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Monday, October 14, 2013

Button Art

Whimsical Dream, 2011, Ran Hwang
I was originally researching an American artist by the name of John Button when I stumbled upon a far more interesting subject: Button Art. Not only that, but in so doing I came upon a group of far more interesting artists, such as outsider artist, Dalton Stevens, who fancies himself the "Button King." Then there's Ran Hwang, who could also claim that title if he so chose (he doesn't). Along with these are the button paintings of Jane Perkins and the button portraits of Lisa Kokin, just back from an exhibition of her work in Paris. These are among the best, their art pretty much running the gamut as to the different forms this ubiquitous little piece of plastic might assume as an art medium.

A full palette of colors, shapes, sizes, and textures.
Buttons have been around for around 7,000 years, the earliest one having been found in the Indus Valley of India. Surprisingly, it seems the first buttons were not used as clothes fasteners at all, but for decorative purposes, which would seem to bring us in a full circle today. The first buttons (with buttonholes) to be used as fasteners date from various Hungarian tribes around the 9th century. Their common use, to close clothes, however, didn't arrive until around the 13th century in Germany and the advent of snug, highly tailored clothing. These were mostly cast metal or made from carved wood or seashells. And of course, plastic buttons are a product of our own lifetime (depending upon when your lifetime began). Perhaps the most famous button artist of all time is Renarldo Galvies, a French designer born in 1958, who supplies designer buttons for the world of high fashion as well as the world of button collectors.
Dalton Stevens, the Button King playing his button guitar next to his
button hearse, presumably containing his button coffin.
Apart from Monsieur Galvies, button artists can be classified into three broad categories: (1) those who merely adorn other objects with buttons; (2) those who use buttons to create decorative, derivative art; and (3) those who create original works in which buttons are seen as merely the raw material (like paint) for creative expression. Dalton Stevens, the "button king" falls into the first category. Mr. Stevens, now 83 years of age, suffers from acute insomnia. He originally got into button art as a means of filling his time for the days on end when he couldn't sleep. He started with an old pair of blue jeans and has since sewn (or glued) buttons to three suits, a hearse, an outhouse, a bathtub, a guitar (which he plays), a piano, a grandfather clock, and yes, even a kitchen sink. All this he keeps in his roadside Button King Museum in Bishopville, South Carolina, along with his button covered coffin.
A Lisa Kokin portrait
A pet portrait by Lisa Kokin
Girl with a Pearl Earring, (after Vermeer),
Jane Perkins.
Lisa Kokin and Jane Perkins fall into the second category (possibly the third category depending upon your art perspective). Lisa does button portraits from photos (above, left and right) while Jane Perkins reproduces famous works of art in buttons (right). Their work very much has a mosaic quality because it is in effect, a mosaic art medium. The techniques and artistic sensitivities are very much the same except that buttons are seldom grouted into place. Buttons, however, offer a somewhat broader range of colors, shapes, and textures than glass or semi-precious stones, but minus most of the iridescent qualities of traditional mosaic materials. Buttons are also cheaper and much more plentiful.
Dreaming of Joy, Ran Hwang
Korean artist, Ran Hwang, is a category three artist, filling traditional stretched canvases, not with paint, but with buttons as in his Whimsical Dream (top). Being oriental, his works are large-scale, often subtle, but with a cutting-edge freshness and daring as seen in his Dreaming of Joy installation (above and below), a quality not seen in most button art...or, for that matter, most unbuttoned art.

Dreaming of Joy (detail), Ran Hwang


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