The Lexington Pubic Library is to be commended for presenting “Characters in a Book”, an invitational exhibition showcasing mosaic, an ancient artistic process that has evolved as an contemporary expressive form in recent years.
What is mosaic? I prefer to put it in the broadest of terms: a surface where small pieces of materials (tesserae) are placed together to create a larger image.
Some people believe that the ancient mosaic process and materials are more ‘correct’ but in fact, really just reflect the level of industrialization at that point in time. Just as other art forms have expanded through technological developments in manufacturing process and materials, so has mosaic.
Ancient hand formed terra cotta cones were replaced with the discovery or stones and minerals in new worlds. Development in the production of glass added to the reflective light quality and color pallet. Advances in the manufacturing of ceramic tile expanded the textures and accessibility of materials. Industrial advancements added to the scope, diversity and application of mosaics and the materials used to construct them.
The history of mosaics often focuses on their utilitarian application. Many of the early masterpieces were floors, paths, and walls. The labor intensity of their production depended on, not only the artist who designed them, but skilled individuals who could execute those designs. The need to train people who could professionally manipulate the materials and execute the designs lead to strong guild and apprentice programs. While the guild and apprentice programs also thrived in other art media, artists in what are often considered ‘mainstream art disciplines’ abandoned the structure of those institutions for schools of modern ideology and/or the uniqueness of the artist vision. Variation in technical styles and approached were embraced in the pursuit of individual expression. In recent decades, we seem to be witnessing that same phenomenon with contemporary mosaic artwork.
There are still mosaics traditionalists who seem to honor the past and cherish the reproduction of fragments of antiquity. There also is the continuing desire to use mosaic to embellish utilitarian pieces or surfaces…and that’s not a bad thing. In fact it adds to the versatility and accessibility of mosaics while at the same time, it seems to be one of the factors that contribute to mosaic not being strongly considered as a mainstream art process. Sadly, like the craft vs. art debate ceramics, fiber, and glass went through in the early 70’s, the discussion is now about mosaic. Equally sad, is that it seems to be a discussion just among mosaic practitioners and not the larger art community. As more gallery visitors have the opportunity view mosaics, the discussion will natural expand. Exhibitions like “Characters in a Book”, are providing an exciting opportunity for the art viewing public to experience high quality examples of the contemporary mosaic work that is being done today.
When selecting pieces for an exhibit, in addition to innovation, I’ll always look at the selection and use of materials, craftsmanship (appropriate for the materials selected) and content. Content, craftsmanship, and materials; the combination of these are important in any work of art…including mosaic.
But a process or a material doesn’t an artwork make. There is also the intention of the maker. If someone sets out to make a decorative mirror frame using the elements of design and color, combined with superior execution, is this art or fine craft? Does it matter? However, if a person sets out to explore a visual language using mosaic as a means to convey movement and the selects contrasting tesserae exemplifies a personalized mark making systems; then I believe it is a work of art.
I know this isn’t important to everyone working in or looking at mosaic. No, many are involved with mosaic and the creative process for other reasons…their intentions are as varied as the ‘function’ of their piece and their selection of tesserae.
The entries for this exhibition provided a rich array of styles, sensibilities, materials and concepts to choose from. I hope that the viewing public will enjoy their visual experience as much as I did in making my selections. I’d like to thank the Lexington Public Library and Gallery Director, April Torbush for inviting me to Curate the “Characters in a Book” Contemporary Mosaic Exhibition.