The art of craft

By Bruce Adams; photos by kc kratt

Kala Stein’s Convivium, Burchfield Penney, 2009

off, there’s the title change.

A stroke of brilliance, actually, reclassifying the biennial exhibition of works in clay, fiber, metal, glass, and wood, now on view at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, from the dithering designation Craft Art to the astutely phrased Art in Craft Media 2009. While the old title couldn’t make up its mind, the new one deftly pinpoints the creative terrain occupied by this engrossing display of work by Western New York craftspeople, so labeled because they happen to employ traditional craft media in their practice. But this is fine art by and large, often conceptual in nature, with an eye for refined aesthetics often sidestepped by many contemporary artists.

The striking synthesis of concept and design that typifies Art in Craft Media 2009is immediately evident upon stepping into the Entrance Gallery that leads to the voluminous East Gallery. Here, as elsewhere, individual works are given abundant space to breathe, enhancing the sense of preciousness and creating an overall deferential atmosphere. This mood especially serves enigmatic works like Gap, by Taeyoul Ryu, looking something like a sleek saucer-shaped toy top made of concentric bands of blond wood—actually plywood. At its outermost circumference is an inch-wide opening (thus the title) revealing an illuminated gold leaf interior. There’s a faint sci-fi air to its mathematical precision, suggestive of alien spacecraft or opposing black holes. Even the design of the new BPAC building itself complements the work. With its curving gray stone, warm-toned wood floor, and angled white walls forming architectural gaps of their own, it’s like viewing craft within craft.

Alicia Eggert’s Coffee Cup Conveyor Calendar, 2008
Paul Sherman’s Hydnocerus Series V #4, 2003
Bethany Krull’s Contained, 2007.
Bill Stewart’s Thumper, 2005.

Other works nearby set the tenor for the show. Vincent Pontillo’sFor Saraawati—presumably a dangling headdress of sterling wire, chain, and gold leaf—is informed by eastern culture. It’s jewelry, yes, though it is unlikely its Hindu Goddess namesake will be donning it anytime soon. Ostensibly wearable, like much of the artful bling included in the show it functions more like sculpture. Also greeting viewers is Easter Rabbit by Bill Stewert, a sly take on secular and religious symbolism in glazed ceramic. Finally, Jozef Bajas offers four examples from his Summer Reading series, in which hardcover books serve as the raw material for wall-mounted sculptural pieces created by methodically cutting, folding, and drilling the pages. So here within the first few steps we find compelling craftsmanship, ironic wit, nonwestern influence, and droll ingenuity, all present in abundance throughout the show.

Entering the main room visitors are confronted with Alicia Eggert’s Coffee Cup Conveyor Calendar, a mixed media sculptural piece and exhibition-length performance of such subversive brilliance that it stops you in your tracks. Dozens of unfired cast porcelain replicas of Solo paper cups, the kind with the plastic lids provided in coffee shops, are stacked in cardboard carryout holders against the wall. Mounted on the wall is a gear-driven conveyor belt with a week’s worth of cups lined up. Yellow sticky notes label each cup: today; tomorrow; the day after tomorrow; the day after that, and so on. Every day the belt advances and a cup falls off the end and shatters on the floor. The gallery staff loads another cup and the process continues. A scathing commentary on consumerism? A lamentation over the impermanence of mass-produced products? A visual rumination on mounting landfills? Or is Eggert commenting on the repetitive monotony of daily routine, how we mark time through our compulsive habits? Maybe all of these and more, but the work’s greatest impact comes from the disquieting spectacle of hand-cast ceramic objects purposefully destroyed … in a “craft” show. Equally witty in their arch irony are three embroidered aprons—symbols of female domestication—by Lily Booth. Booth turns this traditional women’s decorative art on itself by lovingly stitching allusions to female empowerment. Diagrammatic female reproductive organs on In Bloom (with traditionally sewn flowers in place of ovaries), a suggestive banana and plums in Manhood in My Pocket, and a pocketed gun in Kitchen Artillery.

The Substance of the Space Between by Andrea Marquis is a large scale installation that only remotely employs craft media, though a stylistic connection with the artist’s elaborately ornamental porcelain sculpture elsewhere in the show is evident. Here Marquis suspends two huge pieces of window screen in front of a wall, the bottoms of which have been incised into lacy organic patterns. Spotlighted, the delicately tattered screens cast ghostly moiré patterns onto the wall and floor merging into indistinguishable ethereal layers. Another impressive work notable for its large scale and use of shadow is Kala Stein’s Convivium, in which a thirty-two-foot-long glass table is set with hundreds of porcelain half-chalice forms arranged in a methodical pattern, which in turn casts a patterned shadow onto the floor. The title, having at least two meanings, fittingly evokes images of both a geographically isolated population and an equally apt banquet gathering.

Stephen Saracino is known for his spectacular sterling silver mock ceremonial vessels with allusions to classical architecture, mythology, ritual, and magic.Cavatappi Dei Saracino is one such typically impressive work included here. But with War Trophy Bracelet: Nation Building, Saracino enters new political territory. It’s comprised of a central geometric form with a detailed military vehicle half projecting out both sides and elevated platforms extending from the top and bottom, all in brushed oxidized silver. Atop the platforms are tiny prostrate shoulders situated around a miniature grenade. It’s a bracelet only by virtue of the fact that the hole through it would technically fit a wrist, but wearing this massive tribute to our Mideast policies would certainly make the metaphorical burdens they entail feel very real.

Robert Woods’ monumental ceramic sculptures also evoke ritual through their ceremonial appearance. At eight feet tall, Guardian II is vaguely suggestive of a sarcophagus with crisp geometric angles formed from stony red earthenware clay. Pressed into the surface are remnants of the firing process: pottery stilts, firing cones, bits of heating elements. From its post in the center of the room Guardian IIdutifully stands watch over the more fragile work in the show—including Bethany Krull’s Contained, a large curio display unit comprised of rows of small glass jars suspended from wooden struts supported at each end by steel pipe legs. Each jar contains specimen-like objects: sea shells, minerals, coral in amber-tinted liquid, and so on. Many of the jars are inexplicably fogged, causing viewers to puzzle over exactly what’s on view, whether it’s biological or mineral. Contained is a handsome yet vaguely disturbing hybrid of science and craft that raises questions about enclosure and display. The same theme continues in Diane Pierce’sContainment: [fragile], a set of twenty-four white porcelain bowls neatly stacked in a reddish wooden berry crate. The unrefined roughness of the container against the smooth whiteness of the bowls provides stark contrast. This could be the poster child for the entire exhibition, as it challenges viewers to regard it sculpturally rather than as a container of serviceable pottery—functionality forever denied by artistic intent. With Brett Coppins, on the other hand, there is no ambiguity;Indelicate Separation is flat-out abstract ceramic sculpture. Two opposing tusk-shaped forms bow to each other like biomorphic figures squaring off in battle. Each is pierced, seemingly almost painfully, with gray fragmented cylindrical forms. Bordering on surrealism with a twist of expressionistic angst, Indelicate Separation pays symbolic homage to confrontation.

Art in Craft Media 2009 is not an overly large exhibition, avoiding the overcrowded circus atmosphere that almost inevitably characterizes big juried shows. The work has been judiciously selected by Dr. Margaret Carney of the Blair Museum of Lithophanes from submitted entries, with additional pieces from artists invited to participate by Burchfield Penney staff members Scott Propeack and Nancy Weekly. The work is consistently worthy, but space limitations allow for only a few added mentions: Nancy Belfer’s Structures and Passages is a masterfully assembled abstract fabric patchwork of tie-dyed earth-tones with a jaunty rhythm, like cadenced jazz. Juan Carlos Caballero-Perez offers his exquisiteUrn, a miniature functionless vessel so elegantly and minutely crafted in precious and semi-precious materials that it practically emits an aura. Alan Walke’s Trompe l’Oeil Bowl is a dumbfounding take on illusionistic art. Carved from mahogany and painted white, it’s a wholly convincing imitation of glossy cloth draped over a shallow circular depression. Carol Townsend’s whimsical Turbo, a heavily textured and patterned bulbous ceramic pot, is one small hole away from losing its vessel classification altogether. Stephen Merritt’s refined monumental earthenware is also highly sculptural, though the two included here continue to read like large vases.

Praiseworthy works leaning more toward functionality include Davina Romansky’s elegantly Cascading necklace and Leslie Shug’s humorously titledThis Gift Sucks, an enamel pendent depicting an apron-clad housewife reacting to the cast silver vacuum cleaner dangling from it. R. H. Series #4 by Barry R. Yavener is superficially a bowl on a stand, but I see a graceful near-minimalist sculpture. And Doug Siger’s Lingerie Cabinet is snappy geometric abstraction with drawers.

Art in Craft Media 2009 is a pleasure from start to its finish, appropriately in the Silvia L. Rosen Gallery upstairs. Appropriate because the exhibition is funded through the Sylvia L. Rosen Endowment. Some of Rosen’s own finely crafted traditional pottery is also on view.

Bruce Adams is an artist, educator, writer, skeptic, husband, and father, among other things.


Come see the Pepfog

The show might have an odd name, but there is nothing mysterious or elusive about the appeal of these abstract paintings by Buffalo native Charles Clough. They are busy in the best sense: with color, with movement, and with light. Clough has spent most of his career exploring the collision of gestural abstract painting with the culture of photographic reproduction, and these are the confident and powerful results. The painter calls this exploration Pepfog: the photographic epic of a painter as a film or a ghost. At Nina Freudenheim Gallery, 140 North Street, through January 8, the show includes acrylic paintings as well as artists’ books made in conjunction with the paintings. Call 882-5777 or visit the gallery Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

—Elizabeth Licata