Sunday, November 6, 2011

Crafting Art: Tristin Lowe and Xu Bing

My Nanny, my mother’s mother, used to crochet bread wrappers into small throw rugs.  She would fold the long plastic sleeves until they were almost flat and roll them into balls, just like skeins of yarn.  It was an almost laughable sign of her thriftiness… she literally saved everything.  But it was also a form of self-expression.  Bread wrappers used to be a lot more interesting – really bright and graphic – and these rugs were usable, crinkly, dense, intensely colorful objects of art.

My Grandma, my father’s mother, was also adept at crocheting, knitting, sewing and decorative needlework.  She was hugely interested in patchwork and quilting, and over the years she created a quilt for each of her children and grandchildren.  This is mine.

I was allowed to choose the pattern.  And then Grandma found and cut all the fabric pieces, mainly leftover scraps from other projects or favorite clothing, and stitched them together by hand.  Although most of the fabric is threadbare from use, my quilt is still striking, both quaint and modern, thirty years after it was created.

I think many of us grew up reusing everyday materials to form something new and to express ourselves.  There are two artists currently on exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts whose works blur the lines between craft, art and commentary.

American artist Tristin Lowe often works with very commonplace materials to interpret both quirkily familiar objects and almost heroic animals.  His Mocha Dick definitely falls into the latter.  Constructed out of white felt, large zippers, a vinyl understructure (like a huge balloon) and a fan, Mocha Dick is a 52-foot replica of an actual albino sperm whale that became world famous in the 1830s for damaging ships and inspired Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.  Sperm whales were seriously overhunted during the 19th century.  But due to their enormous size (males can grow to almost 70 feet long), some could “fight back” whalers and even attack other ships.

I think Mocha Dick is a link to our past history when travel and commerce, even life, was about real danger and so much unknown.  It is also a link to our ongoing relationship with nature and our overuse of natural resources.  Mocha Dick is about our epic literary tradition and the quest for the mythical.  And Mocha Dick, the sculpture, is certainly colossal.  It literally fills the gallery.  But it is also oddly soft and, dare I say, charming.  The barnacles are beautifully crafted in felt.
The texture and scarring of its skin is rendered in stitches.
Even the face has personality.  And I suspect that is very purposeful.

Xu Bing is a one of the most recognized contemporary artists from China, and he has studied and traveled widely in the West.  His Tobacco Project at the VMFA is his third major exhibit devoted to tobacco.

He uses tobacco leaves, cigarettes (often modified in size or scale), antique advertisements (both from China and the American South) and even business correspondence and medical records as raw material for his creations, which are eerily humorous and amazingly crafted.  The exhibit draws on four hundred years of agriculture, exploitation and the seductive allure of tobacco and challenges our ideas of wealth and beauty.  Tobacco is an intriguing subject for Xu Bing and a highly personal one.  One-third of all smokers worldwide are Chinese, and his father died of smoking-induced lung cancer.

The exhibition includes a giant book crafted of pressed tobacco leaves and printed with an early description of Jamestown, Virginia;

And one of my favorite pieces, this kind-of ticker-tape wheel is printed on cigarette filter paper.  The text comes from With the Poets in Smokeland, a late 19th century book of poems, sayings and lithographs, which was essentially an advertisement for Virginia tobacco and cigarettes.

The exhibition ends with First Class, a huge representation of a tiger skin rug, crafted out of ½ a million inexpensive cigarettes.

It’s both stunning and heart-wrenching.

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is located in Richmond, Virginia and is open every day of the year.  Mocha Dick has just been extended until January 29, 2012, and the Tobacco Project will be open until December 4, 2011.  Admission is free for both exhibits; there is a $3 charge for parking.  Go check it out and be inspired!

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