Susan Etcoff Fraerman at Elmhurst Art Museum

May 25, 2005

Susan Etcoff Fraerman: The Beaded Object
April 30 through August 14, 2005
Elmhurst Art Museum, Elmhurst, IL

2 out of 10 stars
(explanation of ranking system)

In the Promenade Gallery at the Elmhurst Art Museum is a small exhibition featuring 12 works of bead artist, Susan Etcoff Fraerman. All 12 pieces are shoes are completely covered or partially covered with hand-sown beads. Because the Promenade Gallery serves a dual purpose of gallery and walkway (connecting the Hanson Gallery and Mies van der Rohe’s McCormick House) this show is quite small.

This review attempts to provide an objective assessment of the show so that you, the reader, may decide if it’s worth visiting. The reason why I begin this review with that disclaimer is that the nature of this show is extremely feminine: Beads and women’s shoes. That’s the exclusive subject matter of this show. There were a couple pieces that minimally went beyond the concept of women’s shoes. I’ll touch on that a bit more later. I have some negative (and positive) things to say and I want to make it clear that I approached this show with a clear mind.

The result of the process of putting bead to needle, need to thread in a extraordinarily repetitive fashion is quite effective. “Encrusted” is a great word to describe these pieces. The texture generated from the process of putting tiny beads together to form one giant whole is quite enriching.

Based on this exhibition, Fraerman’s work is very focused. shoes, beads, shoes, beads, shoes, beads. All her pieces are repetitively similiar to the process of making each individual piece. Focus is a desirable discipline for an artist. It is beneficial to have a body of work that fits a theme or pattern of thought. It allows the artist to fully explore a concept. Fraerman certainly has this discipline.

However, a large portion of time is required for the user to fully contemplate each piece. Otherwise, all her work begins to be interpreted as one giant thought instead of individual thoughts for each piece. I struggled to find much variety from piece to piece.

What’s a viewer to do when they are struggling to find meaning behind a particular piece? They look at the title tag. Her titles provide some insight into each piece. Just some. They carry the viewer to a point and leave them alone to resolve the rest. This is a worthy approach for artists to take. You don’t want to spoon-feed your audience. However, since these pieces are so repetitive, it would have been beneficial to provide some further insight through the titles.

The greatest variety in the show is found in “In Memory of Noah” and “Lotus Shoes”. “In Memory of Noah” features beadwork forming the shape of a baby’s shoe. The baby shoe varies from the women’s shoes dominating the rest of the show. Within the baby’s shoe is a collection of beaded animals. The colors of this piece are vibrant and playful which is quite fitting for its subject matter.

The symbolism of Noah and shoe is interesting. Noah’s ark served the role of protecting humans and animal species from the terrifying elements of nature. Shoes serve the role of protecting our feet from the elements of nature as well; just on a smaller scale. By using a baby’s shoe and vibrant colors, Fraerman perhaps is suggesting the rebirth of regeneration that followed the Great Flood.

“Lotus Shoes” is more inline with the rest of the show. The color palette is muted. The shoes are basic women’s shoes. However, the heel is supported by a bell-shaped form rather than the traditional high-heel stem. What makes this piece unique is the use of some primitive swirly patterns.

The rest of the shoes in this show have no pattern or sense of rhythm in the beadwork. Susan Etcoff Fraerman mentions in her artist statement, “I work intuitively… allowing each bead to suggest the choice the choice of the next”. This process is interesting in that each bead has a voice. Each bead represents itself. Each bead wants your attention. However, the entire piece suffers as a result of this selfish behavior of each bead. Color selection is so random that it becomes a messy, unimaginative arrangement seen in all pieces except “Lotus Shoes”.

Fraerman draws comparisons of her work to Pointillism. It shares similiar notions of Pointillism in that each dot or bead has a voice. However, Pointillism used a collection of individual brush strokes to create a sense of light. It’s the interactivity between brush strokes that creates the light. The individual brush stroke doesn’t do it on its own. Here, light is captured in each individual bead because of each bead’s physical properties. Fraerman’s shoes do not capture a sense of light through the arrangement and combination of beads. The colors are muted and much too randomly arranged to suggest light as Pointillism does.

I also question her dedication to this notion that each and every bead suggests the choice of the next. In certain pieces, there are some solid areas of color. How can an individual bead suggest that the next bead be the same color which in turn suggests the next bead be the same color and so on and so on down the road where 200 beads are the same color? The collection of beads in an area certainly is influencing the color of the next bead she sows. That’s more of an overall design decision made by the artist rather than letting each individual bead dictate the color of the next bead.

Following on the heels (pardon the pun) of brilliantly curated Lee Sturges exhibition; this show is also curated with much thought. The walls are painted a deep, crimson red. This complements the muted color pallette found in most of the shoes. It helps draw the viewer into these deep, mysteriously verboding shoe forms. There is a crimson backdrop on the east end of the gallery protecting the view of the shoes from the outside window they are directly in front of.

By having the show right next to window, which offers a partial view of the sidewalk, the curator has subtly invited the viewer to ponder the possibility of these shoes in the outside world. Too often, artwork is confined to closed, controlled quarters which sometimes suffocates the work. Here, the windows add an entirely new dimension of interpretation to the work. This is the work of a master curator. And certainly the fact that this exhibition is in the Promenade Gallery, which also servers a walkway, further invites the viewer to draw comparisons between these shoes and the shoes worn by the participant walking by.

I must draw much criticism on the exhibition flyer. I have no problem that it is printed in black and white. Budgets are tight. I understand. However, the photos look absolutely terrible. They are much too dark. Based on my experience as a graphic designer, I would say it’s due to two things. Two things that the Elmhurst Art Museum could have fixed. The photos were too dark to begin with. These were probably color photos (most likely slides) which were converted to grayscale and lost alot of luster in the colorspace translation. Fixing the tonal values in a photograph is very easy in this digital age. It’s a simple correction. Also it is possible that the printer just printed this piece too darkly. I bet an EAM employee was not on hand at the printer while this piece was printed. This is called a “press check”. Someone should have seen that these photos were printing terribly and had the printer adjust the press. There’s no excuse for such sloppy presentation.

On the other side, the short fold design on the handout is a nice, simple touch. The layout is clean and simple as all gallery handouts should be (generally speaking). And the paper stock is a nice, happy weight. It is nice having a handout for an exhibition at all. However, I would rather see no handout at all than have a handout that makes the artist and the museum look bad.

Susan Etcoff Fraerman’s “The Beaded Object” exhibition requires a great deal of dedication by the viewer to uncover meaning in each piece. I’m afraid that such requirements often are not met because of the lack of interest initially generated from each piece.

Adding certain elements to some of the pieces helped entice interest like the feathers in “Flight Shoe” and the giraffes and lambs of “In Memory to Noah”. However, such minimal attempts (only those two pieces had such accents) only try to distract from the lack of thought found in the bead arrangement throughout the heart of the piece. It seems that Fraerman was too caught up in the process (the idea that each individual bead dictates what the next bead will be) that the whole piece becomes a mish-mash of muted colors.

Only when I read the titles and read the artist’s statement did I realize that there really was substance, thought, and symbolism behind these pieces. Fraerman delves into topics such as beauty, sexuality, duty, and status through her intepretation of the Chinese ritual where women painfully found their feet in childhood in pursuit of the three inch foot resembling the lotus flower. That’s some deep stuff. But I only learned of that through the artist statement.

It seems that all the pieces should have been taken another level further in order to connect to their symbolic intentions. I wanted to see more dramatic interpretation in the use of the beaded form whether it’s in use of different color arrangements or drastically changing the shape of the shoe or incorporating more playful non-bead elements. Something.

Concluding her artist statement Fraerman says that each beaded work took over 400 hours to complete. 400! Let’s say she spends 8 hours a day working on these pieces. It takes 50 days to complete ONE piece. Or let’s say it’s 12 full hours a day. That’s 33 days. Over one month to complete one piece. That’s assuming she’s working 12 hours every single day for a month. In those 400 hours, I would have liked to seen more thought into how she can connect with her audience. These pieces are much too stiff and formal and unapproachable for someone to truly appreciate 400 hours she invested.

-Erik Maldre
(photos to come)

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Matt Maldre
19 years ago

Now if she was watching tv while making her shoes, it would be cool if she was watching the tv show 24, and she make some of the beads to give a rendition of Jack Bauer. That would be a KICK a55 shoe!

18 years ago

Your site is realy very interesting.