The cover of the new issue of the elegant “Art & Architecture” magazine is a good illustration of a hypothesis I’d like to propose: the more “high end” a Western art magazine may be, the more likely it is to be open to both realistic and abstract art. Conversely, the more “low end,” the more concentrated the art is likely to be on one style and one subject matter. Also, the more “high end,” the more playful, abstract and experimental the subject is likely to be, while the “low end” is more likely to be earnest, associating achievement with ideology, more concrete in values and more influenced by Hollywood.
This cover shows a Deborah Butterfield abstract (but still representational) horse made of wrecked car metal standing next to a restored vintage Mustang, candy apple red with the license plate “neigh.” Of course, the two are parked in a port cochere so imposing that surely it must be entrance to a fine institution rather than a home, but it is actually Jane Sturdivant’s home and the house is in the midst of remarkable grounds that include ornaments acquired on European travels, ancient stone bits rather than fancy or sentimental stuff. There are no naked lady statues but also no garden gnomes or merry plastic frogs. Jane occasionally rides one of her elegant and quite real horses through the grounds. There are no cows and I suspect that deer are discouraged.
So that’s one end of the scale and the other end might be a story about Charles Finn, photographed by Tom Ferris, who looks for old buildings to disassemble, seeing in the rust, peeling paint, and weather-blasted gray wood a beauty that can be literally re-framed in what Finn calls “microhouses,” tiny buildings suitable for a hermit or artist. He values stone, adobe, adze-squared timbers.
The imposing vanity houses of the rich that now dot Montana use the same surfaces and substances, creating monster houses of timber, stone, corten steel and glass, all of them evidently uninhabited or only photographed after the set arrangers have made a thorough sweep. Never a flung-down newspaper or a box of tissues or a vagrant sock. Some locals, living in flimsy little pieced-out shacks that were good enough for their great-grandparents, are resentful, but I encourage them to imagine these houses as ruins centuries from now: an elk enjoying the cool of the stone hearth, a cougar stretched out in the rafters, or a bear making muddy pawprints on the huge windows.
Ever see one of those affordable modular homes exploded and splintered by high winds or an accident while being moved? Toothpick wood and pink spun glass batting all over the place. Bent aluminum siding, cracked pvc pipe and torn up laminate flooring. But when it is in place and intact, it might make a pretty nice home for a family -- some of Uncle Charlie’s paintings of cows on the wall, lots of family photos, maybe an arrangement of blue ribbons won at rodeos or fairs. Laundry being sorted. Athletic equipment in a corner. It’s a different aesthetic and a different kind of practical.
Fifty years ago “House Beautiful” magazine published a series about a Japanese aesthetic called “Shibui.” Many, many people, including me, saved those issues, which were printed on heavy paper in subtle colors. This is from a googled business catalog: “In Japan, people think of beauty in levels—from blatant, brash, and bold to the ideal of beauty: Shibui.
“Shibui” means the type of beauty that doesn’t need announcement; its quality speaks for itself. It involves the maturity, complexity, history, and patina that only time can bring—like a fine vintage wine. Shibui objects have a history which they convey. They speak of understated elegance, utility (each piece serves an important function), rare beauty, and unobtrusive sophistication.”
In Japanese terms the microhouses made of recycled materials might be wabi-sabi, which centers on transience, like rust. This is from Wikipedia: “Andrew Juniper claims, "if an object or expression can bring about, within us, a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing, then that object could be said to be wabi-sabi." Richard R. Powell summarizes by saying "It (wabi-sabi) nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect."
My understanding of “iki” all these years has been that it was kind of gaudy and childish, but this is what Wikipedia says: “An iki thing/situation would be simple, improvised, straight, restrained, temporary, romantic, ephemeral, original, refined, inconspicuous, etc. An iki person/deed would be audacious, chic, pert, tacit, sassy, unselfconscious, calm, indifferent, unintentionally coquettish, open-minded, restrained, etc.
“An iki thing/person/situation cannot be perfect, artistic, arty, complicated, gorgeous, curved, wordy, intentionally coquettish, or cute.” So I expect that Mustang is pretty “iki.” But the Butterfield horse is wabi-sabi.
And Shibui? Is there anything in this magazine I would consider Shibui? The land, of course. The prairies are Shibui except where they’re wabi-sabi, like old homesteads. Most of the paintings approach kitsch (dunno how to say that in Japanese) and I’m including the high-priced ones. But I have two nominations: one is the Lord family retreat in Truckee, CA, near Tahoe, which is consciously meant to be influenced by Japanese buildings.
The other is an ancient buckskin dress, identified as being Nez Perce, pre-1820. Patched and fringed with pale but not white buckskin, the top is banded simply in black and white stripes, “lazy” stitch which means that a short string of beads is not then tacked down bead by bead, but left to be a little fluid. These dresses are really two deerskins, one as the front and one as the back, pieced at the hem, with the tail (hair on) of the deer folded over at the top under the chin, pinned down with beading. The stripe at the top of the arms alternates black, white and red.
Plains Indian DNA refers back to the high Mongolian prairies, you know. This dress makes one wonder whether aesthetics might be encoded in DNA.