One artist painstakingly glues strands of her hair into the shapes of cylinders and circles. Another dabs tens of thousands of individual dots of pigment across her canvas in neat rows. A third spends months collecting rare four-leaf clovers to paste onto her elaborate enameled collages.
Not only are the materials unusual, the very willingness to endure the kind of mind-numbing repetitiveness and tedium required to turn them into art may seem like a kind of madness, akin to the obsessive-compulsive disorders studied by psychiatrists.
Yet today, many artists are happily bypassing the time- and labor-saving advantages of cutting-edge technology in favor of incredibly complex, handcrafted works produced the old-fashioned way, through endless repetition and minute attention to detail.
Such labor-intensive, time-consuming techniques have their roots in antiquity, but their reappearance in contemporary art may signal a turning away from the spontaneous freedom of major 20th-century movements such as Dadaism, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism.
"Ezra Pound said that 'slowness is beauty,' so I think this intensely labored work just reflects our generation that is already so familiar with technology," says Kay Hwang, whose large-scale installations and drawings are based on a few simple, endlessly repeated forms. Hwang recently curated an exhibition of labor-intensive drawings at Maryland Art Place.
"Instead of using a digital copier, for instance, the artists are making a commitment of time and skill for taking you beyond the physical, for transcending the purely physical aspect of the work," Hwang says. "I don't think these artists think of themselves as obsessive; rather, it's about how much they can stretch their own artistic language."
There have been several exhibitions in Baltimore this year of highly labor-intensive work. In addition to Hwang's drawing show, Maryland Art Place mounted an exhibition called Obsessive Aesthetics and the Rosenberg Gallery at Goucher College put on Accumulation; all presented works by artists who share a preoccupation with repetition and attention to minute detail.
In October, Baltimore artist Tonya Ingersoll's exhibition of meticulously crafted, large-scale figurative paintings opens at Baltimore's Galerie Francoise. The same month, Youngmi Song-Organ's meticulous hair drawings go on display at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. And Dawn Gavin and Renee van der Stelt's labor-intensive installations and drawings based on mapping techniques are on view through Oct. 13 at Ellipse Arts Center in Arlington, Va.
Van der Stelt's large, amazingly precise cut-paper maps, for example, are so detailed one could easily mistake them for high-resolution photos taken by high-flying reconnaissance satellites. But the artist's purpose in creating these technically sophisticated images is quite down to earth.
"What's interesting about maps," says van der Stelt, "is that they actually tell you more about the person making them than about where you are. All maps have innate biases, which makes them incredibly powerful tools for investigating how we think about space."
Such works seem a far cry from the splash-and-drip improvisations of the Abstract-Expressionists like Jackson Pollock or the slick, silk-screened celebrity images of Pop artist Andy Warhol. Warhol boasted he could produce great artworks by the dozen in practically no time at all. So what's changed?
For Song-Organ, a Maryland Institute College of Art graduate who recently moved to rural Virginia, it was something as simple as a change of scenery.
Look to the floor
Because she felt somewhat isolated and depressed in her new exurban residence, Song-Organ consoled herself with gardening, which reconnected her to the recurring cycles of nature. She also reverted to a practice her mother had taught her years earlier.
"Like many traditional Korean women, she was obsessed by clean floors," Song-Organ recalls. "Mom said that if your floor is dirty, your mind is dirty, and that a clean floor shows a woman has discipline."
Though she hated housework, Song-Organ began spending hours tidying up around the house. One day she had a revelation.
"I was cleaning the shower, and there was a strand of my hair lying on the floor," she recalls. "It was like a flashback: Something said this is what I've been looking for. I'd always wanted to create the perfect, beautiful line; and suddenly, there it was."
Song-Organ relates the experience to traditional Asian painting and Taoist philosophy, which views all life as an expression of universal truths. In a single strand of hair, an extension of her own body, she found a way to connect art to her deepest spiritual beliefs.
"After that, I couldn't wait to work," the artist recalls. "I wanted to dedicate everything to it."
For the next two years, Song-Organ labored eight hours a day, seven days a week on her artwork. By the end of that time she had created just four small drawings and two larger ones, each of which took about eight months to complete.
"There is a definite obsession in my work, but it is a natural result of my experience," she says today.
During much of the 20th century, when art movements such as Dada, Surrealism and Abstract-Expressionism embraced accident and chance over meticulous planning and deliberate execution, the idea of the artist as obsessive craftsman took a back seat to a heroic notion of the artist as spontaneous creator.
But in the postmodern era, when no single style dominates, many artists have returned to art-making strategies based on highly labor-intensive, repetitive processes that encourage Zen-like meditation and transcendence.
"Obsession has always been there," Hwang says, "but people notice the handcrafted work more now because technology has made it easier to do so much by machine. As a result, there's a new appreciation for handwork among both artists and viewers."
Ever since Leonardo spent more than a decade painting his Mona Lisa and Michelangelo lay on his back atop a scaffold for three years decorating the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the idea that artists are somehow obsessed has intrigued the public.
Dutch still-life painters of the 17th century lavished so much time and effort on the smallest details of their pictures that viewers were amazed by their pristine optical illusions.
Moreover, the well-publicized mental instability of artists and writers like van Gogh, Picasso and Poe also contributed to the romantic but ill-founded idea that madness is necessary for artistic creativity.
Johns Hopkins University psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison, whose 1993 book Touched With Fire argued that many great artists suffered from bipolar disorder, has suggested that mental illness may run in some artistic or otherwise high-achieving families.
But Jamison cautions against lumping all artists together as mentally ill.
"Most people who are creative don't suffer from mental disorders," Jamison says. "It's just that there's an elevated rate of such disorders among creative people in the arts compared to the rest of the population."
Creative vs. obsessed
Jamison also draws a distinction between obsessive-compulsive disorder as a clinical illness and the workaholic concentration of artists passionately engaged in the creative process.
"There's no question there's a relationship between high productivity and some form of obsession or compulsion, but whether it's a clinical disorder or just a characteristic that's necessary to produce a lot, I don't know," Jamison says. "What's important is the capacity for discipline."
The fourth edition of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines obsessions as "recurrent thoughts, impulses or images" that cause anxiety or distress and defines compulsions as "repetitive behaviors in response to an obsession." Stated another way, compulsions are a way of dealing with the anxiety produced by an obsession.
There are well-known examples of such compulsive behavior among so-called visionary, or "outsider," artists, many of whom seem driven to create as a way of coping with past traumas or as a result of hearing voices or experiencing religious conversions. Drawing the line between these psychologically troubled people and the academically trained fine artists who choose to work with highly labor-intensive materials and methods is not always easy.
"Obsession and creative invention have always gone hand in hand," says Rebecca Hoffberger, founder and director of the American Visionary Art Museum. "Was Tolstoy obsessive when he wrote War and Peace, or did it just take that much focus to give birth to the work? When a composer locks himself in for weeks, that's an intensity of focus that others may call obsession. We all have these things that give us permission to do our best. It's the degree that makes people call it obsessive."
Yet Song-Organ, Madeleine Keesing, whose abstract paintings comprise thousands of individual dots of color, and Leslie Hirst, who patiently collects hundreds of four-leaf clovers for her collages, are by no means unusual among contemporary artists.
Intention and focus
The Czech-born American artist Vija Celmins has been making incredibly labor-intensive pencil drawings of such subjects as ocean waves and the night sky for decades. Her uncanny images, which mimic the clarity and precision of photography, explore nature at the limits of human perception. Each of her amazingly detailed drawings takes months to complete.
New York-based installation artist Tara Donovan also has created impressive works that evoke that vastness of cosmic space and time through such commonplace materials as Styrofoam cups and stacks of clear plastic drinking straws.
"Obsession can be an artistic intention rather than a psychological compulsion, which is what distinguishes it from the mental disorder," says Jay Fisher, associate director of the Baltimore Museum of Art.
"An artist like Celmins or even [precisionist painter] Charles Sheeler is successful because they use the things we define as obsessive -- repetition, attention to detail, a spectacular technique that allows the artist to work on an extremely small scale," Fisher adds. "You'd think you'd become involved in the minuteness of it all but in fact these works become huge; they actually extend beyond their frames to create a whole universe that just draws you in."