#10: On Women

The Three Graces

After having explored the Running Man theme for many years, it was time to explore my inner woman in sculptural form. So as a counterpoint to the Running Man series, I developed a Dancing Woman series.  The first piece in the series was a maquette called the Three Graces.

The Three Graces, 2004, 70 cm x 70 cm x 70 cm, silver paint on plaster

This piece was a further effort to explore the problem of depicting women in art without succumbing to stereotyping about Beauty, the Eternal Woman and the rest of it.  I discuss this in another blog that includes a lino print & oil painting version of the Three Graces but will touch on on this issue later in this blog.

Three Graces/Charites from Pompeii, now in the Archaeological Museum in Naples

Images of The Three Graces goes back to antiquity.  Wikipedia says in  Greek mythology, the Graces ordinarily numbered three, from youngest to oldest: “Splendor”, “Mirth” and “Good Cheer”.

In 1482 Sandro Botticelli included Three graces in his painting Primavera

The Three Graces, detail from Sandro Botticelli’s painting Primavera in the Uffizi Gallery.

Then there is the famous oil painting by Italian painter, Raphael, who in turn was inspired by a ruined Roman marble statue in Siena shown below.

Three Graces: Roman copy of the Greek original, Libreria Piccolomini, Siena, Tuscany, Italy
The Three Graces, 1504-1505, Raffaello Sanzio, oil on panel, 17 × 17 cm (6.7 × 6.7 in), location Musée Condé

More recent sculptors have also used the Three Graces as a subject. Below is Antonio Canova’s (1757 – 1822) version. He was an Italian sculptor who became famous for his marble sculptures that delicately rendered nude flesh. The epitome of the neoclassical style, his work marked a return to classical refinement.

The Three Graces, Antonio Canova Location: Hermitage, St. Petersburg 

Now, my version of The Three Graces is the very opposite of delicately rendered nude flesh for reasons I have expanded on elsewhere.  Don’t misunderstand me – I am breathless with admiration for the technical ability  of those sculptors who were able to take stone and turn it into a timeless work of art.  But that was then and this is now. The problem for contemporary artists is that the female form has been used so often that it has become a cultural icon used to convey shallow, sentimental ideas about women that are conventional and formulaic.  This is why my version of the graceful trio is made from flat planes to create monumental, powerful angular figures. This seems closer to the original conception of the Graces as goddesses of “Splendor”, “Mirth” and “Good Cheer.

I would very much like an opportunity to create my version of The Three Graces in full scale at some point.  The final size should be at least 2 m x 2m x 2m. As it would be a large and expensive sculpture to make for exhibition and sale on spec, I’ve shelved it until an opportunity presents itself.

Speaking of nude women in art, I was reminded of work done in this area by the Guerilla Girls. In 1989, this artists’ collective was asked to design a billboard for the Public Art Fund (PAF) in New York.  They conducted a “weenie count” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, comparing the number of nude males to nude females in the artworks on display. The results were very “revealing”  and were used in the design they submitted shown below.

Poster designed for the Public Art Fund, New York, 1989, The Guerilla Girls

The PAF said the design wasn’t clear enough (????) and rejected it. The Guerilla Girls rented advertising space on NYC buses and ran it themselves, until the bus company canceled their lease, saying that the image, based on Ingres’ famous Odalisque, was too suggestive and that the figure appeared to have more than a fan in her hand.

The concept behind this poster was explored in the early 1970’s in a collection of essays, later televised, called Ways of Seeing, edited by John Berger.  The essays raise questions about hidden ideologies in visual images. One essay focuses particularly on the female nude as a subject for art which depicts women as a subject of male idealisation or desire rather than as herself . An example is Venus & Cupid by Lely shown below.

Venus & Cupid; circa 1640; Sir Peter Lely; oil on canvas; 48¾ x 61¾ in. / 123.8 x 156.8 cm;

This portrait of his mistress was commissioned by Charles the Second.  It shows her passively looking at the spectator staring at her naked. Berger calls her expression “…a sign of her submission to the owner’s feelings or demands.”

Berger contrasts this Western tradition of painting languid nudes to non-european traditions, such as Indian, African & Pre-Columbian art where “…nakedness is never supine in this way.”

The question posed on the Guerilla Girl’s website is: DO YOU THINK THINGS HAVE GOTTEN BETTER SINCE OUR FIRST COUNT IN 1989? As a sculptor, I am naturally interested in how often women are successful in sculpture & public art competitions or how well they are represented in exhibitions and galleries.  So to answer the Guerrilla Girls’ question, I checked “sculpture” on Wikipedia and did a back-of-envelope gender analysis of the sculptors represented there. Only about 5% of the artists mentioned are women in what should be a progressive source of information on sculpture. An apologist might say that women don’t want to be sculptors because it’s too difficult for them, or they are not strong enough or something along those lines.  For instance, when I was at a sculpture symposium in China, I asked why there were virtually no Chinese women sculptors among the 60 or so male sculptors participating.  The response I got from male sculptors was that sculpture is dirty work & women don’t want to do it.  A more likely scenario is that China, like most of the world, discriminates against female sculptors in terms of acceptance for sculpture training and granting of commissions. If in fact there are fewer female than male sculptors per capita in the West, it would be my suspicion that women chose another field because sculpture has remained a macho preserve.  And if there are as many female sculptors as male, there is clearly a strong gender bias at work in terms of getting work & recognition.

Though the Guerilla Girls are still very much the “conscience of the art world” I hadn’t seen any sign of them in my town of Vancouver for decades.  I was reminded about their artwork by an exhibition of feminist art at the Centre Georges Pompidou  in Paris that featured them.  Another of their brilliant and biting pieces is the following:

The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist, 1988, The Guerrilla Girls

I just love their work and wish I could see more of it.  The Vancouver art scene tends toward works that are careful not to actually take a stance on any identifiable issues or real-world problems.  An artist may allude to an issue, preferably taking an obscure approach that could not be said to be presenting a point of view, but using art to clearly present an opinion is not really considered to be in very good taste. That’s why re-visiting the Guerrilla Girls is such a breath of fresh air.

Anima

To continue my exploration of the female form, I developed another image into a maquette that has been realized in steel, called Anima shown below.

Maquette for Anima I, 2008, 13″ h x 14″ w x 12 d, wood & spray paint

 

Two Women Running on the Beach (The Race) (1922), Pablo Picasso

This maquette was an homage to Picasso’s wonderful painting, Two Women Running on the Beach (The Race) (1922).

I loved the monumental qualities of the women, their strength, freedom of movement and obvious joy.  It was fun to try to capture these qualities in intersecting flat planes.

In collaboration with my partner, Colin Race, the 13″ high maquette was translated into a 68″ high sculpture (5+ times as big) shown below.  To scale the model up, I outlined each part & used a pantograph to increase the scale.  Due to the limits of my cheap pantograph and workspace,  I seem to remember I had to increase the scale by 2.5 then increase those drawings again by 2.5. I drew each part on cardboard then attached all the pieces together as a rough model to see if they would fit. To construct it in steel, we built the skirt first which created a stable base for attaching the upper body & legs.  Due to small cutting errors, the dimensions of the original carboard templates had to be modified as the sculpture progressed.  Unfortunately, it didn’t occur to me to photo-document the process at the time. The finished sculpture was exhibited in the Lake Oswego “Gallery Without Walls” sculpture exhibition in Oregon from 2009-2011.

Anima I, 68″ h x 66″ w x 68″d, mild steel with urethane clear coat, shown on exhibition in Lake Oswego, Oregon.

This experiment was quite successful, except that I wanted to leave the surface in polished mild steel with a clear finish as shown above.  I spent hours researching a finish that would prevent rust & not yellow, or peel off. I found all kinds of extravagant claims for aliphatic urethane coatings that were alleged to prevent mild steel from rusting and last forever. So we used oiled & pickled mild steel, polished the picking off and clear coated Anima I with Aliphatic Urethane.  But the steel started to rust underneath the clear coat within a few months of the rainy season. The clear coat was lasting well, but rust is almost impossible to eradicate, and it showed through the clear coat. We ended up having the urethane media blasted off and re-finished the sculpture with a silver powder coat.

Anima I, 68″ h x 66″ w x 68″d, mild steel with powder coat, shown on exhibition in Lake Oswego, Oregon.

The finish is not as silvery as I had hoped (though above photo taken on a rainy day), but it still looks great and is a lasting finish. The only way to get a really silver finish is by using stainless steel, and I can’t afford it for spec sculptures.

The Anima I design presented fabrication challenges as all the intersections were ground smooth which took a lot of difficult, labour intensive work. So the design for Anima II was made up of cubes, rather than intersecting planes.  It was also away to test our fabrication capability for the eventual construction of my design for The Three Graces at the beginning of this blog. I submitted the drawing of Anima II shown below to a call for public art in Bremerton Washington and the drawing was accepted for a commission.

Drawing submitted to Bremerton WA. for sculpture, Anima II

I used the same skirt design as Anima I, which again provided a stable base for constructing the legs and upper body. I didn’t make a cardboard model, but just waded in, using the cardboard templates from Anima I as a guide. But they were soon useless so I ended up using big sheets of tracing paper to create a pattern for each piece of steel.  It was sort of like designing pattern pieces for making a dress.

As you can see from the caption, at the time of this submission I still wasn’t aware that no clear coat can be made to adhere well to bare steel, There just isn’t enough body for it to work. So I hadn’t factored into the budget getting the piece powder-coated.

Because the sculpture would be in a seaside location, I was advised to use a zinc-rich primer which is a very dark grey. The silver colour coat was not opaque enough to completely cover the primer, so the finish is less silvery than I had wished. Live & learn. If I were to do another piece like this in future, I would get it media blasted and spray-painted as you can keep adding layers of paint until satisfied. With powder coating, you can only add 2-3 coats max (primer, colour & clearcoat).

Not having worked in Washington before, I was also not aware that there would be sales taxes. And at about this time, the US border suddenly tightened up and we could no longer talk our way through without paying a brokerage fee and getting our Ford Ranger Pick-up registered as a Standard Carrier with the National Motor Freight Traffic Association. If it wasn’t such a waste of time, it would be funny to see us in our little red pick-up with some odd sculpture in the bed lined up for hours with rows of giant semis. Then there are more fees to actually get across the border.

The paperwork alone takes so much time away from doing any actual artwork that we now avoid bringing any sculptures into the US. We used to exhibit in many of the shows just across the border and really enjoyed meeting all the sculptors & sculpture-philes to the south. Just one small illustration of the many ways in which the new Security State is strangling the culture.

The commission price was quite small so with all of these additional costs and the fact that Anima II took a lot more work that I had optimistically estimated, we pretty well paid Bremerton to let us install the sculpture in their downtown Entertainment District.

Installed in Bremerton WA., USA

To add insult to injury, the reception from the man-on-the-street during installation was lukewarm. Apparently there were differences of opinion in the community as to whether or not the City should be cluttering up the streets with public art.

Comments in the local newspaper’s online Letters to the Editor were another bummer.

Here’s a sampling of the 62 mostly negative comments posted at the Kitsap Sun in response to the piece:

“Ugly, not necessary and from a Canadian artist. What a joke.”

“Can someone please explain to me why 1% of the money for the city is going to such frivolous things as this when we cannot even afford to keep the city pool open unless the YMCA steps up and operates it.? I find it absurd that we are spending even the smallest amount of money on these eye sores while important things in the community are going down the drain! This is a perfect example, in my opinion, of money being spent poorly and why the city cannot become financially stable.”

“This thing looks like a collection of re-folded cardboard boxes all glued together…..Another example of “artsy-fartsy” that would tempt any red-blooded garbage collector to pick up and haul away if not for its weight. A few more of these downtown abominations and acid-heads from all over will be coming to visit.”

“What’s next for ‘art’ in Bremerton? Is some sculptor going to weld together some rusty cogwheels and old corset stays and then try to tell us it’s a greater piece of art than Michelangelo’s ‘David’? Let’s try to have someone design some art for Bremerton and obtain approval from our city officials to purchase it during times when it’s not ‘happy hour’.”

“I am thinking about putting my old side by side washer & dryer with an old pc monitor on top & call it the “Seeing Wash & Dry Creature”,it will be FREE & I can deliver right there on a corner side-walk.I think this could contribute to the Artsy Town.”

“Ok–I know what will be more appropriate & will fit the Arts–let me keep this “clean” so it does not get removed & PLEASE NOTE this is NOT my idea as I am a devout man of religious manipulation.-Ok–Here goes–without being too vulgar——A GIANT Phallus/Shaft next to the B.u.t.t. Hole—I ask God to Forgive me as my thought could be sinful & be frowned on by the community & religious clans–HA-!!!”

Yikes.

On top of all that, the local community began to drape the sculpture in clothes. The local Arts Council felt it was positive interaction and even the Mayor checked in with me as to whether or not I was offended by this.  I said that

Anima II augmented, July 2010, Bremerton WA

once a sculpture is out in the community, I no longer feel  wedded to the original concept and if this is the way the community chooses to take ownership of the piece, so be it.

Having said that, I am not comfortable with this trend, and I have seen great sculptures in Seattle that people drape in clothes.  Maybe this is community involvement or maybe this is a fundamental disrespect for art.

We traveled to Bremerton one last time to maintain the sculpture and removed not only the accessories shown here, but a sandwich-board advertising local fundraising activities. The sculpture had graduated from mannequin to kiosk. While we were cleaning the sculpture, people were waiting in a car for us to leave so they could replace their advertising.

In addition to its advertising function, the sculpture was serving as part of a skateboard obstacle course and there were rubber skid marks up the skirt.  We tried everything to remove them and finally hit on toothpaste! for future reference, Crest with Flouride does the trick.

Like all of my experiments in art, Bremerton was a learning experience – mostly on how to combine artistic sensitivity with a rhinoceros-like hide.

The biggest irony about its reception is the fact that the Anima theme was meant to convey a positive message.  As quoted in the Kitsap Sun:

“It’s a strong piece about optimism,” Jamieson said. “I hope people will get a feeling of optimism and hope. We’re going into the future with our heads held high and a bright outlook.”

Well, I didn’t exactly say that but that was the gist of it.

Anima is about the unconscious or true inner self of an individual, as opposed to the persona or outer aspect of the personality. The sculpture is a celebration of the female principle, depicted using flat planes in a cubist/constructivist style to express strength.  Anima also refers to the joy and momentum that I was seeking to express in steel.

As I said the series of female figures was designed as a counterweight to the earlier Running Man series. That series was a social critique and I have come to realize that in any walk of life it is easier to critique than to propose an alternative.  Many artists believe their artwork should hold a mirror up to the public showing people the way things really are and shocking them out of their complacency.  The question is what we should be reflecting. If we believe life is a valley of tears and the world is heading for hell in a hand-basket, this is what we will tend to reflect.  If we believe that most people are basically good and that humans have the innate capability to snatch civilization from the jaws of savagery, this is what we will reflect in our art. Now the moral question: does the artist have any obligation to present one view rather than the other?

I just finished reading Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell’s brilliant novel about a future distopia – a purely predatory world that consumes itself. “In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.”  He wraps up the novel by saying:

“If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth & claw, if we believe divers races & creeds can share this world…if we believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the Earth & its Oceans shared equitably, such a world will come to pass.”

The Personal is the Political

The other day I received this comment about my blog :

“The following time I read a blog, I hope that it doesnt disappoint me as much as this one. I imply, I know it was my choice to learn, but I actually thought youd have something attention-grabbing to say. All I hear is a bunch of whining about one thing that you can repair in case you werent too busy in search of attention”.

My first response was, “Hey Crankypants! If you want to hear about how great everything is, just read the corporate media.”

My second response was to take this comment as yet another interesting piece of input on this blog. For me, blogging is just another vehicle for making art, and in this case, the artwork entails organizing and presenting the work of the last 40 years as themes and seeing how they weave together, sort of like a graphic autobiography. In truth, I could take each segment & present it in a completely different way, depending on how I feel about the subject.

For instance, as an artist, I can interpret my work from an objective or deeply personal perspective; I can think of it in terms of the forms created, the idea that motivated it or the ideas that evolved as the work progressed & I realized what it was really about.  Artists’ explanations for what they are doing will of necessity only be part of the story as artists edit their explanations to suit the target audience. Is the audience looking for artspeak or words spoken from the heart? Are they sophisticated artophiles or philistines? A penny-pinching municipal government or deep-pocketed collector?

Since I have no idea who is reading this blog or why, I have absolute freedom to present my work according to whim.  I could and may re-write all the blogs and re-arrange the images to present some other theme in the future.  It’s an interesting vehicle, the net.

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