Category Archives: craft

Daniel Clowes

It’s always interesting to see exhibitions consisting of the original artwork for book illustrations. Between my photography and printing backgrounds, I’m very sensitive to the distinction between the initial creation and the finished piece. It’s nice to see the behind-the-scenes nature of pasteups and contact prints. Yet very rarely can those components overshadow the intended final printed piece.

The Daniel Clowes exhibition  at the Oakland Museum is the third such exhibition I’ve seen in the past year.* Clowes’s work in particular is worth seeing in the museum. His drawings are super-precise and are served well by being seen in their original larger size.** It’s also instructive to see how he pastes fine details like faces and highlights on top of the base drawings and how he uses pre-printed fill patterns to give texture to things like clothing and hair. The results are almost computer-generated, even in the large paste-up versions.

*Previous two are Robert Crumb’s Genesis and Sandow Birk’s Commedia, both at the San José Museum of Art.

**roughly twice the dimensions of the printed pieces.

Yet, as much as I can appreciate the craft, over and over again I found myself just reading the panels and getting into the story—generally a good thing for this kind of art but frustrating in a museum where not all panels are present. I’m not familiar-enough with all the comics to fully appreciate the panel artwork—unlike Genesis or the Commedia, each of which I’m somewhat familiar with storywise. Many of the panels though did stand on their own so it’s not all frustrating.

To be fair, the museum has provided samples of the various graphic novels and bench to sit on while you read them. But that’s a much longer-term commitment to the museum than I had available to me last weekend.

I just wish they were selling prints of the “Oakland” panel from Wilson. Any exhibition which can produce a laugh-out-load moment like that is worth seeing.

Art and Artifact

Visit any art museum and you find that, up until the renaissance, most of the western art on display is actually functional. And that most of the non-western art is always displayed as being functional.* Yet even now, when western art has been decoupled from its function, functional western art still shows up in museums. The catch is that it always old when it shows up.

*Read my Art, Craft, and Function post for more context on this point.

I don’t think it’s possible to set a specific time value for when things become objects in and of themselves. It does seem though that we need time to let the context settle down.

Richard Misrach waited 20 years before displaying his photos of the Oakland Hills Fire. This kept his photos from being opportunistic ruin porn and instead added some historical context for us to reflect on what we were seeing yet also allowed us to add our own narratives to the story and abstract the images so they can describe other disasters.

Similarly, old photojournalism will often show up in museums as art since the photos are no longer burdened by a single specific narrative.

Which makes sense considering photography’s function. A lot of the appeal of Walker Evans now is the historical side of the photos and how they illustrate a time in American history. They’re no longer specific stories, they evoke the sense of a decade.

The transition of a photo from image to artifact is especially interesting given the hang-ups many people have about archival life. Museums happily display old prints and tintypes without explaining how they may have faded or tarnished over the years. That the objects and images have survived is sufficient. And this is fine. How an object ages is an important part of its impact. We don’t look at ancient sculpture fragments and think that they’re ruined because they’ve broken.* We appreciate what’s survived. If a calamity happens, that becomes part of the history of the object.**

*Something that artists like Mitoraj take full advantage of.

**For example, Cimabue’s crucifix which was “destroyed” by floods.

What we see in the museum is as much about what the object has survived and its specific life story as it is about what the object actually is and represents.

It’s going to be interesting to see how this will change as more and more art becomes technology-based and no longer degrades physically. We’re not really used to this idea yet we’re already seeing this phenomenon in movies where once-cutting-edge special effects end up severely dating the movie later. Watching King Kong, Jason and the Argonauts, or even Jurassic Park now forces us to see the technical evolution of the medium. I’m not sure we’ve adjusted to being able to view those as much more than technological time capsules.

I’m a bit worried that the focus on archival life in photography will result in a second round of technological hangups once prints begin to age. It’s much more interesting to focus on what the photos are of and what they represent from the past than just talking about the technicalities—no matter how interesting—of how they were made.

Renegade Humor

Melt by Walter Robinson

My trip to San José to see Mexicanismo also meant that I could take in the Renegade Humor exhibition. It’s a spottier exhibition consisting of some pieces which I really reacted to and others which didn’t grab me much. But that’s to be somewhat expected from a bunch of work which is expected to be earthier and flippant. Flippancy doesn’t always age well.

Those pieces I reacted to though I tended to really like. I have a wry sense of humor which appreciates the obscure and the dark.* There’s definitely a lot of that here. Some of the newer pieces such as Walter Robinson’s Melt, or Brian Goggin’s Desire for the Other are especially interesting in this regard as they use dark humor to comment on the state of things today. Those two pieces are also the two most visible in the exhibition.

*Yet another reason I enjoyed Mexicanismo.

#10 Sampler by David Gilhooly

#10 Sampler by David Gilhooly

The most interesting part of the exhibition for me though was getting a better appreciation for Robert Arneson as I only just realized how non-functional ceramics are still fighting to be included as real art. They’ve been around as long as I’ve been alive but I still find myself not really reacting to most ceramic sculptures.* It’s nice to be made aware of my blinders. I may not dismiss ceramics as “not art” but I’m motivated now to think about why I react the way I do.

*I do react well to pottery, stoneware and other functional stuff.

Some of my reaction is due to the fact that most of the non-functional ceramic art I’ve seen is in the context of student or community center art. A lot of it is based on how museums still aren’t sure how they fit in with other pieces. It’s definitely still an emerging medium which makes photography* look like the establishment.

*Photography is still in a weird position in the museum and we’re still seeing confusion about what kind of photography is art.

If you want to get in on an art medium at the ground floor, consider this a recommendation to embrace non-functional ceramics. They’re not cool yet. And you’ll be able to make jokes about David Gilhooly chocolate frogs the next time you read Harry Potter.

iPad Art

The first question is fantastic. And there’s no single correct answer although deferring to whatever the artist intended is probably the safest. We’re used to artists using computers to create art which is then intended for display in a different medium. Computers are just the tool.

Creating art on an iPad blurs the definitions. The iPad is both a tool and a presentation device so the question of how to display these becomes even bigger than what SFMoMA asks.  It’s not just print vs. digital, it’s about the size of the display. An exhibition using iPads, or iPad-sized screens, would be very different than an exhibition of framed and mounted iPad-sized prints. Or gigantic prints. Or huge projected images.

For the Hockney drawings in particular, part of the appeal is that they’re essentially finger paintings. I’d be inclined to treat them as iPad-sized in order to keep the human scale. Because the Brushes app can replay the brush strokes used to create the painting, I’d actually like to see them displayed electronically so while the drawing is static most of the time, every few minutes or so it will loop so you can watch its creation.

My questions about the catalog are semi-cynical but also get at the point that being able to take a bit of the museum home with us is both how museums make money and how most people see art. The concept that a catalog can exactly match the exhibition* makes an app-based catalog extremely interesting. To-date, I only purchase catalogs which really capture the sense of the artwork I saw. If the art doesn’t work in print form, I won’t get the book even if I love the work.** An exhibition of digital work which took advantage of the digital nature of the work just would not work in print. At all.

*Well, besides the fact that exhibitions would show everything together and an app shows them one-by-one. Oh, and not attending the museum means you miss out on all the interactions in the museum as people interact with the art.

**Ruth Asawa’s work is the best example of this. I love the three-dimensionality of the works so much that, while the photos are neat, I can’t help but find them disappointing.

Now, a lot of existing work would benefit from being displayed as an app too. Bradford’s work, with its rich surface detail and ability to reward viewing at multiple distances is an obvious candidate. Gursky is another example. Existing catalogs of both artists’ works already show detail views of the pieces in addition to the typical catalog shots. An app would just do this in a much better way.

Public vs private

While I was scanning old family photos, I was struck by the difference between the studio portraits and the album prints. There is a distinct difference with how my grandparents displayed them. Family snapshots went in the albums. Studio portraits were framed and displayed in the house. My memories of visiting my relatives also include seeing all the portraits on walls or bookshelves.

Despite the gradual amateurization of photography and photographic equipment, we seem to still cling to this distinction today. It may be harder to distinguish yourself as a professional, but consumers of photography desire professional photos as much now as they used to.

When I look at people’s homes, I see school portraits and wedding photos on display. I have to look through albums* to see the birthday parties and vacations.

*Or Facebook or Flickr. Or on the fridge door. Or, increasingly, on a cell phone.

All of which goes against the standard narrative that professional photography is gradually dying. More people may be photographers now. But the photos we frame and display are still pretty much unchanged from what our grandparents did decades ago.

It’s tempting to say that the photos people display are the professional ones since those are the best quality. But I think it’s the events. We commemorate certain events—especially those which are child or family related—by taking photos with the express intent of displaying them in our homes. And we prefer that those photos be taken professionally.

There’s still a huge demand for professional photos but too many professionals are getting hung up on the  concept that “anyone” can be a pro now. Too many professionals may also be completely misunderstanding the market.

Take, for example, Pinterest. Photographers don’t quite understand it yet and it’s tempting to dismiss it as having a lousy return on investment. It’s not a portfolio site to share your own items, you use it to pin and share what you like and aspire to. That the kind of photography people are willing to pay for happens to be the same kind of photography which a lot of Pinterest users like seems to be flying over a lot of photographers’ heads.

Monuments of Printing II

My trip to Stanford to see Walker Evans was also timed so that I could catch the second part of the Monuments of Printing exhibition at Green Library. The first part was very good. It was more of an exhibition of the evolution of type and printing rather than design and I enjoyed it from a technology point of view. Part two picked up the final bit of type design but quickly got into the Arts and Crafts Movement.

Which is the portion I was really interested in. The older books are interesting—if not beautiful—to look at but they also all contain flaws since they’re still finding their way through the technology. While Stanford calls it the Book Arts Revival, this exhibition shows that it’s really a distillation of everything good from historic book design.

In the same way that I found myself wanting to handle the books on display in the Art of the Book Exhibition, I would love to leaf through the Kelmscott Chaucer or the Doves Bible. We don’t make books like that anymore and these books cry out to be both read and treasured. It’s fantastic to be able to see them in person and really see the craft which went into them. It’s also clear that these books are meant to be more than just for reading. These are books* as devotional objects.

*And by extension, their contents.

Which is a point of view that I’m okay with. It’s obvious in the exhibition is that there is a threshold of importance which must be reached for a text to be considered worthy of publication—Chaucer, Shakespeare, the Bible, and Milton are featured a lot. The books I covet from the Folio Society are all classics like these too.

This makes sense considering how expensive traditional publishing has been. It’ll be interesting to see what happens as publishing dies and books stop being commodities.

Just My Type

For Christmas, I received a copy of Just My Type. Since I’m already on record as being a bit of a book junkie and printing nerd who scrutinizes the way type is displayed, Simon Garfield’s book about fonts is aptly-named. It’s not for beginners but for people who are already sensitive to type. It’s also not an educational book about type but rather a collection of essays regarding the use of type as it has changed over the decades.

Which means that it’s really about both the democratization and obsolescence of a craft. Stop me if this sounds familiar?

The history of photography is a sped-up version of the history of type.* Technology and technological changes have consistently expanded the reach of words to more and more people and in doing so, have rendered countless professions obsolete. Typesetting and fonts are a particularly interesting area to look at due to their revolutionary impact on the written word and their continued evolution as other technology changes.

*Any conclusions from the facts that I work in printing and practice photography as a hobby are left as an exercise for the reader. 

The other wonderful thing about type evolution is that the end product is all that’s needed to really see the changes. We can observe the changes in the letterforms and understand the technology changes that created the printed type just by looking at printed material. We may lose fonts and the ability to use them anymore, but we can still observe the craft and inspiration which created them.

Since typesetting is thought of as a craft* it doesn’t get as hung up on the “is it art or not” question and has been more open to new technologies. The biggest problem with computers and the digital revolution has been the loss of quality.** It’s not a philosophical issue like it is in photography.

*Occasionally it becomes design. And thus relevant to art museums.

**This is different than the amateurization of professional photography gear. In photography, what used to be amateur formats have become professional. With type, it’s more like signal gradation in the transfer between technologies and generations.

That more and more people are aware of and have access to fonts and typesetting tools is a good thing. While people love to misuse fonts, those of us who care tend to use those instances as teachable moments. And we have some fun with it. There are no wars, really, about font superiority or which typesetting process is most pure. As long as it’s considered and appropriate for the usage,* everything is fine.

*This was the problem with the IKEA switch from Futura to Verdana. It smacked of a corporate all-look-same mandate rather than something which considered the fact that the print catalog and online web presence were different mediums and served different purposes.

Which is a lesson that we need to learn as photographers. Don’t forget the function. When we lose track of what art is for, it becomes harder to appreciate and we give in to the temptation to judge everything based on arbitrary distinctions of process and method.

Typesetting doesn’t care about gear. What matters is where the words are expected to be displayed and what message they’re supposed to convey.