaoh from 2356 until 2323 BC. Inscribed within his pyramid at Saqarra are "symbols and characters comprising Egypt’s oldest known religious writings." Translators aren’t sure what these writings mean, but they apparently include "incantations to help a pharaoh ascend to immortality, advice to a soul about what to expect and how to deal with it, guides to sacred journeys, secret knowledge and more."

Unas is unusual in that there are painted arch-like forms on its sides, in addition to drips and brush strokes. We cannot connect these markings to the pharaoh Unas (of whom we know deplorably little) and it surely doesn’t matter. The catalogue states bravely that Takaezu’s sculpture is "splashed with powerful symbols and characters whose meaning is universal, bypassing translators to appeal to the viewer’s intuitive understanding." Her colors and markings are wonderfully alive, very beautiful and suggestive of much. That should be enough.

"Somewhere Out There"
Nommo (1999-2000) has a distinctively human presence. Vertical markings and drips on its sides emphasize its height. The very top of this piece is thinly colored, suggesting a head.

According to the catalogue, the Dogon elders of Mali "declared that knowledge of the star Po Tolo was given to their ancestors by visiting beings from Sigi Tolo (Sirius), who brought the Dogon their civilization. These beings, ‘monitors for the universe,’ whom they called ‘Nommos,’ were amphibious creatures who arrived with a great roar in fiery vehicles."

"A ‘new star’ appeared in the sky when the Nommos arrived, the elders related, and another would appear on the ‘Day of the Fish,’ when they returned to rule the earth. In the spirit of a Dogon drawing, Takaezu’s Star form Nommo depicts an amphibious emissary from Somewhere Out There."

Though we see no amphibious emissaries on Takaezu’s sculpture, we truly believe that they are there. RAM has produced a beautiful show of ceramic sculpture and the most enjoyable art catalogue we’ve read in years. What’s not to like?

The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer
The people at Princeton University Press (bless their hearts) sent us a review copy of Erwin Panofsky’s The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer (1943), a paperback reprint of an art history classic with a new introduction. Panofsky (1892-1968), a specialist in German art, taught at the University of Hamburg, New York University, Princeton and Harvard. 

Panofsky’s Dürer -- the result of a lifetime of looking, thinking, reading and making connections -- belongs in the library of anyone who takes art seriously. Everything we could want to know about one of history’s stellar artists is here -- Dürer’s life, sources, influences, technique and development. In his descriptions of engraving, Panofsky takes us into the studio with Dürer and there are points in this book where we feel that we are looking over the artist’s shoulder.

Brilliant, comprehensive but extremely dense, Panofsky’s Dürer is heavy going. His prose is serviceable, not graceful, and this is a book to read in pieces and use as reference. Sad to say, Princeton University Press did not update the book’s poor quality images -- don’t pictures matter in an art book?

In his introduction, Panofsky explains that wartime conditions (in 1943) prevented him from communicating with the Albertina Museum in Vienna, which has the best Dürer collections. True, but dozens of Dürer books with much higher quality graphics have appeared since 1943 and Princeton has no excuse for leaving in the old ones.

We should also mention that the list of illustrations is in one part of the book, the text in another and the images in a third. If Princeton had updated and then captioned the figures, it would have eliminated much flipping back and forth of pages -- and made this important book easier to read. We welcome this reprint and wish that Princeton University Press had done a more professional job with it.


VICTOR M. CASSIDY writes on art from Chicago.



 



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