The Rapidian

Mosaic: Art or craft

ArtPrize participants Van Duinen, Tavonatti, and Bomarito offer varying approaches to the medium of mosaic.
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Mosaic art is featured ArtPrize 2011

Works featuring mosaic figure prominently in among this year's ArtPrize exhibits.

/Kelsey Fegan

/Kelsey Fegan

by Kelsey Fegan, Hope College student

Historically, mosaic was a medium regarded as equal to fresco or oil painting. Highly durable, mosaic was used as decoration on the floors or walls of religious structures, secular buildings, or wealthy residences. Possibly due to the unconventional nature of the materials, to those unfamiliar with either its range or history, mosaic may be relegated to the sphere of craft.

The medium of mosaic would seem to be experiencing something of a renaissance—supporting this premise locally is the number of mosaic works featured in this year’s ArtPrize. There are established institutions specializing in the promotion and teaching of the medium in the United States (Society of American Mosaic Artists (SAMA), The Chicago Mosaic School, or The Institute of Mosaic Art in California). This may seem an ironic development as we find ourselves in the digital age when not only the definition but the dissemination of art has expanded far beyond limits imaginable even twenty years ago. ArtPrize features several artists who have created mosaic pieces, but the question is: are they modeling as a fine art or a craft?

Tracy Van Duinen has created a mosaic mural at WMCAT just around the corner from Imagine That, his 2009 ArtPrize collaborative mosaic at the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum. Metaphorest is a multi-media mosaic mural that “consists of metaphors representing the power art has to change lives and help today’s children develop a positive sense of themselves.” This mural depicts children and young adults helping to create the “forest,” which is full of plants and populated with various creatures. The centerpiece is a huge low-relief face, resembling an Olmec mask, covered in mirror tesserae, the surface of which responds to changing effects of light. When I was there, parents and children were drawn to the work, the children in particular, marveling at its scale and details. Metaphorest is not only remarkable in its scale and execution, but it accomplishes Van Duinen’s proposed goal, to change if temporarily the lives of local youth collaborating on the project.

Marilyn Bomarito describes her three-dimensional Venus, United – One Blood, One Race as a glass mosaic. Located upstairs in DeVos Place, Venus references the iconic Venus de Milo, located in the Louvre. The idea behind this work is that every woman is a “Venus”, regardless of skin color or her blood. Pieces of mirror are aptly placed on the statue so that viewers can literally see themselves in the surface of Venus. Across the torso, skin-toned tesserae—the appropriate term for mosaic pieces, symbolize all races. Not unlike personifications of Justice, the blindfold over her eyes indicates that she is blind to prejudice. 

Bomarito’s Venus is challenged in two ways: one technical, the other regarding its display. While the concept behind Bomarito’s Venus is commendable, the execution is ungainly. For example, the hair is unfortunately composednot of ceramic or glass tesserae, but glass pebbles of the sort readily found in craft supply stores. The piece is located in a very awkward corner of the upper floor hallway in DeVos Place in the corner adjacent to a recycling bin and behind a couch. The reception of the work would improve from different placement that offered adequate surrounding space (more appropriate for a figurative work) or was elevated by a pedestal.

Lastly, Mia Tavonatti’s Crucifixion is located in the entryway of DeVos Place (immediately to the right as you walk into the Grand Gallery). You may recall that Tavonatti was the recipient of the second place award in 2010 for her mosaic titled Svelata. Her current submission was commissioned as an altarpiece for a new church in California. It is a thirteen foot high depiction of Jesus on the cross with a vibrant sunset in the background. While consisting of thousands of hand-cut pieces of stained glass, from a distance the viewer might mistaken Crucifixion for a painting. Its medium is apparent upon closer examination, or when the natural light falls upon the work, creating that dynamically shimmering surface for which the medium of mosaic was historically so esteemed. Tavonatti truly has a talent for “painting” with glass.

While each of these examples exhibit different formal qualities, they generally support an argument for mosaic qualifying as fine art.

 

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Comments

Kelsey,

Thanks for your article. It heartens me to see students asking and working through these questions. As a disclaimer, I think it's important to preface that these sorts of craft vs. art debates shouldn't be an attempt to diminish the value of funcitonal beauty or decor (craft).  Neither is better-- we're just talking about role here.

I think, when it comes to traditional craft materials, whether  glass, felt, ribbon, etc., the qualifier for art vs. craft hinges on use. Is the craft material used in a new way? Does it push the limits of that traditional material or process? Or, does it question the established tradition? An example of craft that elevates itself out of the realm of craft might be Magda Sayed's yarn bombing on the City Flats Hotel. Yes, it's become a bit of a ubiquitous (yawn) trend, but she's subverted the traditional context and tone of this "women's work."

I'm a fan of mosaics in public spaces for the appealing contrast of materials and colors in concrete jungles. I'm just not sure that these two examples move past the traditional domain of craft-- for their craftlike treatment of material and refusal to push traditional imagery into the contemporary realm.

Mosaic has been a form of painting for thousands of years. It's high art and tremendously difficult technically. Hand-made mosaics are not ubiquitous.

"Tracy Van Duinen has created a mosaic mural at WMCAT just around the corner from Imagine That, her 2009 ArtPrize collaborative mosaic at the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum."

http://www.artprize.org/artists/public-profile/1290

We've edited the piece accordingly. Thanks for catching that!

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