Attention to detail

Despite the digital age, many artists are obsessively focused on producing works through painstaking, repetitive techniques

September 02, 2007|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

One artist painstakingly glues strands of her hair into the shapes of cylinders and circles. Another dabs tens of thousands of individual dots of pigment across her canvas in neat rows. A third spends months collecting rare four-leaf clovers to paste onto her elaborate enameled collages.

Not only are the materials unusual, the very willingness to endure the kind of mind-numbing repetitiveness and tedium required to turn them into art may seem like a kind of madness, akin to the obsessive-compulsive disorders studied by psychiatrists.

Yet today, many artists are happily bypassing the time- and labor-saving advantages of cutting-edge technology in favor of incredibly complex, handcrafted works produced the old-fashioned way, through endless repetition and minute attention to detail.

Such labor-intensive, time-consuming techniques have their roots in antiquity, but their reappearance in contemporary art may signal a turning away from the spontaneous freedom of major 20th-century movements such as Dadaism, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism.

"Ezra Pound said that `slowness is beauty,' so I think this intensely labored work just reflects our generation that is already so familiar with technology," says Kay Hwang, whose large-scale installations and drawings are based on a few simple, endlessly repeated forms. Hwang recently curated an exhibition of labor-intensive drawings at Maryland Art Place.

"Instead of using a digital copier, for instance, the artists are making a commitment of time and skill for taking you beyond the physical, for transcending the purely physical aspect of the work," Hwang says. "I don't think these artists think of themselves as obsessive; rather, it's about how much they can stretch their own artistic language."

There have been several exhibitions in Baltimore this year of highly labor-intensive work. In addition to Hwang's drawing show, Maryland Art Place mounted an exhibition called Obsessive Aesthetics and the Rosenberg Gallery at Goucher College put on Accumulation; all presented works by artists who share a preoccupation with repetition and attention to minute detail.

In October, Baltimore artist Tonya Ingersoll's exhibition of meticulously crafted, large-scale figurative paintings opens at Baltimore's Galerie Francoise. The same month, Youngmi Song-Organ's meticulous hair drawings go on display at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. And Dawn Gavin and Renee van der Stelt's labor-intensive installations and drawings based on mapping techniques are on view through Oct. 13 at Ellipse Arts Center in Arlington, Va.

Van der Stelt's large, amazingly precise cut-paper maps, for example, are so detailed one could easily mistake them for high-resolution photos taken by high-flying reconnaissance satellites. But the artist's purpose in creating these technically sophisticated images is quite down to earth.

"What's interesting about maps," says van der Stelt, "is that they actually tell you more about the person making them than about where you are. All maps have innate biases, which makes them incredibly powerful tools for investigating how we think about space."

Such works seem a far cry from the splash-and-drip improvisations of the Abstract-Expressionists like Jackson Pollock or the slick, silk-screened celebrity images of Pop artist Andy Warhol. Warhol boasted he could produce great artworks by the dozen in practically no time at all. So what's changed?

For Song-Organ, a Maryland Institute College of Art graduate who recently moved to rural Virginia, it was something as simple as a change of scenery.

Look to the floor

Because she felt somewhat isolated and depressed in her new exurban residence, Song-Organ consoled herself with gardening, which reconnected her to the recurring cycles of nature. She also reverted to a practice her mother had taught her years earlier.

"Like many traditional Korean women, she was obsessed by clean floors," Song-Organ recalls. "Mom said that if your floor is dirty, your mind is dirty, and that a clean floor shows a woman has discipline."

Though she hated housework, Song-Organ began spending hours tidying up around the house. One day she had a revelation.

"I was cleaning the shower, and there was a strand of my hair lying on the floor," she recalls. "It was like a flashback: Something said this is what I've been looking for. I'd always wanted to create the perfect, beautiful line; and suddenly, there it was."

Song-Organ relates the experience to traditional Asian painting and Taoist philosophy, which views all life as an expression of universal truths. In a single strand of hair, an extension of her own body, she found a way to connect art to her deepest spiritual beliefs.

"After that, I couldn't wait to work," the artist recalls. "I wanted to dedicate everything to it."

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