Friday, June 7, 2013

Ohio Designer Craftsmen, "The Best of 2013"

Sharona Muir, Perrysburg, Ohio, Storm's Eye Ring. 
Wire, tool-dip, glass polychrome
The Ohio Craft Museum in Columbus is hosting the annual membership awards show of Ohio Designer Craftsmen through June 23. In viewer's terms, the show has something for everyone, though that's how crafts shows tend to be. While jurors—Michael W. Monroe, Director Emeritus of the Bellevue Arts Museum in Washington State in this case—can focus on materials, mastery, and innovation, viewers indulge themselves in the decorative, droll, or too often, the cute.

This show is full of admirable works from a broad range of goals and tastes; I'm reminded why crafts are often presented in fairs. Quilts and crystal; clay in forms from humble earthenware to shimmering raku; and pearls set in gold neighboring felted footstools are herein gathered in a small space. The crowded displays inevitably create odd backgrounds for anything one stops to admire, despite the obvious care that has been taken by the installer for rational presentations.

Mary L. Alexander, Hubbard, OH. Until 
Justice Rolls Down Like Waters II.
 Cotton, hand-dyed (shibori).
Craft has long been presented as the little sister of Art; crafts workers don't get the respect, they may believe, that fine artists do. I think that the art-vs-craft dichotomy lies in emotional limitations. In general, I find crafts less expressive of the deeper thoughts and preoccupations of human experience. Often crafts bring me simple pleasures, but not the sort that stimulate my deeper thoughts or that induce reflection. But that's fine too.

Mary Alexander of Hubbard, Ohio shows two beautiful quilts. Both are formally composed of long rectangles; their composition creates a monumental effect that is softened by the use of light-dappled batik fabrics. They are hand- quilted in narrow, vertical bands. Like all the quilts in the show, they are art quilts—hangings that in her case, would fill a space serenely.

As much as I like the quilt pictured, I cringe at its title, Until Justice Rolls Down Like Waters. The image of falling waters is clear, but it is difficult for me to derive from the quilt's medium, colors, construction, or pattern what only its title points to: that it in some way embodies the mighty, inevitable movement of justice. The artifact is light, lovely, and pleases the eye in ways that carry no such weight of concept.

This certain aspirational misfit is a crafts tendency represented by a number of works in this show: Either the artists has chosen the wrong medium for a powerful concept; or (s)he has attempted to add pomp to a piece unable to communicate in the haughty vernacular its weighty name suggests it should.

One of the quilts, with the simple name of Mickey was unusual in every way, though: Fine quilting and fabric enhance what would be an intriguing image in paint, mixed media, or as a print. Mary Ann Tipple's seems to have found the perfect medium, though, in fabric and needlework. 
Mary Ann Tipple, Elyria, OH. Mickey. Fabric, thread.

Star- or future-gazing, Mickey, portrayed as two related, psychically communicating selves, is ethereal and moon-lit against the rich, deep night of the blue background. The red quilted blocks suggest a scientific grid against which some meaning system can be charted, while the black and silver blocks, the red and white stripes suggest antic and partial occurrences contrary to implied plan. Inspired, bearded, rakishly capped Mickey seems tuned in to a universe of un-phased planets that never set. Tipples scene is mysterious, open, evocative, and fun. That it is a quilt adds plenty to the work. The patterns of stitchery in the two Mickeys distinguish them from one another, especially in the definition of the faces, one of which is more curved and free in pattern than the other. The texture produced by the careful quilting is  down-to-earth, tactile and very relatable. There is indeed a "homespun" feel that grounds this otherworldly image, suggesting how real and human it is to release the imagination and the to explore through science and fantasy the farthest reaches of the unknown. Here is the prospect of the far-out, speculative future, presented as a natural extension of the creative urge that moves even women gathered to ply ancient, traditional needle crafts.

Katie Schutte, Akron, OH. Sabedilla Motif Collar. Wire, powder coat.
The category of work in The Best of 2013 that struck as most consistently excellent in presentation and informed by interesting concepts was the jewelry. One tends to think of jewelry as existing to reflect the wearer's beauty; to add visual or literal value to the wearer; to enhance femininity (in most cases). Here were several excellent items that were not only exquisite in craftsmanship, but which question or subverted one's assumptions for the purposes of jewelry in the first place. 

Katie Schutte's Sabedilla Motif Collar is a large, spiky thing one would settle about one's throat with particular care. We can only assume that the powder coat is permanently affixed and is not in fact powder of the sabadilla plant, a South American lilly widely used as a botanical insecticide. It is as toxic to humans as to weevils. Everything about this ornament looks uncomfortable: the individual wire loops at the end of each "bulb" would have to be irritating to bare skin. Think about positioning the collar for a balance that allowed the wearer to carry the chin and shoulders naturally, or that allowed unencumbered movement of the head from side to side. It would be a continuous challenge that might make the wearer perceive time to pass slowly. 
Shawn Lopez, Bowling Green, Ohio, Honey Locust.
White bronz, copper, leather.

The wearer's movement isn't the only issue with such an ornament though: The wearer is thinking of its impact on the people who interact with her. How do people react to a person ornamented thus? Such jewelry creates a zone that both protects the wearer and will be taken as aggressive by others—concepts forever paired.
Honey locust thorns, 6" long

Those ideas of protection and aggression accrue equally to some other outstanding jewelry, in particular to Shawn Lopez's Honey Locust  and Emily Fruth's We Are the Church. Lopez's alarming collar cries out, "Punk!" and sets the gentle quilt- or plate-collector's pulse racing with the threat implied in this sensibility. It's title, though, leads, ironically, to the perception that the form copies nature, not weaponry either science fictional or medieval.

Mary Fruth's We Are the Church has its shock of irony as well, but it comes not from a reconsideration of punk, but of piety.
The aggressive defense of her equally exquisite collar derives from the soft, golden glow of protruding flying buttresses that bolster tall, pierced and pointed walls of a gothic church. The buttresses jut out from the wearer's throat, securing the house of God that surrounds the wearer's head. The same architecture, though, allows no one to get close to the wearer. Is she too holy to
Emily Fruth, Napolen, Ohio, We Are the Church. Brass
approach? Is this church only for the elect? Is the admirer too poor to purchase her way into it? The beauty, luxury, and exclusivity of this phenomenally crafted piece put it, along with Lopez's collar, into a very special zone of wearability married with complex concept: Both are pithy, sharp, and humorous.

Fruth, who won the show's Jane H. Zimmerman Award for Excellence in a Body of Work, also showed a show-stopping Chatelaine. In earlier generations, through the nineteenth century, European and American women carried chatelaines, in which they carried daily essentials, like scissors and keys. These were attached small chains that dangled in a bunch from the waist.

A chatelain
Fruth's elegant, traditionally formal interpretation of the chatelaine, is made for the contemporary woman. It does not pin to the dress, but has a broad hook on the back, so it can be hung over a belt or the waistband of trousers or blue jeans. She describes it as a "carrier for personal items such as cell phone, pepper spray, and kubaton," the latter being a small, pointed self-defense devise. It it beautifully crafted into an updated shape with only two chains, the formal emphasis being on two ovary-like curls that lead into the splendid uterus whence can nestle one's treasure, the cell phone.
Emily Fruth, Napoleon, Ohio, Chatelaine. Copper, enamel.

So, I was glad I went to the see the Ohio Designer Craftsmen's "The Best of 2013." There are inherent limitations on membership shows: They draw on a limited pool, and are therefore capped by the numbers and the ingenuity of the people in the group who decide to participate. This show, overall, demonstrates that drawback for the viewing public. Some of the work exemplifies high achievement of technique without demonstrating much imagination. But where it shines, it's a forum for some artists worth watching, whom I trust are showing much farther afield than here.

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