On the subject of buttons: there’s surely something charming in seeing the smallest thing done so thoroughly, as if to remind the careless that whatever is worth doing is worth doing well.
Charles Dickens (1812-1870), English novelist
I am forever changing the buttons on my clothes, usually for the same reason that I correct a drawing or shift colors around in my paintings; it sharpens the total effect and creates harmony.
Jim Dine, 20th century artist
Forget about buttoning up our overcoat – beautiful buttons should be framed and hung on the wall.
Mario Buatta, 20th century designer/lecturer
Small, plentiful, seemingly insignificant? Buttons, as neo-Dadaist artist Jasper Johns has said of his own icons, are “things the mind already knows”. A button is like a tiny, evocative microcosm.
Buttons commemorate historical events and reflect the culture and aesthetic sensibilities of their time. One marvels at the labor applied to such tiny objects. We are spiritually moved by the effort someone has taken to make something so small.
Their collecting represents man’s desire to discover the extraordinary in the commonplace. Charles de Gaulle collected buttons from French army uniforms. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis searched for rare French enamel buttons.
The Mona Bismarck Foundation’s Paris Cultural Center will present, for the first time in Europe, a major international exhibition devoted entirely to buttons as artistic, historical, and cultural phenomena.
Boutons : stitches in time
LOIC ALLIO COLLECTION
The historical centerpiece to the exhibition will be more than 1,500 precious pieces from the Loic Allio Collection, considered to be one of the finest in the world. The collection holds many unique surprises, including:
A rare 2,500 year old Chinese button.
Buttons from the Middle Ages, still a little rusty after being unearthed from their long sojourn underground.
Buttons worn by the nobility at Versailles and in the gardens of the Palais-Royal, as well as buttons worn by the revolutionaries who stormed the Bastille prison. The 18th century is considered the “golden age” of buttons, when their decoration became a passion for the upper classes. Certain examples have been attributed to celebrated artists like Carmontelle Fragonard or Isabey, who produced miniature paintings and engravings that button-makers then set under glass and mounted in metal rings. It is said that even the Queen of France tried her hand at this elegant pastime.
Magnificent buttons from the 20s and 30s, inspired by the advent of haute couture ushered in by Paul Poiret and Elsa Schiaparelli. Prominent artists like Vlaminck, Cocteau, Giacometti, and Sonia Delaunay used these highly utilitarian little objects to express their artistic talent, making their buttons integral to the look of the garments embellished.
Red, white and blue buttons from the Liberation of France after World War II etched with messages of hope.
The world’s largest button: a mammoth mother-of-pearl piece dating from the end of the 19th century.
Buttons made from almost every imaginable material: diamonds, resin set with bread crust, Talosel resin, and elephant skin.
The exhibition will also introduce the public to exciting new works by a number of contemporary artits who use buttons as their medium, including:
CLARE GRAHAM : recuperation artist
Los Angeles recuperation artist Clare Graham proves that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Graham draws inspiration from the used buttons he finds canvassing flea markets throughout southern California. His mission is to awaken people to the potential of garbage.
According to LA Times art critic Mayer Rus, “the grand scale, artistry, and monomania of Graham’s work elevates it from the cornball to the realm of the sublime.” His organic, sea form chandeliers are constructed of 25,000 buttons meticulously mounted according to size and color. Graham estimates that he has recycled close to three and a half million buttons for sculptures like Convex Mirror.
Graham grew up in a working class family of four siblings in a small town in Ontario, Canada. A born scavenger, he made do with hand-me-down clothes and used materials. “I’m genetically programmed to deal with things after they’ve had a useful life elsewhere.” After working on several degrees at Long Beach State University, he joined Disneyland, impersonating characters like Goofy and Brer Bear. He eventually rose to Senior Art Director for the entire Disney network of theme parks.
“My work is about simple processes done to the nth degree until the accumulation is significant.” The public will be invited to consider this statement while contemplating colossal works like Anemone Chandelier.
LISA KOKIN :
This self proclaimed “buttonologist” from San Francisco creates pointillistic portraits using thousands of buttons secured by tension wires. Lisa Kokin’s sculptural works like Rescue are entwined with buttons of various shapes, sizes, and colors held together by imitation sinew, waxed linen, and chicken wire.
As Kokin explains, “My work is about memory and history, both personal and collective, and the area in which the two intersect. I am interested in representing the human condition by using the objects we leave behind.” Buttons have made cameo appearances in much of her work. Her parents were upholsterers and Kokin’s earliest memories are of playing in their shop with piles of vinyl and foam rubber.
“I have sewn since I was a child and the stitch plays a major role in my work.” It was natural for her to join buttons together to form a reconstructed family portrait like Nineteen Sixty. She began experimenting with this technique working on a memorial to
her father and soon expanded to the realm of family portraits, past and present, human and canine.
For her unique work, Kokin has received a California Arts Council Individual Artist’s Fellowship and a Eureka Fellowship from the Fleishhacker Foundation.
Her wall works have always had an obsessive quality: every button is stitched to its neighbor to form a low-tech pixilated composition. Up close, each piece is an abstract mйlange of colors and shapes; the fur- ther back one stands the more decipherable the image becomes.
“This interplay between abstraction and representa- tion intrigues me. It is as though I am painting with buttons, building my palette as I go along, adding and subtracting until the interplay of colors and forms coalesces into a coherent image.”
LAUREN LEVY :
On show will be a number of works drawn from Lauren Levy’s 2009 exhibition Beneath the Palm of My Hand. Levy has chosen buttons as her major medium, explaining, “When I was small and visiting my great grandmother, I was rewarded for good behavior by being allowed to play in the button box. Buttons are for me the perfect medium for personifying the notions of loss, joy, grief, tenderness, and the consequent insanity of these extremes.”
Levy was born in Corpus Christi and studied art and nursing at the University of Texas. She continued her studies at the Oregon School of Arts and Crafts, in metalsmithing. “I began making wire and button sculptures in 1991, after the birth of my first child. I had been making small metal sculptures using traditional metalsmithing techniques. As the parent of an infant, I barely had time to turn on the torch before the nap was over. I quickly realized that a low-tech direct approach to making objects with metal was necessary.”
In her wall hangings, Levy experiments with buttons as a tool for drawing objects onto fabric. Works like God into God combine two-dimensional and three-dimensional elements into one. Black squares of cloth provide a simple background for button-based images of scissors and their permutations.
In hangings like Untitled Dress, Levy uses antique buttons to fashion little coats and dresses. The fabrics are worked with myriad stitches just short of quilting, some bordered with contrasting triangles – careful adornments adding subtle texture to the work.
Levy says of these works: “This body of work represents adaptation and change. The idea that change can occur slowly at first and then in an instant be different is interesting.”
AMALIA AMAKI :
Artist and art historian Amalia Amaki develops themes within her studies of African-American heritage in her button inlaid boxes and church fans. At first glance, much of Amaki’s work appears to be an assortment of nostalgic, pretty items: heart-shaped boxes of chocolates wrapped in gold foil and gem-incrusted jewelry boxes. Ornate handheld church fans, inspired by the colorful paper fans that women in Southern black churches used to cool themselves, frame vintage family photos.The rich, dark chocolates are actually buttons. The gems decorating the boxes and handheld frames are buttons as well.
Buttons are a mainstay of Amaki’s work, especially used buttons. “The idea of being touched by all these unknown hands – who knows how many hands touched a single button? At the same time, they’re very beautiful, ornate, like jewels. There are all these sort of wonderful histories embodied in the buttons.”
In her use of buttons, Amaki explores their role in the history of African- American culture, in which they were considered precious items. During the era of slavery, to have buttons on your clothes was a special sign of prestige. Buttons were often collected as personal family jewels or used as a kind of informal currency.
Turning everyday items into fine art is Amaki’s signature style. “I love taking the unexpected object and redefining it in the context of art – like a button, a fan, a faded photograph. If there is one thing that has remained constant in my approach to my art over the past 20 years, it is my desire to tear down boundaries between so-called craft and so-called high art.
Amaki was born and raised in Georgia and received her doctorate in 20th century American art from Emory University. In 2001, she became Curator of the Paul R. Jones Collection of Art at the University of Delaware, one of the most prestigious collections of African-American art in the world. She is currently a professor of art history at the University of Alabama.
Many of the button works in this Paris exhibition were originally part of a retrospective in 2005 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, entitled Boxes, Buttons and the Blues. Her work is in the permanent collections of the High Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Minnesota Museum of Art, and Emory University. Her button-embellished mural, Sojourners, was installed in 1999 at Gate E-5 of the Atlanta International Airport.
PENELOPE LEAVER GREEN :
British artist Penelope Leaver Green explores the darker place buttons have in our culture – button phobia or “koumpounophobia”. Leaver Green uses buttons on cloth collages to investigate and document extreme reactions to an everyday object. Extreme reactions which are more common than one might imagine. (It has been rumoured that jazz great Duke Ellington once delayed a concert for thirty-five minutes while assistants searched for a shirt with no buttons!)
The artist explains how this project started: “I was given a box of buttons by a friend. They had belonged to her mother-in-law who had recently died and she didn’t know what to do with them. They were made for an enormous range of garments from a huge variety of materials. I spent ages categorising them based on size, colour, age etc. It was compulsive.”
Contemplating her own compulsive reaction to the button box, Leaver Green discovered the button phobic she later used for her research: “My friend explained to me how she had often been given her grandmother’s button box to play with and that she had been repelled by it. I sent her pictures of buttons and asked her to put them in an order of repulsion (i.e. our subject had a specific psychological disgust for plain, plastic buttons with four holes “harbouring dirt”).
Through the internet Leaver Green found many more koumpounophobics: “having found one button phobic in person I found thousands more online, all commenting on their own repulsion. There were similarities in their response but also idiosyncrasies, yet very few could explain where the phobia had come from.”
Leaver Green read English and Drama at Exeter University and completed the Motley Postgraduate Theatre Design Course at the Almeida Theatre, Islington, London. Since 2008 she has been working as a professional textile artist in Bristol, United Kingdom. At the heart of her work is the craft, the use of a needle and thread to explore diverse ideas and challenges, creating a new layer of meaning in the conversation between the medium and the message.”