24 April 2015

"Life of Cats" woodblock print exhibit at the Japan Society

If you are a closet cat lady, or a lover of Japanese prints, you will enjoy the Life of Cats exhibit at the Japan Society of New York, on view through June 7, 2015.  Prints from the Hiraki Ukiyo-e Collection, in Tokyo, have made a rare trip to the US. Ukiyo-e is the Japanese word for polychrome woodblock prints, many featuring scenes from the "floating world," the entertainment and pleasure quarters of Tokyo in the 19th century. Since these are prints, produced in multiples, many American museums have Ukiyo-e in their collections - who hasn't seen Hokusai's "The Wave"? - but many of the Life of Cats works are less well known here.

Japan Society, exterior, with banners.

A detail of one of the rarest prints   - only three copies are know to exist - is show below.  Artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797 - 1861) produced this print of 53 cats. Each cat's pose and activity forms a pun - for those who can read Japanese - for the 53 stations, or stops, on the Tokaido Road, the medieval route from Kyoto to Tokyo. As wordplay, it's a labored exercise, but the cats are nevertheless delightful.

Cats Suggested by the 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road, detail, 1847.

According to his apprentices, Kuniyoshi loved cats and shared his studio with several felines. In the print below, from his series Eight Selected Flowers from the Garden, he paired a beautiful woman, in a fabulous kimono, with a happy cat, no doubt purring up a storm as he gazes at the chrysanthemums from his pampered perch on the beauty's shoulder.  

Chrysanthemums, 1844-48.

The design of the exhibit engages all ages, and even gives us a cat's eye view of the world; this humorous touch reflects the light-heartedness of many of the prints.

Cat face room divider.

Framing our view.

Cats were not indigenous to Japan but arrived on ships from China in the mid-sixth century, accompanying Buddhist scriptures and helping to keep these sacred documents safe from rodents.  Cats were well-integrated into Japanese households by the early ninth century, and appear throughout Japanese art, folklore, and literature.

Kuniyoshi, Housewife Swats Cat, 1845. Right, detail.
Of course, all cats, of whatever nationality, love fish, and are not shy about getting it. In the print above, a woman  makes a half-hearted attempt to stop a cat as it steals a piece of dried fish, or bonito. The cat doesn't look too concerned, does it?  Any exhibit of ukiyo-e, whether cat-themed or not, will feature wonderful textiles designs, such as the brown and white floral fabric of the housewife's kimono.

Sometimes the cat images are even part of the costume of the humans, as in the print below, depicting a famous kabuki theatre actor, Nozarashi Gosuke, who played a warrior with a trademark skull-patterned kimono. Cat-lover Kuniyoshi formed the skulls out of white cats cuddling together, somewhat softening the horror of this otherwise gruesome  imagery.

From the series, Men of Ready Money with True Labels Attached, 1845.

During periods of the 18th century, censors tried to restrict the content of woodblock prints in an effort to protect public morals. Images of beautiful courtesans, famous kabuki actors, and other entertainers  were prohibited.  During these periods of censorship artists' designs for prints had to be approved before the sheets could be made  and distributed; many of the prints in the exhibit have a censor's stamp on them. However,  artists could evade censorship by using anthropomorphic animal imagery in lieu of human forms. This led to a lot of cat pictures, or neko-e; moreover, it was believed that displaying these pictures in the home would scare away rats.

A popular form of street entertainment in the Edo period (1615-1868) was pole jumping, the acrobatic feat of jumping along the tops of upright poles. To get around the censorship restrictions against depicting popular diversions, artist Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) depicted a cat performer leaping across the tops of upright, giant bonito, sticks of dried fish. The bottom half of this print shows a fox about to snare a human, using - what else? - a sack of coins as bait. The print could be cut and each half sold separately.

Hiroshige, Cat Crossing to Eat, 1830-44.

Inexpensive and fashionable, woodblock prints were sold in shops such as the one re-created at the Edo-Tokyo history museum, in Tokyo. So many prints were reproduced the sheets would be used as packing material; when Westerners unwrapped imported Japanese ceramics, they discovered the prints, which had a big influence on the Impressionists, among other Western artists.

Book and print shop, Edo-Tokyo Museum.

Patrons at a print shop, Edo-Tokyo Museum.

Inexpensive prints, called  omocha-e or "toy pictures," were also produced for children, who clamored for coins from their parents to purchase these play things.  The print below, with the somewhat unwieldy title Newly Published Applications for Cats,  features feline paper dolls - children would cut out the fronts and backs of the cat figures, glue them together, and dress them in the paper clothes.

Utagawa Yoshifuji, 1868 - 1912.

Cat paper dolls, detail.

In addition to the prints, ink paintings and ceramics in the show, there were also cat-themed books available to browse. Here's a partial list of cat-related literature, in no particular order:

Tales of Old Japan, A.B. Mitford. Folktales for all age ISBN 978-0756782016. 
Won Ton, Lee Wardlaw.  Picture book featuring Haiku-speaking cat. ISBN 978-0805089950.
Cat Town, Sakutaro Hagiwara. Poems. ISBN 978-1590177754.
Cat Lady Chronicles,  Diane Lovejoy. Non-fiction, joy of cats by a sane cat lady. ISBN 978-8889854983.
The Guest Cat, Takashi Hiraide. Novel, stray cat moves in with couple, saves marriage. ISBN     978-0811221504.
Three Samurai Cats, Eric Kimmel. Picture book; samurai cat uses brains to outwit monster rat. ISBN 978-0823418770.

The exhibit catalog is Life of Cats Selections from the Hiraki Ukiyo-e Collection, Miwako Tezuka, ISBN 0-913304-61-1.

Finally, in addition to the preponderance of cute, cuddly cats depicted in the prints, there is also a long tradition of cats as alter egos of witches. In the image below, illustrating a kabuki actor in a role from a famous play based on legend, a cat in human form is shown in her true guise as lamplight reveals her cat head-shaped shadow. In front of her dance two fork-tailed demon cats - in folklore, cats who live a long time begin to wear human clothes, walk on their hind legs and comprehend human speech.

Gountei Sadahide, Cat Witch of Okabe, ca. 1840, detail.

Hmm...my cat turns fourteen next week - if he suddenly sports a kerchief, we'd better watch out!

My cat helping to pack table decorations, 2014.

26 March 2015

Kyoto Flea Market quilt

Kyoto Flea Market quilt, on display.

Just finished two quilts, one of which is shown above, in DH's home office. The pattern was inspired by Kathy Adams pattern Japanese Story.

Kathy Adams, Japanese Story.

The geometry is fairly basic, so I didn't purchase the pattern, but worked out the dimensions and construction on my own. However, the pattern gives yardage requirements, cutting instructions and assembly diagrams, so would be useful for someone just beginning in quilting.

Rolls of narrow width woven fabric.

I named the quilt Kyoto Flea Market as I purchased the patterned fabrics at a temple market in Kyoto in 2012. To my dismay, when I returned home I found most of the fabrics had holes and other areas of damage (the fabrics were tied in tight, unscrutinizable bundles at the market). However, there was enough usable material for two nearly identical quilts (a limited edition, if you will). Buyer beware, indeed!

Items at the temple flea market.

This pattern is a useful way to "corral" a collection of large-, medium- and small- scale fabrics and show them to advantage.  Below is a "blankie" for a child assembled from shibori samples made in an Elin Noble workshop.

Shibori sampler quilt.

Detail, Kyoto Flea Market quilt.

The sashing is black Kona cotton, and while most of the hand-quilting is done with black thread, I hand-quilted the sashing using red thread - subtle, but a little zingy.

03 March 2015

Cat Gallery quilt

Note the screen saver - we like cats of all types.

Just finished a quilt begun in 2013....talk about the Slow Fiber movement... but now the work has a binding, hanging sleeve, and a good place in DH's home office. We are a family of ailurophiles.

The impetus for this quilt was an old fabric, featuring stylized cat face designs in red and gray, found on ebay.  This fabric can be seen in the large blocks bordered in black in the quilt.  Also used is a recent Michael Miller fabric based on the designs of 1950's artist Tammis Keefe.  I had enough of the old fabric to make three of these quilts, sort of a limited edition; the other two quilts were given to veterinarians.

Quilt on display at animal hospital.

Vintage cat fabric, before quilting.

Red, white and black is a timeless quilt color scheme. The quilt was fun to work on, although I went a bit overboard with the hand-quilting.

Detail showing pieced border.

05 February 2015

Giving New Life - Collage at the Brookline Public Library

Accordion-fold book, detail.

Through February 9, 2015, the Brookline Public Library is hosting a small but delightful display of collages and hand-made books by Phoebe Ann Erb.  As the exhibit title implies, Ms. Erb gives new life to the material "remains of the day." (Quotations are from the artist's statement accompanying the exhibit.)

Ex-Libris collage, detail.

Many artists repurpose bits and pieces of books and printed ephemera into new creations.   Artist Ekaterina Panikanova reworks pages from old volumes into paintings; the new use of the pages underscores the archaism of their content.  Ms Erb uses "the ephemera of comings and goings," not of physical voyages but of the journey which objects, as well as processes, undergo in their peregrination from currency to obsolence.

The figure in the image above is kitted out in books - a literal constant reader - and surrounded by bits and pieces of the discarded systems of card catalog and manual book check-out.  As Ms. Erb says,
What better use for library discards? Old pockets with due-date cards? Antiquated card-catalog cards? Cut them up and put them in a collage.

Hand-made book.

Book with leaves of heavy fabric.

Ms. Erb's work is especially rich due her use of textiles as well as paper, giving her books and collages an unusual tactile appeal.  No material has special status - humble tablet paper forms a substrate for the artist's line drawings.

Collage on tablet paper.

Tiny hand-made books.

Every now and then, there is a special synergy between work and the container in which the work is displayed, and this is the case here, as Ms. Erb's art seems perfectly suited to the library's Foundation Case, with its pediment ornament of book, pen and ink bottle.

Foundation display case, detail. 

Although the Brookline exhibit is about to close, during the month of February there's another chance to view Ms. Erb's work, at the Newton Free Library, including books and collages which celebrate an ordering system which remains evergreen - the alphabet.

Alphabet book for all ages.

Pages of accordion-fold book.

31 January 2015

How to Survive a New England Winter

Chestnut Hill garden,  spring, 2014.
We've had about 20" of snow here this week, and are expecting more this coming Monday.  But in three months, there will be tulips. There will be tulips!

27 January 2015

Thread Lines at The Drawing Center, Manhattan


On the day before the exhibit closed, DH, daughter and I journeyed to The Drawing Center, in SoHo, to see the textile art show, Thread Lines. 2014 was a banner year for textile art exhibits, and this show, while small, provided a fitting denouement to a cycle of events which included the Kimono show at the Met, as well as exhibits at the Fuller Museum in Brockton, Massachusetts, and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.

Union of Water and Fire, Lenore Tawney.

For Thread Lines curator Joanna Kleinberg Romanow show-cased work by both the grandes dames of textile art, such as Sheila Hicks and Lenore Tawney, whose Union of Water and Fire, above, was created in 1974, and by a succeeding generation of weavers and stitchers.  It's fun to see the family tree, so to speak, of textile artists, but also to view the art that Sheila Hicks, now in her eighties, has created recently.

Itaka, Sheila Hicks.

The small "minim" above, as she styles these small works woven on a portable loom, by Sheila Hicks, is approximately 5 1/2" x 9 1/2" and incorporates porcupine quills.  This combination of filament with other objects, or substrates such as paper, is a recurring theme throughout the show.

Colors in Clay, Alan Shields.

The work above, on handmade paper, reminds me a bit of a pieced quilt; the triangular sections not seamed in cloth, but presented in washes of color, partially outlined in stitching. I like this idea of the incomplete line very much.

Another artist who allows us to explore the way in which our brain can decode from partial information is Monica Bengoa, whose embroidered still life segments, on photographic printed cloth, interact with outlines drawn directly on the gallery wall.  The embroidery hoop frames form small keyholes through which we glimpse the fulfillment of color in the linear still life. Which is more "real" - the line drawing actually on the gallery wall, or the life-like depiction of the fruits and veggies, plush and weighty in thread and fabric?

163 Shades of Yellow, Green, Orange, Red, Purple, Brown, Grey and Blue (so far).

163 Shades..., Monica Bengoa, detail.

163 Shades..., Monica Bengoa, detail.

163 Shades..., Monica Bengoa, detail.

Another type of embroidery is cross-stitch - an under-appreciated technique, probably due to the many kits for hobbyists available from needlework supply houses. In imaginative, skilled hands, however, this approach can create imagery of depth and animation. Elaine Reichen combines cross-stitches with linear embroidery to celebrate language visually, in a quote from Ovid's Heroides, or The Heroines.

Perhaps My Love, Elaine Reichen.

Perhaps My Love, detail.

Cross-stitch up close has a pixelated quality.

To Cross (Walking New York), Anne Wilson.

The center of the gallery featured a site-specific performance piece. Artist Anne Wilson co-ordinated the efforts of black-clad dancers who wrapped the gallery's four central columns in bands of bright threads. We missed the actual creation of the work, which has a veil-like quality - present in the gallery, but not dividing it.

Untitled, William O'Brien.

There's something about blue and white...William O'Brien creates work of energy and contrast using blue shapes hand-sewn onto white felt. The white stitches - of regular length and spacing - form a perfect foil to the exuberant, free-form shapes which could easily be tactile cousins of Matisse's papercuts.

Untitled, detail.

Untitled, detail.

William O'Brien was born in 1975 and is one of the younger artists in the show. Louise Bourgeois (1911 - 2010) is probably the eminence grise of the show, represented by four late works, of striped, pieced cloth,  reminiscent of spider-webs - one is in fact titled Spider; the other three are untitled.

Four works, Louise Bourgeois.

One of the fun things about a blog is that I can combine images of things that have never met in person, so both the fabric spider webs and the spider herself can co-exist online. In Louise Bourgeois' iconography, spiders are clever, strong, fierce but protective and benevolent.

Maman, Louise Bourgeois. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maman_%28sculpture%29#mediaviewer/File:Maman_de_Louise_Bourgeois_-_Bilbao.jpg
Youngsters at the gallery.

It was interesting to see a student group  sitting on the floor, engaged in an activity. Textile art is a valuable medium  through which to make art accessible. Few people encounter paintings or sculpture often in their everyday lives, but everyone wears cloth, woven or knitted, decorated or plain, and the tactile appeal of thread and fiber is hard to resist.