Tuesday, January 28, 2014

TRAMP L'oeil?

Found something.

Tramp Art: A Folk Art Phenomenon by Helaine Fendelman and Jonathan Taylor

I came across it during Sheboygan Public Library Round 2. If you've been to JMKAC in the last couple months (and let's face it, if you haven't you're probably not a real person), you may recognize that the object on the cover appears to be the same breed as several objects found in Ray Yoshida's home collection which was being shown up until this month at JMKAC. As you may know, Yoshida was a prolific collector of enigmatic art objects that simultaneously reflect, inspire, inform, and embody folk art. In the collection at JMKAC, there were about five objects that look similar to the one pictured above.

I had never seen an object that looked like that before I saw Yoshida's collection, so when I saw this book I knew I had to grab it, because obviously I have missed out on something.

I have the distinct feeling that the title of the book wouldn't go over so well at my current place of employment. In my training to be a docent, I have discovered that the term "outsider art" is not to be used at JMKAC as it is more or less akin to the negative connotations evoked by the term "primitive art." "Self-taught," "folk," or "vernacular" are more appropriate.

According to the book:

"In its common form, a tramp-art object is distinguished by thin 
pieces of wood, carefully shaped, edge notched, and most often
applied and glued layer upon layer to create pieces of startling 
texture and harmony. Stylistically derivative of early northern and
eastern European ornamental wood and chip carvings, the
combination of bold geometric patterns and such embellishments as 
pulls, figures, and bits of mirror lend an elegance and fancifulness
that make one marvel at the artisan's ingenuity."

Nothing derogatory there, but the term still leaves a bad taste. Supposedly tramp art refers to the sometimes nomadic or otherwise homeless lifestyles of the carvers who made these objects. However, the book also suggests that these people only appeared to live this way, and were actually well-established artisans and craftsmen who earned their reputations by bartering shelter and art for scraps and materials to make their objects. 

I might add that the definition and term came from curator Helaine Fendelman, who organized and created a show called "Tramp Art" at the Museum of American Folk Art in 1975. Okay, so it was the seventies. But the book itself was written in 1999 due to an "increasing interest in the topic"...

The entire time I'm reading this I'm wondering, "If tramp art is a thing, why have I never heard of it before?" I'm not saying I'm an expert, because, duh, I'm not. I've never taken an official class on folk art, and I didn't take American art in college, either. So the possibility remains that I'm missing out on this key vocabulary word of my own doing, and I need a little art history intervention or something. 

But I'm still skeptical largely due to the fact that the term isn't mentioned in anything I read on Ray Yoshida's collection, and JMKAC'S word is the only word on the topic that really matters, as far as I'm concerned. 

Besides that, take a look at some of the art defined as "tramp:"

"Top box adorned with wooden balls"

"Medicine cabinet with mirrored door"

"Church with removable spires"

"Anchor sporting silver radiator paint"

With a few exceptions, these sophisticated objects were largely utilitarian in nature. Obviously the church and the anchor are more decorative, but those two happened to be two of my favorites so I included them. The main component to these works that I felt was not made very clear by the book was why this unique style, utilized by so many different makers with different backgrounds, was so popular. While the overall execution of the pieces is described in detail, there is little explanation as to why these relatively non-Western looking notched-edges were being used by Western artisans. The book seems to be missing a piece of the folk art puzzle that other literature on the topic has explained in bulk: Sometimes it all looks the same. There's usually a reason for this. 

I'm not entirely sure why I'm so critical of this book. It's a cool book. On a weird topic. I'm probably the only person who has ever checked it out of the Sheboygan library. I think I just get sick of art historians and curators making up words and definitions just because they can. The thing I love about folk art and vernacular art is that it seems to fall so outside of the pretentious art world. Then I find books like this and I feel like I'm reading about "Indexicality" (case in point: Blogger thinks this isn't a word) all over again. 

So after all this, maybe I found nothing.

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