Book Reviews: Studio Life—Rituals, Collections, Tools, and Observations on the Artistic Process, David and Goliath: Underdogs,
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By CHICAGO LIFE
Collections, Tools, and Observations on the Artistic Process by Sarah
Trigg (Princeton Architectural Press, $35)
Appleton, Wisconsin native
Sarah Trigg, now based in the DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge
Overpass) area of Brooklyn, interviewed 200 artists across the country
and abroad for this project and photographed stuff they keep in their
studios—sometimes for inspiration, sometimes for distraction, sometimes
just because. Called an “anthropological approach to observing the
practices of visual arts” she archived the myriad collection of objects
under six categories: Mascots; Collected Objects; Rituals; Residue;
Makeshift Tools; and, Habitat.
Trigg spent time with Phyllis Bramson, a well-known Chicago artist
who uses decorative paintings from the Philippines and Korea re-worked
into postmodern collages and chinoiserie—amusing, lovely, romantic and
bemused works that you’d have to be an awful curmudgeon not to enjoy.
Her studio is filled with two-and three-dimensional imagery collected
over years that feeds her work.
If you went to high school
with Kevin Wolff, who recently moved to Countryside, IL, you might want
to see if your picture from your high school yearbook shows up in his
work. He collects yearbooks, including his own, and uses the images to
create clay models which he photographs and then makes paintings from.
Naturally, his studio is packed with files and photos and lots of
yearbooks. His favorites are from the early 1960s.
seems like a completely different world to me,” he told Trigg, “a bit
earlier than when I was in high school. I don’t see bullies but I do see
a hierarchy, and I see something that seems a lot more civilized.”
Judy Ledgerwood, an Oak Park painter, arranges cans of paint on the
floor of her studio similar to the way her paintings are often designed.
Asked if this was on purpose she said: “Yes, that’s exactly why I set
it up that way—to work out the color. I’m always pulling from the edges
into the center.” Downstairs, in the studio of Judy’s husband, Tony
Tasset, is a desiccated pumpkin which was once upon a time the model for
his oil-painted bronzed sculpture, Rotting Pumpkin.
McLean, who makes montages from appropriated video clips in her Wicker
Park apartment/studio, is a big user of Post-it Notes. One that caught
Trigg’s eye and appears in the book said “Don’t Forget about Beauty.”
McLean said the note was to remind herself not to get so caught up in
recontextualizing appropriated imagery that she might forget she could
do more with it.
Michelle Grabner, in Oak Park, is a busy
mother of three. She runs a gallery, co-edited “The Studio: On the
Space of Artists,” reviews art shows and makes minimalist works of art
herself. She was named a co-curator of the 2014 Whitney Biennial and, it
turns, out, not only does she come from Appleton, but she and Trigg
shared the same high school art teacher, Joseph Perez.
Grabner’s son’s advanced placement European history teacher told her
class: “I want each of you to go home and thank your parents for not
being artists. The children of artists are the ones who lose their
minds, fall into madness or commit suicide.” Her son took it in stride;
he was, after all, experienced in explaining to his suburban friends
that the garage party his parents threw on Saturday was actually an important art opening.
Niffenegger, an Evanston-based sculptor, rather disarmingly admits that
the only way stuff leaves her studio is incorporated into her work.
Trigg’s description: “Niffenegger’s sculptures look like the primitive
ritual objects of a tribe living in a post-apocalyptic era.” Accumulated
objects were on the floor or tacked to a wall, awaiting their
incorporation into her next piece of work.
described as a ceramicist, installation artist and urban planner, but
also an acquirer of buildings on the South Side, has developed a
community organization, Dorchester Projects, around his interests. At
its core are a 15,000-volume library of art, architecture and design
books purchased when Prairie Avenue Bookstore was going out of business,
and the glass slide art collection from the University of Chicago,
redundant in the digital age. Gates, as might be expected, has lots of
shelves and filing drawers.
Chicago artists gets things
done. Candida Alvarez, an abstract painter who works from images of
popular culture and current events, has a studio on the top floor of the
Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue. Not much was happening in the
arts around the South Loop in 2006, but she figured there must be a way
to use an inactive elevator cab for a gallery, and she did. She revived
the idea for SubCity at her current studio.
John Henderson’s studio occupies an entire floor in a West Loop
building—no heat, no air and no rent but plenty of room to stack
materials for his abstract paintings.
In Wilmette, IL, Gladys
Nilsson and her husband Jim Nutt, have mementos of their association
with the Chicago Imagists and the Hairy Who. Her studio is adorned with
pictures of her cats and playing cards—she likes to play solitaire while
her paint dries.
Apparently one key difference between
pack rats and artists is that artists use the stuff in their work.
Sometimes it’s only when a gallery comes to collect their work that they
get some space back, as Niffenegger noted.
when the gallery comes by to pick up work and gets some of it out of
here, or this place would overflow,” she laughed.
Probably because she is a known and accomplished artist herself, Trigg
was welcomed into studios by artists whose work isn’t always easily
accessible, but who didn’t fear the dismissal that unfamiliar art often
provokes. She found the visits often illuminating.
few cases I was familiar with the work but understood it much more
clearly after the visit.” She notes that artists rarely have other
artists visiting their studios; more often they see collectors, gallery
owners or curators.
Trigg made a point of getting outside
the commercial boundaries of collectors, gallery owners and curators by
working outward from artists she already knew, looking for other artists
they would recommend.
The book concludes with an artist
index showing a single work by each, a brief bio, and Web sites in some
cases and a referral to the page where they appear. The index, unlike
the book, is arranged in alphabetical order.
David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants
by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown and Company, $29.00)
at the world in a way that often makes us think, “Yes, that does make
sense.” He also sometimes leaves gaping holes in his logic. He is
always, though, thought-provoking. His use of real-life examples makes
for easy and enjoyable reading.
The opening section of the
book is about the “advantages of disadvantages”. The first chapter
proceeds not to show David overcoming disadvantages, but demonstrates
that Goliath was probably the one at a disadvantage. He was very
possibly vision-impaired and slow-moving due to acromegaly, a form of
gigantism. This caused him to lure David closer to him in order to see
him better, which increased David’s odds of a direct hit. A slingshot in
those days was a formidable weapon in the hands of one who knew how to
use it, and, as a shepherd, David was an expert.
chapter deals with school class size, and arrives at the conclusion that
smaller is not always better, but that there is an optimum size, a sort
of bell curve with a point at which more or fewer students are less
effective. Gladwell asserts that this is the case in many areas of life.
There is a point, for instance, at which more money does not bring more
The final example in this section is a young
woman who attended an Ivy League university. When she found herself
struggling with the science courses in which she intended to major, and
not at the head of the class, where she was accustomed to being, and
switched to a field which came more easily to her. Gladwell proposes
that if she had gone to a less competitive school she might be a
scientist today, loving what she does. Is this strategy overcoming
disadvantages, however, or declining to try? She was not failing, and
the possibility is there that she would emerge a better scientist.
The middle section deals with what Gladwell calls “desirable
difficulty”. He cites two highly successful business men who compensated
for dyslexia and actually credit their accomplishments in part to
dealing with things in a way different from most people. They would not,
though, wish dyslexia on their children.
illustration involves the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, and puts
forward the idea that African-Americans could take advantage of the
perception that they were slow-witted. They came up with clever
stratagems to advance their cause and were never suspected at the time.
Bre’r Rabbit and Bre’r Fox are the archetypes here; you can win by being
Last in this section is a pioneer physician in the
treatment of childhood cancer. Dr. Jay Freirich was severely
emotionally deprived as a child. It left him emotionally crippled, but
capable of dealing with dying children pragmatically. He never lost
objectivity, but remained determined to beat the cancer. He could be
aggressive in his treatment because of his lack of empathy.
The third and final section deals with the limits of power. The first
example is Rosemary Lawlor, a woman from Northern Ireland. When British
troops attacked the Irish, rather than surrendering to sheer
overwhelming force, the people rallied and refused to disperse on
command. Three thousand armed troops could not break up a crowd of eight
thousand people. The harder the British pushed, the more determined the
A more effective technique was that
adopted by police officer Joanne Jaffe in Brownsville, a New York City
neighborhood with staggering crime rates. Rather than trying to hold the
criminals in check, she opted to get to know the people in the
community, even going so far as to deliver Thanksgiving turkeys. She and
the officers in her command let families know they cared and got to
know individuals; crime dropped dramatically.
two parents who lost children in violent crimes; one fights for three
strikes and out, the other works toward forgiveness; both find the
strength not to let their losses destroy them.
during World War II a Huguenot boarding school in France sheltered
hundreds of Jewish children among their students, eventually sending
them on to safety. It was an automatic response. These Protestants who
had suffered so much over centuries in France could not imagine doing
anything but assisting those currently experiencing persecution.
Gladwell’s propositions are, in many ways, nothing new. What doesn’t kill you makes you
stronger. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. We have
nothing to fear but fear itself. Things are not always what they seem.
All of these have been heard before, but Gladwell is a kind of Aesop for
our time, combining entertaining stories and lessons. A good book for a
winter afternoon in by the fire.—Cynthia Taubert
Best-Kept Secret: Why Women Drink and How They Can Regain Control by
Gabrielle Glaser. (Simon & Schuster, $24).
For those addicted to
alcohol, this book presents the case that they can “control” alcohol and
their behavior. The illness of addiction is defined by denial. This
book gives license to those who cannot drink without losing their
health, relationships, jobs, and self-respect to go out and keep trying.
How many people need to die in drunk driving accidents before people
like Glaser quit encouraging addicts to keep on drinking? People drink
because our society buys into the social aspects of getting high and
frowns on those who decline. Drinking alcohol is not a social
requirement. If a friend ends up sick or in a terrible situation every
time she eats broccoli, why would you encourage her to keep eating
broccoli? This insane book should be thrown in the recycling bin.—C.
Published: February 22, 2014
Issue: Winter 2014 Issue