Geneva Anderson digs into art

Tall Tales, Healing Stitches, Carol Larson “TALLGIRL Series” Petaluma Arts Council, August 8, 2009

The Bullies, 2006, 59"x34", commercial fabrics, digitally printed words.

"The Bullies," 2006, 59"x34", commercial fabrics, digitally printed words.

Last weekend, I met artist Carol Larson whose “Tallgirl Series” of two dozen mixed media fiber collages was exhibited at the Petaluma Art Center in conjunction with the annual Petaluma Quilt Show.  The quilt show is an annual one day extravaganza sponsored by the Petaluma Museum Association involving quilt displays at several downtown Petaluma venues and it draws a huge crowd from all over the Bay Area.  The Art Council’s sponsorship of Carol Larson, along with its recent shows devoted to Indian textiles, indicate the center’s strong support for fiber artists.  A large audience turned up at the Art Center for Larson’s talk, which is no surprise—since the center’s opening last year, every event has been packed to capacity, indicating our community’s hunger for interaction with artists.  The Center’s decision to focus on Larson, a fiber artist, during the local quilt show, indicates it is doing its job…prodding us to take note of the possibilities inherent in textile art and to note the divide between fine art and craft.    

There is a strong conceptual basis for Larson’s pursuit of this art form, separating her work from popular hobby quilting which often produces an object of beauty that carries no clear message.  Larson’s “Tallgirl” collages, 2006 to 2008, are comprised of dozens to hundreds of stamped or pieced vibrantly colored strips of fabric–all referencing her gripping life story as an outsider—an exceptionally tall and unhappy girl who became a guinea pig for medical experimentation.  These collages are stitched messages of abuse, chronic pain, isolation, transcendence and self-acceptance.  

"Why I Dropped Out of College," 2008, 36x49," commerical fabrics, screen-printed fabrics, Angelina fibers.

"Why I Dropped Out of College," 2008, 36"x49," commerical fabrics, screen-printed fabrics, Angelina fibers.

Larson grew up in the Bay Area and by age 17, she was 78 inches tall or 6’6″.   The subject of constant ridicule, Larson was ostracized and deeply depressed.  She was surgically shortened six inches with experimental surgery with the intention of giving her a normal life.  Standing before a large group at the Petaluma Art Center, Larson explained that, at that time, fitting the norm was equated with having a normal life and normal was thought to lead to happy.  She was “cut to fit.”  The grueling procedure which cut her bones but not her muscles took away all hope of athleticism as she was left unable to balance properly and with chronic pain which she has endured all of her adult life.  Ironically, when she later questioned her parents abut the decision to have the surgery, they told her that she had made the decision to proceed with the surgery.  Larson had no recollection of making this decision because she had suppressed the experience. 

detail, "Why I dropped Out of College," 2008, 36"x 49", commerical fabrics, screen-printed fabrics, Angelina fibers.

detail, "Why I dropped Out of College," 2008, 36"x 49", commerical fabrics, screen-printed fabrics, Angelina fibers.

The topic became taboo in her family and led to estrangement with her parents and her siblings.  Her confusion over this and over her parent’s lack of accountability festered for years. 

When Larson was in her twenties, she became a case study– the focus of medical research for an orthopedic team at a teaching hospital.  She was routinely called in, stripped down and paraded around for humiliating clinical examinations. She finally put her foot down and refused to participate.  Until she was 35, she avoided discussing her surgery, despite the fact that she walked with an obvious limp that people frequently commented on.  By age 55, Larson understood that repressing her feelings was self-destructive and she went “into rebellion” and began use art as an outlet. 

"On A Sacle of 1 to 10," 2008, 43"x61", Commerical fabrcis, hand-dyed silk charmeuse, batiks.

"On A Sacle of 1 to 10," 2008, 43"x61", Commerical fabrics, hand-dyed silk charmeuse, batiks.

Made from commercially purchased fabrics and some hand-dyed silks to which she applies successive layers of dye, dye removal, over-dyeing and screen-printing of her own imagery, the “Tallgirl” collages combine elements of abstraction with intimate self-portraiture.  Within the series itself, there is evidence of tremendous growth in experimentation with form and materials.  Among the most powerful works in the series are her self-portraits– caricatures of herself in various states of compromise or transcendence.  Her body is large, solid and awkward, a mass to be reckoned with and her face, all facial features, are absent.  Despite this, the scenes convey a tremendous amount of emotion.  “Why I Dropped Out of College” (2008) depicts her as a college student in Northern Utah experiencing a catastrophic fall on ice.  She is flat on her back, alone, sliding on ice, textbooks askew, hands outstretched to grasp her books.  Constant throughout these portraits is Larson’s expressive treatment of her hands—always elegant with long fingers.  Through her hands, Larson found her voice, healing and identity.

"Anatomy of Rage," 2008, 29" x39", hand-dyed and commerical fabrics.

"Anatomy of Rage," 2008, 29" x39", hand-dyed and commerical fabrics.

 “On A Scale of 1 to 10” (2008) is a fabric work comprised of a horizontal scale of graduated flames–vibrating chromatically—that are pieced from commercial fabrics and hand-dyed silk and machine stitched to a gray border.  The work is as much as scale of the off-the chart pain Larson endured as an index of the psychic energy she expended. 

"So many Stories," 2007, 44"x45", Digitally printed words, gesso, screen-printed.

"So many Stories," 2007, 44"x45", Digitally printed words, gesso, screen-printed.

 “Anatomy of Rage” (2008) is a fabric landscape executed in fiery red hues that radiates hot energy.  What appears to be a large time bomb done in benign patchwork sits off to the left alluding to the explosive power of pent-up emotion.  

“So Many Stories” (2007) is a mishmash of Larson’s stories which she typed in tiny fonts that were digitally printed and then silk-screened and gessoed onto fabric.  

Overall, there is a fascinating proliferation in this series and its psychic scatter, maybe it’s too orderly–Larson’s got a lot more to say and she is on a roll–getting looser, freer and more expressive with her materials over time.  I am curious to see what she would do with the immediacy of paint and canvas.  With their saturated colors and hand-crafted applications, these highly personal textile collages evoke enough discomfort and vulnerability to give them a powerful edge.

August 13, 2009 Posted by | Art, Petaluma Arts Council | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review-“Looking In: Robert Frank’s “The Americans” a capitvating study of how The Americans came to be, SFMOMA May 16, 2009 – August 23, 2009

Robert Frank, Parade—Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955; gelatin silver print; 8 3/8 x 12 3/4 in.; Private collection, San Francisco; © Robert Frank

Robert Frank, Parade—Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955; gelatin silver print; 8 3/8 x 12 3/4 in.; Private collection, San Francisco; © Robert Frank

“To Robert Frank, I now give this message: You got eyes.”  Jack Kerouac. 

Now in its final two weeks, SFMOMA’s fantastic exhibition “Looking In: Robert Frank’s “The Americans” celebrates the 50th anniversary of The Americans, one of photography’s most influential books.  The Americans is an unforgettable suite of black and white photographs that Frank made on a cross country road trip as a Guggenheim Fellow in 1955-56 that changed photography with its somber depiction of America, calling to question its postwar optimism and very wholesomeness.  Not only was Frank’s view of America bleak, his black and white prints were often fuzzy, grainy and off-kilter in composition, nothing like what was commonly seen in newspapers and leading magazines.  But the pictures he took in two years of roaming the country resonated with deep unspoken truths, foreshadowing the social upheaval that would later come. 

 “Looking In” is an art-historical feat that not only delves into every aspect of The American’s story; it shows us how far the photography retrospective has come in terms of comprehensive research.  All 83 photos that were published in the original volume are present, including a full set of Frank’s contact sheets, a reconstruction of Frank’s image selection process, his early work leading up to the essay, his later reuse of these famous images, a new film by Frank and a segment on photographers who have been influenced by him.  SFMOMA is the show’s only West Coast venue before it moves on to the Metropolitan Museum in September, 2009.

The exhibition was organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, the premiere center for the study of his art, and spearheaded by its senior photography curator, Sarah Greenough, who has organized several important Frank shows over the years. Corey Keller, SFMOMA Associate Curator of Photography, organized the show’s San Francisco leg.  In 1990, Frank donated a large portion of his archives from his 40 years of work to The National Gallery—making it the first time it collected the work of a living photographer—over 3,000 strips of negatives,  1,000 rare vintage and work prints, his rarest handmade book, and 2,296 contact sheets. Around that time, the National Gallery also increased its commitment to exhibiting photography by adding a wing that would permanently display the works of important photographers.

The American’s iconic status lies both in the work itself and what it has come to symbolize.  Very much a product of his time, Frank, with his unique Swiss-émigré outsider’s vision–saw and gave expression to important undercurrents that were brewing across America—racism, poverty, a culture of consumerism, shady politics and growing disconnection, alienation.  Frank photographed the same America that everyone lived in and knew, but with an outsider’s perspective, drawn to and identifying with outsiders.  As the catalogue discusses, he dismissed the notion of making individual masterpieces early in his career and instead focused on the sequencing of a suite of photos whose collective message was greater than any individual picture could be. 

Robert Frank, Political Rally—Chicago, 1956; gelatin silver print; 23 1/4 x 14 3/8 in.; Collection Betsy Karel; © Robert Frank

Robert Frank, Political Rally—Chicago, 1956; gelatin silver print; 23 1/4 x 14 3/8 in.; Collection Betsy Karel; © Robert Frank

Not that single images from the book haven’t risen to become icons but his emphasis was on sequencing and creating a collective that added up to more than any single image.  This communicated his vision and gave anyone looking at these images an invitation to step into the work, into this collage of a nation, and to embark upon their own private act of sequencing. 

The permanence of the book format was also essential—unlike an exhibition which had an end date and was geographically accessible to only a few, if you had access to the book, you could take this vision in again and again, letting it chew, nag and grow on you.  Walking through the SFMOMA show, we can’t help but revisit our own individually-held notions of America, ideas born in our childhood and formative years, experiences that live inside us and bind us to each other as Americans.  I found myself often overwhelmed with deep unexpected feelings of tenderness, sadness, and recollections of my childhood in the 1960’s in Petaluma, once a small rural chicken-farming community.

Early Work, 1941-1952

The show opens with Frank’s early essays of sequenced photos and does a very good job of showing how he honed his photographic eye.  Frank, now 85, was born in Switzerland in 1924 and was a young admirer of Henry Cartier Bresson and André Kertész.   By the time he arrived in New York in 1947, at age 22, he already had enough experience in photography to garner prominent commercial assignments from Alexey Brodovitch, the legendary art director at Harper’s Bazar.   Frank quickly grew tired of the commercial work and set out to explore Paris, London, Wales, Spain, Italy and Peru.  In each place, he produced works that focused on one or two topics that expressed his understanding of the people and their unique culture.  He also made three books of hand-bound photographs, experimenting with vital sequencing techniques that would pay off in The Americans.  This part of the exhibition demonstrates that, from early on, Frank challenged the viewer to look at the unorthodox in the ordinary, shedding light on things that were often overlooked.   

Guggenheim Fellowship, 1955-1957

A highlight is the detailed look at Frank’s grant application to the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation that supported his work.  Frank was no wizard with words and initially he produced an awkward one-page written summary of the project.  Photographer Walker Evans, who he met in 1950, was an accomplished writer who had penned over twenty book and film reviews.  Evans contributed enormous editorial clarity and direction to Frank’s original application, turning one page into four and capturing the essence of Frank’s work and project.  As a past Guggenheim fellow himself, Evans was a member of the foundation’s advisory committee and not only did he rewrite Frank’s application but he wrote his own independent letter of recommendation for Frank and, when it was time, voted to grant the fellowship.  Frank’s draft application and a transcription of the final copy of the 1954 application are on exhibit. 

Also included in this section are also two early manuscript versions of Jack Kerouac’s introduction to the book which was first published with little fanfare in November 1958 in France by Robert Delpire under the title Les Americains as part of their Encyclopédie essentielle series, which presented foreign countries to a French audience.  Frank had fretted over the book’s introductory text, wanting it to set the correct tone for his work which he wanted designated as a serious art book.   When his friend filmmaker Emile de Antonio suggested that he and Jack Kerouac, the fresh voice of the Beat generation, had a similar vision, Frank asked Kerouac to write his essay.  Much to Kerouac’s and Frank’s surprise, the American editor, Barney Rosset of Grove Press, chose Kerouac’s second and longer essay, not the spontaneous, smoothly flowing one that accompanied had the French release. (Looking In, softcover edition, p.139.)  It’s fascinating to pour over the two essays and contemplate their nuances.

Several of Kerouac’s oft-quoted lines from the American edition capture the essence of the Frank’s work—

The faces don’t editorialize or criticize or saya anything but “this is the way we are in real life and if you don’t like it I don’t know anything about it cause I am living my own life my way and may God bless us all.”

“anybody doesn’t like potry go home see Televisin shots of big hated cowboys being tolerated by kind horses.”

The American publisher, Grove Press, did an initial run of 2,600 copies on January 15, 1960, though the book was dated 1959.  This was 4.5 years after Frank had received his first Guggenheim grant.   Frank received a $200 advance for the book while Kerouac got $30 for his introduction. (Looking In, softcover edition, p.139.)   The book’s bold cover design bearing similarity to the American flag was done by painter Alfred Leslie who at the time was working with Frank, Kerouac and Ginsberg on the film “Pull my Daisy.” 

 Robert Frank, Guggenheim 340/Americans 18 and 19—New Orleans, November 1955, 1955; contact sheet; 10 x 8 1/16 in.; National Gallery of Art, Washington, Robert Frank Collection, gift of Robert Frank; © Robert Frank

Robert Frank, Guggenheim 340/Americans 18 and 19—New Orleans, November 1955, 1955; contact sheet; 10 x 8 1/16 in.; National Gallery of Art, Washington, Robert Frank Collection, gift of Robert Frank; © Robert Frank

During Frank’s nine-month road trip across America, he took 767 rolls of film (more than 27,000 images) and made over 1,000 work prints.  The curators give us experimental prints, contact sheets and a very good discussion surrounding the book’s layout, including a fabulous book wall showing the development of the sequencing of photos presented in work print collages.  Frank actually took a year editing, selecting and sequencing these photographs and the mock-up process ultimately yielded additional fluidity.  Frank gracefully knitted together urban and rural, black and white, military and civilian and poor, rich and middle classes in ways they had not been seen before. 

The Americans

All 83 prints are presented in their original sequence with several large rare vintage prints.  With their grainy, gritty, shadowy and tilted frames, composed at odd angles, these photos rewrote the rules of photography.  The standard emphasis in the 1950’s of photojournalism or street photography on single summary images, mainly wholesome images, shot straight on. 

Robert Frank, Charleston, South Carolina, 1955; gelatin silver print; 16 1/4 x 23 1/4 in.; Collection of Susan and Peter MacGill; © Robert Frank

Robert Frank, Charleston, South Carolina, 1955; gelatin silver print; 16 1/4 x 23 1/4 in.; Collection of Susan and Peter MacGill; © Robert Frank

Frank used a quiet hand-held Leica and his compositions were greatly influenced by the fact that he was often shooting from his car.   What emerged was an immensely poetic portrait of mainly ordinary people going about their business, waiting in lines, moving from one place to another, gathering, resting.  A lot of the faces are heartbreaking, lonely, even empty, but the shots are not about sadness per se they are about getting through what unfolds on any ordinary day in America.  A black woman in Charleston, South Carolina, leans against a wall as she holds a white infant in her arms, staring out into space, the child looks in another direction.  Four adults stand at a distance looking at a dead victim of a car accident wrapped in a blanket on US Route 66 at Flagstaff, AZ.  The lower, middle and upper classes are all captured in moments of emptiness, moving monotonously back and forth, and towards death, in the land of plenty.

After “The Americans”

The final section of the exhibition address the impact The Americans had on Frank’s subsequent work.   The book was initially critcized as anti-American but during the 1960’s, as many of the issues that Frank had alluded to literally exploded,  The American’s came to be regarded as ahead of its time and attracted a cultlike following from many within the art world.  Fame did not sit well with Frank and he became increasingly reclusive.  Soon after the book was published, he put away still photography and switched to a film for a good decade; since the 1970’s, he has moved back and forth between the two, carrying insights from one medium into the other.  His first film “Pull My Daisy” (1959), co-directed with Alfred Leslie with narration by Jack Kerouac, showcased the Beats and also managed to capture the contemporary pulse. The film proved significant and liberating for independent filmmakers in its unpolished rambling form. 

A catalogue to keep you louping

The catalog is exceptional and is offered in two different editions, both authored by Sarah Greenough who has been working on this project since Frank’s Moving Out show in 1994. The softcover edition ($45, 396 pages, 6 4-color, 168 tritone and 210 duotone images)  includes reproductions of all the works in the exhibition, along with essays from Sarah Greenough, Stuart Alexander, Philip Brookman, Michel Frizot, Martin Gasser, Jeff Rosenheim, Luc Sante, and Ann Wilkes Tucker exploring most facets of the work.   The hardcover edition ($75, 528 pages, 108 4-color, 168 tritone and 210 duotone images) is a breathtaking expanded edition that includes all the material in the softcover, plus additional essays, a map, a comparative chart of the various published editions including notations on the various croppings from each edition, and—get your loupes– it reproduces 83 actual size contact sheets, each of which features a frame from the final edit.

August 13, 2009 Posted by | Art, SFMOMA | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment