Gloria Garfinkel "Origami Interpretations" at The George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, November 18, 2014–April 26, 2015 -- Review by David Gibson

The nature of inspiration is intertwined with idiosyncrasies of chance. When something as simple as an air flight layover leads an artist to encounter a single image that alters the course of her creative endeavor forever, one cannot discount the idea of fate. In the case of Gloria Garfinkel, this circumstance led to an ongoing body of work at The George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum in Springfield, Massachusetts. Garfinkel’s discovery and continued reckoning with an unusual work of art by 16th Century printmaker and painter Utagawa Hiroshige led to an esthetic grounding that motivated her to produce ten successive groups of work; each continuously revisited the traditional modes of Japanese art and design, especially those that have informed modes of dress including the kimono and the obi, a sash used to close it, which itself has different social and economic associations.

Since that day, Garfinkel has devoted herself to an esthetic suggested by Japanese art and design. Her inspiration has been taken not only by Hiroshige’s “Chrysanthemums in Fan-Shaped Design” but also by the variety and complexity of women’s kimonos and the sash (obi) that is worn with them. Garfinkel has combined the qualities inherent to her inspiration sources with a fascination with the generation of Color Field painters, who include Ellsworth Kelly and Ron Gorchov, artists who utilize the shaped contours of the canvas itself, manipulating it to project a visceral effect upon the viewer, merging the optical effects married to flatness with a participatory aesthetic to ignite the attention of the viewer. “Origami Interpretations” combines several distinct bodies of work that each achieve a heightened aesthetic despite a hybridization of means.

One very important aspect to consider in viewing these works is the model from which they originate their aesthetic. It is important to remember, comprehend, and qualify the terms by which an image based in Design differs from that meant as Art. Perhaps we are talking apples and oranges here, but I feel that to be indiscriminate in our assumptions, and to commingle the two without an effort at parsing their alteration would be a disservice not only to the artist herself, and to the forms, but to the process and complexity of looking at both. Both art and design may be initiated with the sole purpose of establishing an esthetic for their shared era, and to reflect societal values as visual forms. Yet art so often represents a departure from authority, while design is used to underscore, and keep prevalent, aesthetic values that also become part of the social contract, supporting the identity of a man, woman, or child, stamping it with images, colors, and a mood or tone of social signage. Whereas art unless purely decorative can exist in and for itself, design always serves a larger master. Garfinkel identifies herself formally as a printmaker instead of as a painter, and she describes her process as essentially inductive, more based on emotion than on logic. The choices she has made to explore each of the stages in her progression of forms borrowed and inspired from Hiroshige.

We begin our investigation of her production in the late 1980’s when she was creating her Ginkgo Kimono series. Of all her works these are characterized the most by a handmade, casual use of line, a collage-oriented sensibility, and a similar combination of natural images and minimal abstraction. The casual almost earthy quality of the lines demarcating each section one from the other and the structuring of line, in straight yet diagonal lines working at counterpoint to the square format of the base, like the contours of a fan, are other common qualities that identify it as related to the wellspring of her original inspiration. Yet the compression of detail and the effusion of contrapuntal colors identifies it as succinctly modern. There is both a merging and torsion of effect in Garfinkel’s version that plays to her own need to stamp the source material with her own vision, and perhaps in her desire to honor it, as a means of putting as much in each version to create a paradigmatic quality that plays to the heroic in Hiroshige’s original image. It’s as if she were not only evoking his work, but creating a mini-history of Japanese design commingled with folkloric iconology.

The Kimono Hanabi (1992) series was created by combining fragments of previously produced etchings so that they would construct a small and intense yet complex work measuring no more than an average of 30 square inches. There is a patchwork quality to these works, which although maintaining a highly ordered sensibility were also constructed with sensuousness in mind, and they convince most in person, where one can perceive both the illusionistic qualities of crosshatching, wood grain, flower petals, manic stripes, and opulently layered solid colors such as red, green, and fuchsia as an interplay between a casual placement and the use of negative space to make the entire work float or vibrate. One could easily imagine these as immense paintings, though they need not be larger to either convince or charm us. The second series create a similarly intense impression but are flatter, shinier, and less diffuse.

The Kyoto series (1994) is likewise inspired by design, but in this case they are organized around a grid structure that both makes an orderly image and creates a visual tension out of which the subtler background images, for the most part monochrome, generate an optical frisson that reminds me of sunlight playing off the iridescent interior of sea shells. Each image is identified with a specific color that characterizes the majority of the ground area of the etching despite being split into multiples squares by a grid of wide dark lines usually in some adversarial color, such as Orange Squares and Purple Lines, or Purple Squares and Green Lines. This initiates a visual clash that manipulates the viewer into looking it the squares and noticing every minute difference between each one. If that were not enough Garfinkel likes to throw in a third color, something off the scale of the others, like a greenish yellow on the Purple/Orange axis, and a Tangerine Orange on the Purple/Green axis. These thrown off the viewer’s tendency to become obsessively embroiled in the magnetic quality of her etchings, which are both a micro verse of diverse designs using the same colors, and a macro verse, made large by being given a scale altered by the aperture of the print, which shows a protracted and intimate view of each one, hinting at the complexity of diverse unseen areas beyond the visible.

In 1994 and 1995 Garfinkel begins her Hanabi series, which are small scale mock-ups meant as large scale sculptural installations in both interior and exterior areas. They are constructed by combining multiple isosceles triangle forms in an arc or network, an animal, or an architectural structure. On each triangle is a different design evocative of the sorts of abstract images common on kimonos. Though it is not entirely necessary to know this fact to enjoy them as objects, it does fill in the blanks as to the sources from which the images come, and their combination, not only an illustration upon a flat surface, animated by the interlocking and flowing of triangular plates, the scale of the actual sculptures, and the synergy they have with the environments into which they are placed, expands and compounds the sense of intense detail and overall wonder that they bring.

Next follows the Kiku series (1998), which diverge yet again but keep true to the combination of organic and synthetic forms combining to give a version of the world in which sensuality and phenomena play an equal part. At first she applies a large mono print consisting of wide blue lines similar to the ones appearing in Chrysanthemums, and then she treats the finished surface like a canvas, grouping, alternating, and layering sections of etching and mono-printing in chromatic clusters, like sections of leaves in progressive psychedelic decay, right next to one another, in some cases so tightly that they merge and overlay with one another. It resembles a form of abstract map-making. The central image has an overly mottled appearance, like a multicolored relic from the dim ancient past. These are perhaps Garfinkel’s most impressive works up to this point, for not only do they reach an apex in expressing the timeless ideal found in Hiroshige’s Chrysanthemums, but they also do so with a very modern feel. There is nothing homespun about them. If anything they are proof positive that the artist has achieved a level of expression idiosyncratic and polished and radically different from her source material.

Garfinkel begins the new millennium with two series, the Kado (2000) which appears quite restrained, almost a throwback to elements of her Ginkgo Kimono series, and the Obi series (2001-02), which is her most daring yet. The Kado prints are split into two sections, severed diagonally, and are characterized by a strong flatness of color adjoined by strong, clear lines that suggest skin, shells, veins, and feathers, while the colors used reference age and decay. They are both strong expressions of elemental qualities and in some way represent a punctuation, a pause, and a release from the linear and imagistic work of her past.

The Obi series, by comparison, are dynamic and almost heroic. These are the first of Garfinkel’s series to take its concept directly from the traditional mode of dress practiced not only by Chinese and Japanese women but common all over the Asian world for the last several centuries. In each work the small consistent pattern above represents the kimono itself, while the larger section below represents the Obi. What is important to remember in gazing at these works, is that for all their intensity, they are inspired by, and modeled after a type of clothing that was specifically designed not only to differentiate unmarried from married women, but to place them in a hierarchy of institutional possession, and that the degree of design imparted to each individual Obi was a means by which they married woman in question had some power over how she might be perceived socially. The colors act both as patterned plumage and also as clannish markings similar to a Scottish tartan or the shield ornaments of European Medieval armor. They are also a form of social armor, a statement of idiosyncrasy within the embattled and circumscribed role of the supreme woman of the house, honorably presenting her husband’s honor while at the same time making a presumptuous and self-entitled statement about her self-worth to the entire community. The presence of flowers and stripes in the Obi series straightforwardly references Hiroshige but does so with aplomb and grace.  

Just ahead of the new decade, Garfinkel begins a new series that departs from the Hiroshige work but takes a partial inspiration from many of the combined series that have emerged from under its shadow. Her Flip and Circle paintings (2008) are her most contemporary. They each use metal surfaces that are painted using the sort of industrial pigment used to cover automobiles and motorcycles, giving a hard, sharp, and solid feel to the colors. Both series are arranged so that viewers can interact with them, either moving on or more panels up, down, fold it inside another, or turn different panels so that the visual reading from right to left, changes with each random gesture.

These works depart greatly from her past ones both because of the metal understructure, the solid chromatic quality, the choice of the viewer to affect what they are seeing and how the color will affect their memory of the primary aesthetic experience, and finally, the only thing to remind them of her past work is the use of pattern; the alternating, ambivalent, nearly counterintuitive ability Garfinkel has to let the eye make its own decisions. No matter how many options she throws into the mix, there is always an option to reduce via optical distance the forms and methods used to achieve a lasting impression. The Japanese of Hiroshige’s era perceived Chrysanthemums as a symbol of honesty, and Garfinkel has reinvigorated the idea of visual honesty for a generation of Western viewers who in looking at a work from the 16th century might be only apt to see an alien sensibility framed by spiritualism, traditions in artistic practice, and the desire of Hiroshige himself to create something idiosyncratic if not radically new. It took 20th century eyes like her own to bring it to bear in the modern world, and Garfinkel’s view has been clear from the start.