Paper + People is a blog about the Smith College Museum of Art’s collection of over 18,000 prints, drawings, and photographs. Here you will find a diverse array of posts written by museum staff, students, scholars, and other paper enthusiasts about anything pertaining to the collection.
Any works you see featured here are available to view by appointment.
Monday, January 28, 2013
Student Picks is a SCMA program in which Smith students organize their own one-day art show using our collection of works on paper. This month’s student curator and guest blogger Camille Kulig ’13 discusses her show “Conceal/Reveal: The Exquisite Art of Masking and Costuming” which will be on view this Friday February 1 from 12-4 PM in the Cunningham Center for the Study of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs.
People have long exploited the power of costuming and masking as a means to both reveal and conceal parts of their identities. Masking and costuming have provided an outlet in which changing and altering appearances is made possible, questioning how we see ourselves and in turn, how others see us.
In the literal sense, masks have been used throughout time in a variety of contexts as a way to transform the appearance of a person often for the sake of a performance, as seen in featured works, Barnum and Baileyand Portrait of Gene Loring of the Ballet Caravan.This idea of transformation is one that has made the art of masking and costuming in the figurative sense a great source of agency and fascination. In the 1970’s performance artist and photographer Martha Wilson harnessed the power of costume in her Portfolio of Modelsseries, in which she takes on the personas of six female stereotypes through the device of dress and masking. A decade later Cindy Sherman, as seen in her work Untitled #95,further utilized the power of costuming and masking to challenge the viewer’s perception of reality, artifice and the performance of femininity through her staged vignettes in which artist stands in as actor. In Cuban artist Eduardo Hernandez Santo’s, series El Muro (The Wall)he captures the underworld of drag and the integral role make-up and dress play in transforming the body, making the question “Que Trajo la Metamorfosis?”—“What Brought on the Change?” particularly fitting. In masking the exactitude of knowing one’s identity is brought into question, or as Goya so aptly summed up with the title of his 1799 work Nadiese Conoce— “Nobody Knows Anybody.”
Ironically, the artifice masking enables, grants people access to their truest selves. Through the guise of costuming and masking, people are allowed freedom otherwise inaccessible. In this way, masking and costuming paradoxically and simultaneously conceal and reveal.
Tuesday, January 22, 2013
These 19th century Japanese stencils in our collection prove that, contrary to what one might expect, the tools used to create an artwork can be just as beautiful and impressive as the finished works themselves. Unlike in Western traditions, stencil-making (or katagami) was a renowned art form in Japan. Stencils were most often used for the decoration of kimonos and other textiles.
After Japan’s 200-year long period of cultural isolation ended in the mid-19th century, Westerners were fascinated by the arts of Japan, most notably ukiyo-ewoodblock prints. However, tourists were also interested in Japanese textile stencils as art objects themselves for their high level of technical mastery and aesthetics. Artist Blanche Ostertag wrote in 1899 for Brush and Pencilmagazine: “What possibilities of color arrangements are suggested by some of these designs! Cotton dresses would be an endless joy were they adorned with any of these stencils, and our silk fabrics, both for household and personal adornment, might become doubly attractive.” The appeal of Japanese stencils lay in the sophisticated integration of the organic with the geometric, using images of birds, flowers, and vegetation as the basis for their designs. In the stencil below, the rhythmic arrangement of flowers and outlines of birds arranged on diagonal axes set against a background of vertical lines creates a sense of stylized motion.
This high regard for the art of Japanese stencil-making historically coincided with the Arts and Crafts movement which was a late-19th century design reform movement in Europe and America. Such artists responded to increased industrial production by creating hand-made furniture, wall-paper, and ceramics. British Arts and Crafts wall-paper designer George R. Rigby (who made stencils himself) remarked in 1900 that “Japanese stencilling is, to my mind, the only thoroughly successful and considerable use of the craft.”
The process by which the stencils are created is remarkable and is the primary reason why 19th-century Westerners and Japanese alike regarded these objects as artworks themselves. An artist would draw and cut a design by hand, using anywhere from two to six sheets of extremely thin washipaper for one stencil. The sheets were then adhered together with a brown glue made from persimmon, which makes the stencil waterproof and durable. The sheets are often glued with a matrix of raw silk threads between the layers for further reinforcement. Without these threads, the complex designs which often employ lines no thicker than a pencil mark, would not withstand more than one printing. Luckily, the silk threads are so thin, in fact, that they do not show up in the printing. This painstaking process is made even more complicated by creating a brand new stencil each time a different color is to be printed.
Thursday, January 10, 2013
The obsessive act of reasserting my ties with the earth is an objectification of my existence.
– Ana Mendieta
I have always been enchanted by the work of late Cuban American artist Ana Mendieta, and the more I get to know her work, the more mysterious, unsettling, and wonderful it seems. Perhaps her most famous series, the Siluetaswere sculptural performances (which she called “earth-body works”) in which Mendieta would imprint or outline her silhouette into or onto natural elements, such as sand, earth, snow, trees, grass, ice, or rocks. These works are now known only through the hundreds of documentary photographs taken by the artist. Her performances of the 1970s showcase the inherent contradictions which make her work so captivating; they are simultaneously performative and static, expressive and stoic, beautiful and haunting, autobiographic and universal.
Ana Mendieta was born in Cuba in 1948 and came to the United States in 1961, living in exile in the Midwestern United States for much of her life. First receiving a graduate degree in painting from the University of Iowa, Mendieta subsequently earned a second MFA through their famous Intermedia department, where she learned to create her own fusion of the emerging media which were to define the art of the 1970s – performance, land art, and photography. While she did not physically return to Cuba until her visit eighteen years later, her work was always inspired by the heritage of her lost homeland and the feeling of being uprooted or, in her words, “cast out of the womb.” The subtle act of imposing her body on the earth is an effort to physically and spiritually reconnect with history and nature.
Mendieta traveled to Mexico every summer between 1973 and 1980, where she made hundreds of Siluetas,either in private or in the presence of a very intimate audience. The works are imbued with symbolism drawn from indigenous religions, such as Santeria – a Cuban hybrid of Catholicism, West African, and Caribbean spiritual beliefs, archetypal nature imagery, and Mexican funerary decorations. Mendieta believed she had more in common with indigenous artists than with her contemporaries, proclaiming “[My work] has very little to do with most earth art. I’m not interested in the formal qualities of my materials, but their emotional and sensual ones.”
The true power of the Siluetaslies in what Mendieta chooses not to show us. Apart from a few early works, such as the first in the series Imagen de Yagul(above), the artist’s physical body is not present, but is suggested by her silhouette created from her body or a plywood cut-out used in later works. While these photographs preserve the immediate and timeless memory of the earth-body works, they were in fact methodically planned, quickly executed, and ephemeral. The pieces produced in Mexico were often created within protected cultural sites – such as Zapotec graves and abandoned church complexes – and were left to deteriorate and return to the earth.
In 1985, Ana Mendieta fell to her death from a window in her thirty-fourth floor New York apartment, where she lived with her husband Carl Andre, the famous Minimalist sculptor. Whether her death was the result of a suicide or murder is still a mystery. While many like to claim that the visceral and morbid nature of Mendieta’s art foreshadowed her own tragic and untimely death, there is so much more to her work than a conveniently romantic tale of a troubled artist who died too young. She states: “My art is the way I reestablish the bonds that tie me to the universe.” In the photographs, her physical and spiritual presence is felt long after the works disappear, but the Siluetasare not mere autobiography. Mendieta expresses powerful universal truths by employing themes of birth, growth, death, and rebirth, which resonate across all histories and cultures.