Monday, September 13, 2021

Playing with a Modern Deck at Art Ovation Hotel

"Jack of Hearts" by Jayne Irene
Art Ovation Hotel is an often overlooked part of Sarasota's cultural community. As a Marriott "Autograph Collection" hotel, its mission is to provide guests with opportunities to engage in activities reflective of the community. In Sarasota, that means the arts. So I'm sure Art Ovation has an excellent concierge service to provide guests with information about theater, art, music and dance happenings in our area. But the hotel is also a gallery, with multiple art exhibits on display for guests and members of the public to enjoy. Which brings me to "Playing with a Modern Deck," an exhibit created by members of the South Sarasota Modern Quilt Guild (aka S2MQG). 

If you're like me, the word "quilt" calls to mind patchwork bedding lovingly created by someone's grandmother. And that style of quilt is great. But art quilts are a different animal altogether. As the Art Quilt Association's website explains: "An art quilt is an original exploration of a concept or idea rather than the handing down of a 'pattern.' It experiments with textile manipulation, color, texture and/or a diversity of mixed media. An Art Quilt often pushes quilt world boundaries." Note that after being defined, the term "art quilt" has gained capitalization. I love it. For a more detailed explanation about characteristics of art quilts, click here

"Six of Spades" by Jann Warfield
I was looking forward to seeing "Playing with a Modern Deck" from the moment I heard about the exhibit. You may know that I'm an avid -- but quite mediocre -- bridge player who spends way too much time playing cards online. It's not often that my interests in art and bridge come together. 

The inspiration for the Art Ovation exhibit was a quilt show held in 1995 at the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery entitled "Playing with a Full Deck." Sue Pierce, organizer of the Smithsonian show, believed an exhibit of art quilts depicting playing cards would be appealing to professional quilters and viewers alike. As an article by Diane Bolz in Smithsonian Magazine noted, "The intrinsic familiarity of cards--from impassioned childhood games of 'war' and 'go fish' to congenial evenings of poker or solo forays into computer solitaire--made them an ideal subject for artistic interpretation." 

Pierce was right. The 54 quilt exhibit, which depicted all 52 cards plus two jokers, was a hit. After its run at the Renwick, the show traveled to 23 other venues, compliments of the Smithsonian's Traveling Exhibition Service. To read an article from the Washington Post about "Playing with a Full Deck" (which has more card-related puns than you could possibly imagine), click here. And to see some images from the show, click here

"The Joker" by Carla Williams
Last year, Peg Normandin gave a presentation about the Renwick exhibit to S2MQG members. Would they be interested in creating their own take on the concept? To steal a phrase from the Post article, the members responded with a resounding, "Deal us in." (Groans allowed.) 

Quilters chose which playing card to create within the parameters of the challenge. All quilts had to be 14"x22." (Cards in a deck are of course the same size, and larger quilts would make finding exhibit space difficult.) Colors were restricted to black, white, gray and red tints and shades. As for technical parameters, the quilting had to be through three layers and the binding had to faced (which means the sides are turned under for a clean look).  

The quilters' approaches to their cards were wildly varied. Some were fairly straightforward interpretations; others were visual puns. While there were a lot of contenders, my favorite quilt was Jayne Irene's "Jack of Hearts." So clever. And it didn't hurt that the adorable jack terrier was positioned near the door, the favorite spot of all dogs awaiting their owner's return home. 

"Playing with a Modern Deck" is yet another example of the artistic talent right here in Sarasota. The exhibit will be on display at Art Ovation through the end of the year along with "Chasing Waves" by Humberto Castro, "Inner Colors" by Philippe Attie, "Refuge" by Maria Silvana Sandoval and "Spontaneous Inner Reflective Perspective" by Daniel Rankin. Check it out the next time you're downtown. You'll never look at quilts the same way again. 

Monday, September 6, 2021

Duncan McLellan and the Highwaymen Converge at Selby Gardens

Stephenie and Steve with "Sacred Oak" and "Communication"
You've got to hand it to Selby Gardens. I can think of few things less appealing than trudging through a botanical garden on a hot and humid summer day. (Spoken like a true nature lover, I know.) But Selby lured me in for a visit with two indoor exhibits that celebrate the beauty of nature. 

For the fourth year running, works from the Duncan McLellan Gallery are being featured in an exhibit entitled "In Dialogue with Nature: Glass in the Gardens." With the Highwaymen taking over the Museum of Botany and the Arts, this year's exhibit was housed primarily in the somewhat steamy Tropical Conservatory. So much for staying cool!  

"My Garden" by Duncan McClellan
McLellan is nothing short of a studio glass genius. No matter how many times I've seen his work, I always marvel at both their size and the detailed images he creates. Stephenie and Steve are in this picture both because they're so darn cute and to give a sense of scale. While they are a few steps back, you can see that McClellan's pieces are are quite large -- many are close to two feet high. And the works definitely have some heft. McClellan has said it often takes four people to blow one of these vessels, which can weigh as much as 40 pounds coming out of the kiln. McClellan calls the required choreography "a ballet with molten glass." 

What really blows my mind, though, is McClellan's etching on each work.  After creating a sketch of the world he wants to create, McClellan uses an exacto knife to carve the image. It must be an incredibly delicate process. To read my take-away from a lecture McClellan gave at Selby a couple of years ago, click here. And to explore what's happening in his gallery in St. Pete, click here. Better yet, stop by for a visit. 

"Royal Poinciana on the Indian River" by Mary Ann Carroll
After enjoying McClellan's art, we headed to the Museum to take in "We Dream a World: The Highwaymen." Here's a confession: Historically, I haven't been a huge fan of the Highwaymen's art. Having seen a handful of these artists' paintings, the colors have struck me as a bit strident. It's not fair, of course, to lump the work of all 26 artists categorized as "Highwaymen" together. And that's one of the ideas behind the exhibit -- to allow viewers an opportunity to look at the work of these artists as individuals. Thanks to Selby's educational programs, I've learned that while many of the artists knew each other, their art shouldn't be considered a movement like impressionism or neoclassicism. In fact, the label "Highwaymen" wasn't coined until 1995 -- long after most of these artists had put their paints away -- when Jim Fitch wrote a book about artists who sold their works from the trunks of their cars on Florida roads. 

"Old Florida" by Alfred Hair
Back in the 1950s, when the United States was still officially segregated, young Alfred Hair was a student of Zenobia Jefferson at Lincoln High in Fort Pierce. She recognized Hair's budding talent and introduced him to A.E. "Beanie" Backus, a white artist who was colorblind when it came to human beings. Backus taught Hair both art and marketing skills. Hair learned that landscape paintings depicting tropical sunsets and the flora and fauna of Old Florida were popular with both locals and tourists. And so he painted scenes like the one here fast and furiously. Volume was important if he was going to make a living doing something other than manual labor or picking fruit in the fields. "Paint slow when you get old," Hair said to fellow artist James Gibson. (Gibson took this advice to heart. His own business strategy also included checking out paint and carpet stores to see what colors were popular so he could create paintings perfect for OTC -- over the couch.)  Hair is considered the first of the Highwaymen artists.  

"Rough Surf Crashing" by Harold Newton
Harold Newton deviated from the mode of working as quickly as he could. He considered himself a serious artist rather than a person just painting to make ends meet. Like most of the Highwaymen, Newton was primarily self-taught. Newton used not only paintbrushes and palette knives to create his works; he also wielded pocket knives and the occasional spoon to attack his canvas.

"Palm on the River" by Harold Newton
It's worth noting that these artists' canvases generally weren't of the cotton or linen variety. The Highwaymen often painted on upson board, a building material that could be purchased inexpensively at lumber yards. A single piece of upson board could be cut into several canvases of different sizes. Like his fellow artists, Newton would create frames for his works from crown molding. This was a practical as well as aesthetic choice. The paintings needed to be stackable in the artists' cars as they headed out to sell what were often still-wet works of art. 

After visiting the exhibit and learning the stories behind the Highwaymen and their art, I have a greater appreciation for their work. Kudos to these artists for their entrepreneurial spirit and to Selby Gardens for putting this exhibit together. 

"In Dialogue with Nature: Glass in the Gardens" and "We Dream a World: The Highwaymen" are on display through September 26. For more information, click here.  

Friday, August 27, 2021

Here Comes the Sun at Art Center Sarasota

"Do You Think It's Okay to Fly Now?"
by Alice Sundstrom 
First, a caveat. While the most recent exhibit at Art Center Sarasota was called "Here Comes the Sun," the exhibit was not overflowing with images of sun and fun on the beach. The titles of shows at the Art Center are for marketing purposes rather than to establish a theme. With the show running in August, "Here Comes the Sun" was as good a choice as any. Now that that's out of the way, on to some art created by area artists. 

Alice Sundstrom describes her art as being at "the intersection of Salvador Dali and Dr. Seuss." She invites viewers to exercise their imaginations as they enter her unique and wildly creative world. I've seen her work before, and I'm always taken by both the whimsy of her paintings and the meticulous way each component is created. Sundstrom begins each work by sketching shapes until a relationship among them begins to emerge. Then she's off to the races as her imagination takes hold. 

I assume the title of this work is a reference to our lives in what seems a never-ending time of COVID. While the glass ball loosely tethers the objects to the ground, each piece is clearly ready to head off into new territory. Isn't that how we all feel?  Perhaps this resonance was one reason "Do You Think It's Okay to Fly Now?" was awarded first place in the exhibit. 

"Redemption" by Ron Gallo
My vote for the People's Choice Award went to "The Path to Redemption" by Ron Gallo. It just struck a chord with me. Gallo's skill is impressive, and I wanted to know more about the people portrayed. The woman, dressed in her Sunday finest, sings from a hymnal. My personal guess is that the song is "Amazing Grace;" its lyrics about having been set free from the chains that bind seem apt since the young men appear to be convicts. The halos over their heads lend an otherworldliness to the image. What's the story here? 

As it turns out, I know Ron from his participation in exhibits at the Visual Arts Center in Punta Gorda, my home away from home when I lived there. And so I reached out to him to find out what inspired him to paint "The Path to Redemption." 

"The inspiration...was Colson Whitehead's book The Nickel Boys," he wrote. "It's a heartbreaking novel of the mistreatment, torture and often murder of young boys sent to a segregated Florida reform school. This was all done under the guise of 'redemption' and was for the most part hidden from the public and tragically sanctioned by the school administration. Ironically, the boys were not rehabilitated; they approached martyrdom (in my view)." Having read the book, I wholeheartedly concur with his analysis. Knowing this background makes me appreciate the work all the more. 

"Love Bugs" by Ron Gallo
I was also struck by the tone of "The Path to Redemption," which is different from Ron's other work with which I am familiar. He often portrays characters in a slightly humorous manner that reflects their humanity. (Think less than toned beachgoers or old men playing cards in the park.)  In fact, his "Love Bugs" depicts a crowd of people at a tennis match and was given a special award in the exhibit. I love that he can switch it up this way. Click here to visit Ron's website.    

"Becoming" by Mary GrandPre



Mary GrandPre's "Becoming" didn't win a prize in the show, but it did have a red sticker on the wall card. I can see why the purchaser was drawn to this image of a woman emerging from a misty background. You can almost feel her strength growing as she becomes the person she wants to be. (It doesn't hurt that the title calls to mind Michelle Obama's memoir of the same name.) For me, "Becoming" is an example of abstraction at its finest. 

Chances are you're familiar with GrandPre's work even if the name doesn't ring any bells. She began her career as an illustrator, and her work can be found on the covers and in the pages of the American versions of the Harry Potter books. Her resume also includes a collaboration with children's author Barb Rosenstock on books about Monet, van Gogh, Kandinsky and Chagall. I'm a sucker for fun ways of introducing kids to art. Click here to see some of GrandPre's illustrations (compliments of Amazon -- you know what to do.)  To see more of GrandPre's paintings, click here

"Tin Man" by Melanie Cartwright
I'll leave you with a sculpture by Melanie Carlstein, an artist whose mixed media work always gets my attention. Her assemblages often feature a painted face that's a wee bit creepy. Somehow, that's part of the attraction. But not here. Instead, "Tin Man" calls to (my) mind the ever-popular Mr. Potato Head with his funny hat and protruding ears. All he's missing is his corn cob pipe. (As a total aside, Hasbro has changed the brand name of the toy by dropping the "Mr." in order to be more inclusive. The actual toys, however, are still designated by their gender.)  

Carlstein's ability to take cast-off items and create art shows an admirable amount of creativity. Never in my wildest dreams would I look at an old drawer handle and think, "That would be the perfect mouth for an assembled figure." My right brain is sadly underdeveloped. To Carlstein, though, this way of looking at the world is natural.  "I have always seen beauty in things that are old or discarded and I can often picture them as something more," she has said. More power to her. For more of Carlstein's art, click here.

"Here Comes the Sun" was a great reminder that we have many talented artists in our midst. How lucky I am to live in such a creative community.  For more information about Art Center Sarasota and upcoming exhibits, click here.  

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott

"Shirley Temple Black and Bill Robinson
White" (1980) 
The Oxford English Dictionary defines satire as "A poem...or other work of art that uses humour, irony, exaggeration or ridicule to expose and criticize prevailing immorality or foolishness, esp. as a form of social or political commentary." Welcome to the art of Robert Colescott, now on display at Sarasota Art Museum. 

I wasn't sure what I thought of Colescott's art on my initial viewing. The works often made me laugh and then feel kind of guilty once I realized the intention behind the work. And then there's the fact that his work isn't, well, painterly -- at least in a classical sense. The colors can be garish, the figures misshapen and over-emotive, and the brushstrokes less than precise. I learned this wasn't due to a lack of training or ability. Colescott consciously chose to portray his subject matter in this style. 

Take "Shirley Temple Black and Bill Robinson White" as an example. I'm sure you've seen Shirley Temple and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson's iconic stair dance from the 1935 movie The Little Colonel. Their dance was the first by an interracial couple onscreen. With Robinson's big, ready-to-please grin and Temple's young charm, who could object? In his painting, Colescott's reversal of the races of the pair can cause some discomfort. Then there's the fact that Bill's overly-wide grin makes him seem a bit crazed. Shirley seems a little concerned as she leans ever so slightly away from him. The result makes viewers take a step back and think about what they're seeing. This is exactly Colescott wanted. 

"Cactus Jack in El Dorado" (1977)
You could spend a lot of time looking at Colescott's "Cactus Jack in El Dorado" and still find details that surprise you (and, yes, make you laugh). Aunt Jemima is cooking up some pancakes for a miner panning for gold. Let's start there. Did you know the name "Aunt Jemima" came from an 1895 song performed by minstrels in blackface sporting aprons and head kerchiefs? The reference was to the reassuring "Mammy" slave that took care of the household. Think Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind, a portrayal for which she became the first Black actor to win an Academy Award. (McDaniel's portrayal of Mammy was fabulous, and it was impossible not to love her. But it is noteworthy that the award was given to an actor depicting a happy slave.) Click here for a great read on the Mammy stereotype. And in case you missed it, both the Aunt Jemima brand and Uncle Ben's Rice have changed their names and packaging to move away from racist implications. Colescott summons all of this history -- some of which happened long after he painted the work -- in that one figure. 

The painting is filled with details that a casual viewer might overlook. A Black cowboy casually pees into the river. "Whut?" he says as he looks at the scene. Some Chinese men wearing Asian conical hats (sometimes referred to as "coolie hats") are frolicking in the river. They appear to be excited about some discovery as they are yelling "Euleka!" (This is not a typo.) Then there's a Native American standing on the shore whose commentary is simply "Ugh." The title of the painting contains its own bit of commentary. "El Dorado" has several definitions, but I'll go with Merriam-Webster's: "a place of fabulous wealth or opportunity." (Yes, I've quoted two dictionaries in this post.) I could go on, but you get the picture.  

"The Three Graces: Art, Sex and Death" (1981)
Robinson also took on art history by reinterpreting famous paintings to include Black and female figures. I particularly liked "The Three Graces: Art, Sex and Death." This trio has been a frequent subject throughout art history, with Botticelli's depiction perhaps being the best known. Traditionally, the three women represent charm, beauty and creativity. Not so in Colescott's world. Here we have "Death" bearing a dagger with a skull at her feet. She's wearing a garter belt and strappy sandals and her toe nails are painted a siren red. We're not sure what she's looking at -- perhaps her next victim? "Sex" is depicted as a Black woman whose clothing calls to mind Gauguin's Tahitian women. She looks directly at the viewer with a partially eaten apple in her left hand. We all get that reference. Then there's "Art," a beret-wearing painter who's working on a gravestone depicting Colescott himself. I kind of love it. Click here to see an interesting variety of interpretations of the Three Graces by artists from Botticelli to Picasso. 

"American Beauty" (1976)
I'll leave you with "American Beauty," a work that requires little interpretation. Here we have a beauty queen complete with cape, crown and a big ol' trophy. The voluptuous contestant wears not the modest one piece bathing suit familiar from beauty pageants of old but a tiny bikini. (Not being a pageant watcher, I was surprised to learn that Miss USA contestants now wear bikinis in the swimsuit competition. They strut the runway like Victoria's Secret models before Victoria's Secret made the radical shift this year from its "Angels" campaign to "What Women Want." The Miss America pageant got rid of the swimsuit competition in 2018. But I digress.) 

In the background Colescott features numerous cartoon images of a woman being sexually abused. In the first cartoons she fights off the guy. We then see them in flagrant delicto, although you never get the feeling she's a willing participant. My own take is that this guy is her boss, and he's the sort who chased his secretary around his desk and made sex a mandatory part of the job description. Of course given the setting, she could be the contestant contending with a judge before she got to the runway. Long before the days of #MeToo, Colescott was sensitive to the issues facing women. 

With three visits to the Colescott exhibit under my belt, I've come to appreciate his work. He's an artist who had a lot to say, and he wasn't shy about putting it out there. His paintings make me think about the state of our world -- both at the time he painted these works and now. I like that. 

Kudos to the Sarasota Art Museum for bringing this exhibit to our community. "Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott" runs through October 31st. It's an exhibit worth seeing. 


Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Visiting the Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Jupiter

Archelon Skeleton 
My latest travel found me on the East Coast of Florida for a visit with friends in Jupiter. Pat and I stopped talking long enough to visit the Loggerhead Marinelife Center. These creatures are pretty amazing. 

When we walked in, we were greeted by this skeleton of an archelon, the largest type of turtle ever to have been documented. The biggest specimen measured 15' long and had a 13' flipper span. The skeleton on display rivals that size and weighed in at 5,000 pounds. Archelon fossils have been found in surprising places like Kansas and South Dakota. You might think that would explain why they became extinct, but turtles have been known to live in all type of environments, including the desert. Who knew? 

Pat v. Sea Turtles 
I was so taken by the skeleton's size that I asked the woman at the front desk if it was real. "Have you ever heard of dinosaurs?" was her helpful response, with a tone to match. I did recently go to the Field Museum so, yes, I am familiar with dinosaurs. I hope she doesn't give tours. (Google informed me -- without the attitude -- that sea turtles are estimated to have been in existence for 110 million years.)

The primary mission of the Center is the treatment and rehabilitation of sick and injured sea turtles. But there's lot of information for visitors to take in before you get to the patients in their tanks. Read on for a few tidbits I learned along the way. 

--There are seven different species of sea turtles. Among them is the loggerhead, the most common species in Florida. A majority of loggerhead nesting occurs on the beaches of the southeastern coast of Florida. 

--Sea turtles lay between 80-120 eggs per nest and average two to six nests per season. Wow. This raised the natural question of where baby sea turtles come from. Mating must be pretty complicated with those shells. We went back to the front desk to ask. If you can believe it, they didn't know!  Thanks again to Google, I have a better understanding of the logistics. Suffice it to say that it's not easy on the female, who has to keep swimming for both of them while her partner for the moment holds on for dear life and other male turtles try and get in on the action. If you have any interest in checking out the mechanics, click here for a pretty crazy video. 

Avenue of Art Sea Turtle by Deb Lawless
--The temperature of the turtle's nest determines the sex of the baby, with warmer nests yielding females. Marine biologists are concerned that climate change could result in an imbalance in the gender of sea turtles.

--Sea turtles can't pull their flippers and heads into their shells and hide out. In general, this isn't a problem because their size and speed makes them invulnerable to many predators. (They can swim up to 20 mph!) But this trait does place baby sea turtles more at risk than a standard issue turtle.

--A young loggerhead might circle the entire Atlantic Ocean in the first ten years of its life. Maturity is determined by the length of its shell. Loggerheads don't reach maturity for approximately 30 years, so they are quite youthful at age 10. They can live as long as 100 years.  

After taking in all this information, we reached the sea turtle rehab facility, where six patients were undergoing care. Multiple volunteers were on hand to share their knowledge. Currently, the hospital can accommodate 18 patients. A substantial renovation is underway that will permit three times that number upon completion. 


Most of the sea turtles we saw had suffered injuries to their shells. Gabe, a green turtle, was sporting a bandage over his wound. (Each patient is named when it arrives for care.) The Center was contacted after he was found floating in Fort Pierce. While the cause of his injury was unknown, it was clearly life-threatening and needed to be treated. When air gets into a turtle's shell or body, it can have difficulty diving to get food. This is why boating injuries to sea turtles are usually fatal. 

In case you're wondering, the plastic contraption in the tank is a plaything for Gabe. (All turtles except loggerheads have them in their tanks. Loggerheads are left out because they gnaw at them until they break.)  One of the guides shared that another one of their patients is a bit antisocial and likes to "hide" under one of the plastic bars. If I can't see you...

When the Center is contacted about an injured sea turtle, an ambulance is dispatched with hospital personnel aboard to retrieve the patient. A complete exam is done upon arrival that includes blood tests to check organ function and x-rays to look for issues from fractures to pneumonia to the presence of foreign objects like fishing hooks. Once a diagnosis has been made, treatment begins. While it makes sense, I was surprised to hear the turtles often undergo physical therapy. When a patient is deemed fully recovered, a microchip is implanted so the Center will know if it is caught again. Sometimes patients get a satellite tag for the gathering of data following release. All in all, it's quite an elaborate operation. 

With that, another successful outing was in the books. If you're in the Jupiter area, a visit to the Loggerhead Marinelife Center is a great supplement to your other activities. Click here for further information. Thanks to Pat for planning our visit!   

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Shari Urquhart: Musn't Touch -- in Milwaukee!

Deb, Libbie, Brehmer and me with "Dresser of Disdain" (1990) 83" x 126"
I always have to steel myself before entering a gallery in New York. Whatever function it is that the people behind the desk serve, they've definitely gone to school to learn how to be as unfriendly and intimidating as possible. "What make you worthy of seeing this exhibit?" is the vibe I almost always get. That experience made the royal treatment we got in Milwaukee during our outing to see "Shari Urquhart: Musn't Touch" all the more special. 

I had reached out to the organizer of the exhibit -- the Portrait Society Gallery of Contemporary Art -- to see if they could open a little early so we could go straight off our train from Chicago. My inquiry turned into Gallery Director Debra Brehmer collecting us at the train station and taking us to The Warehouse (where the bulk of the exhibit was on display), touring the exhibit with us there and then shuttling us to the Portrait Society to see the rest of the show. We would have enjoyed Shari Urquhart's incredible textile art no matter what the circumstances, but Brehmer's hospitality made the outing one I'll always remember.

"Shikari" (1990) 84" x 117"
The Warehouse's massive walls made it the perfect location to display Urquhart's work. While images of her work had caught my attention online, I couldn't truly appreciate them until confronted with their size.  Many of the rug-hooked textiles are more than eight feet wide. And then there's the level of detail. These are works in which you'd find something new each time you looked. I wasn't surprised to learn that it took Urquhart a year to create some of the largest works. After all, she had a day job. While art was her passion, it didn't pay the rent. But I'm getting ahead of myself. 

Urquhart grew up in Racine, Wisconsin (hence the exhibit in Milwaukee). After graduating from UW-Madison, she headed to New York like many aspiring young artists. Urquhart already a history with fiber art, having make rug-hooked pillows in graduate school to earn money for art supplies. But it was when she worked as an assistant to textile artist Alan Shields that her love of fiber really told hold. Eschewing both the division between art and craft and gender roles, Shields created textile paintings and sculptures, often with the use of a sewing machine. (He also made his own rather distinct clothing and apparently cut a swath even in 1970s New York.) You can see the same philosophy in Urquhart's work. 

"Indecorous Destruction with Tree and Bunny"
(1985-86) 95" x 138"
Urquhart's work had three distinct phases. Her earliest textiles feature a couple that doesn't seem to be on quite the same page. In "Shikari" (above), the man is clearly trying to capture the woman, who's making an effort to put him off. They are both off-balance, as is their relationship. Yet there's also a distinct sense of playfulness and affection. Relationships are complicated. 

The woman's diaphanous pink dress -- frequently seen in Urquhart's work -- is a symbol of her femininity. But it's also a reminder of how hard ballerinas work to claim their space. A profession in dance -- or in any arts-related field -- requires a single-minded dedication and sacrifice. It's not hard to see that this woman is a stand-in for Urquhart herself.   

"Indecorous Destruction" detail
In "Indecorous Destruction with Tree and Bunny," Urquhart once again captures a couple at odds. He is caught up in a project (damn Christmas trees!) and is disinterested in her choice of wardrobe. Note the classical sculpture that Urquhart has slyly added to the tableau, a nod to the perceived dichotomy between art and craft. I am amazed at the depth she creates in these works, especially the shadows. It wasn't a simple process. Urquhart used more than 100 different colors and types of yarn in "Indecorous Destruction..." Just look at the number of colors in that chair! In the detail picture, you can see how Urquhart used different types of yarn -- some metallic -- to create different textures and depth. It's truly mindboggling. You can also see why Brehmer named the exhibit "Musn't Touch." It's hard to resist reaching out to run your hands across the fibers. Coincidentally (not), one of the works in the exhibit is actually named "Musn't Touch."  

"The Renunciation" (1994) 100" x 92"
Urquhart's next phase eliminated the man, focusing on the female figure who becomes almost part of a still life. Urquhart was in her 50s then, and her work had not found its audience. During this period, Urquhart's art often references classical paintings. Sometimes the entire work was a reinterpretation. Other times, it's replicated as part of a larger narrative. 

In "The Renunciation," Urquhart tells her viewers that she's given up her childish dreams. Her ballet slippers are falling out of her grasp. Her hobby horse has taken a tumble, and the world of the princess in a castle has been tucked away. The rather unattractive painting above her is a faithful recreation of Arnold Bocklin's "Meerestille" or Calm Sea from 1886-87. Suffice it to say that Urquhart knew her art history. In this painting, Nereid has separated herself from her partner Triton, who can be seen submerged in the water near death. In "The Renunciation," Triton seems to represent the art world that has so disappointed Urquhart. Time to move on. 

"Woman I, Stage III" (1995) 100 "x 86"

"Woman I, Stage III" might have been my favorite work in the show. Our ballerina has transitioned from her pink tutu to black. Once again, a creepy painting provides some decoration. (This time it's Odilon Redon's "The Smiling Spider" from 1887. Notably, both Bocklin and Redon were symbolists.)  What I truly love about this work is our woman's use of a fly swatter to rid herself of all the little men flitting around her. They are engaged in manly activities like tossing around a football and boxing. Their boyish endeavors -- perhaps aimed at capturing her interest -- are only a distraction from the serious work of creating art. 

Urquhart embarked on the final phase of her career after she had left New York and returned to her hometown in Wisconsin. She took up gardening, and her joy in their blooms is displayed in her later works. These textiles are smaller than those created when she was in New York. In part, that was due to the practicality of more limited studio space. But her choice of subject also no longer demanded the scale in which she had previously worked. While impressive, they didn't excite me in comparison to her earlier work. They also sort of saddened me because they seemed an acknowledgment Urquhart truly had given up her dreams to make it in the art world. It struck me as ironic that these were the works most likely to have a little red dot indicating they'd been sold. 

All in all, our outing to Milwaukee was a terrific supplement to our art-driven trip to Chicago. Chances are I would never have otherwise had the chance to see the unique and exciting art of Shari Urquhart in person. Sadly, chances are you'll never get the opportunity. But you can see more of Urquhart's work on her website by clicking here. There you'll find more of her textiles, including her floral pieces, and some prefatory watercolors. Sadly, the website does not contain the photographs she took before starting on a piece. But the exhibit did!  So I'll leave you with this image that was a starting point for "Woman I, Stage III." I'm betting she and her models had a lot of fun. 

So much art, so little time...

Monday, July 5, 2021

Bisa Butler: Portraits at the Art Institute of Chicago

"The Safety Patrol" (2018)
I love it when a plan comes together. (Yes, I'm quoting the A-Team.) In this case, the plan was hatched when I sent Deb and Libbie some info about an exhibit of Bisa Butler's vibrant quilts at the Art Institute of Chicago. I'd seen an ad in Art Daily or some other art-related email, and Butler's work just jumped off the page. Libbie immediately said, "Let's go!" And so we did. 

I didn't read much about Butler before seeing the exhibit. I generally like to go in cold. I did, however, know that her work is influenced by Romaine Bearden's collages, Faith Ringgold's quilts, Gordon Parks' photographs and AfriCOBRA (which stands for the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists). But it wasn't until I entered the first gallery that it all came together. The colors. The textures. The layering. Looking at images of Butler's quilts truly does not do them justice. And then there's the social relevance of her work. 

"Southside Sunday Morning" (2018)
Many of Butler's quilts are recreations of historical photographs. "Southside Sunday Morning" is a faithful interpretation of Russell Lee's photograph "Negro Boys on Easter Morning" (with a bit of color added). The year was 1941, and Lee was a photographer with the Farm Security Administration's documentary photography project. While the project initially focused on rural America (think Dorothea Lange's iconic "Migrant Mother"), photographers turned their lenses on city dwellers in the 1940s. I am just in love with these boys dressed to the nines on their way to Easter Sunday service. Note not only the hats but that the second kid from the left is wearing knickers. They are just too cool for school (or church!)  Click here to see Lee's photograph and to read about one of the subjects. 

"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" (2019) 
The story behind the four women captured in "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" speaks to me. These women were students at Atlanta University at the turn of the 20th century. Their frank gazes let viewers know they are serious about taking control of their own lives and futures, as do the fabrics Butler used in the work. The title of the quilt comes, of course, from the Maya Angelou book of the same name. And so it's fitting that one woman's outfit includes two caged birds just waiting for an opportunity to get out into the world. Another woman's hat features a fabric known as "Speed Bird" and represents that she is going places. And then there's the skirt fabric called "Michelle's Shoes." (Coincidentally, the Obama Portraits are on display as well at the Art Institute.) For pictures of this quilt showing these details, click here. Truly fabulous. And to see the photograph that inspired this work, click here

"The Princess" (2018)
Not all of Butler's quilts contain historical references. Some are personal, like this portrait of "The Princess." Shown here is one of Butler's friends who immigrated from Jamaica to the U.S. when she was six years old. Her face conveys the bravery required to uproot yourself from your home and venture into a new life. Chin up, it'll be fine. But there's more to the work than apprehension. Butler's choice of colors -- particularly the yellow -- indicates excitement and happiness. 

Butler's father is from Ghana, and many of the fabrics used in her quilts are sourced there. As noted above, the patterns often have their own stories to tell that enhance Butler's narratives. The striking colors are intentionally chosen not only as an homage to traditional African clothing. They also dovetail perfectly with the "Kool-Aid" colors employed by AfriCOBRA artists. (FYI, AfriCOBRA works are also known for their positive images of Black people and for playing with the line between abstraction and representation.) It's worth noting that one of Butler's professors at Howard University was Jeff Donaldson, co-founder of AfriCOBRA. I was fascinated to learn that he sometimes had his students begin with a black canvas rather than the traditional white. Just think about that for a moment. 

"Broom Jumpers" (2019)
I'll leave you with Butler's "Broom Jumpers," a wedding portrait of a young couple. The fabric of the groom's pants with its big diamond rings is just perfect. In case you're curious about the title, broom jumping is a historic tradition in Black wedding ceremonies. In the days of slavery, couples who wanted to marry but were not legally permitted to do so would often "jump the broom" to signify their union. (This custom might ring a faint bell if you watched Alex Haley's "Roots.") I love the way Butler works so much history into every component of her quilts. 

And here's something fun about the exhibit -- Butler and her husband (who's a professional DJ) put together a play list with songs for each work. Their selection for "Broom Jumpers" was "At Last" by Etta James.  The lyrics begin with, "At last/my love has come along/My lonely days are over/And life is like a song." What a lovely sentiment for the newlyweds. And just to return to "Southside Sunday Morning" for a moment, the song matched with that work is "Move On Up" by Curtis Mayfield. It goes, in part, "Just move on up/Toward your destination/Though you may find, from time to time, complication."

To see inside Butler's studio and hear her talk about her work, click here. There are also links to articles about the play list for the exhibit and the people portrayed in her work. In case you haven't figured it out, I'm a huge fan.  

Bisa Butler: Portraits is running at the Art Institute through September 6. Get there if you can. 

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