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The thorny art of craft

Joanna Manousis's "Reaching an Ulterior Relm"

Photo courtesy of Burchfield Penney Art Center

Reaching an Ulterior Realm by Joanna Manousis is a wall-mounted sculpture on view until January 15 in the juried exhibition, Art in Craft Media, at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. It’s made of blown glass and mirror, persuasively mimicking several helium-filled Mylar balloons serving as mock targets for bronze arrows. Only one arrow has found its mark; the others are near misses embedded in the gallery wall. It’s a visually clever ruse, similar to Jeff Koons’s faux Mylar balloon, Moon, and reminiscent of his better-known Bunny and Balloon Dog sculptures, though without Koons’s deadpan wit. Instead, the arrows act as an elbow to the ribs that visually prod us, “Get it?” Of course another difference is that Manousis labors over her work, whereas the internationally celebrated Koons just orders out.

Manousis’s eye-grabbing display also serves as something of a metaphor for the whole exhibition, which misses the mark more often than it scores. That’s not to say that juror John C. McCoy, professor emeritus of Florida Atlantic University, hasn’t selected a good deal of precision-crafted work. It’s not in the execution that many of the selections come up short, but in the conception. This wouldn’t even be such a big deal—the work is pleasant enough, even beautiful at times—but for the fact that it follows the previous biennial Art in Craft Media exhibition, which was light years more conceptually accomplished.

It was those high-falutin’ Renaissance thinkers who first established the division between art and craft, having hitherto lumped together everything from metalworking to mural painting under the craftwork banner. In the eighteenth century, the separation became formalized when architecture, painting, and sculpture were placed on a higher plane with music and poetry and identified as “fine art.” Other forms of skilled creation were still labeled craft, creating a class system in the arts and triggering in crafters a prickly attitude toward the term, which endures to this day. However, the boundary between art and craft has become mighty porous of late, and a lot of emotional energy is expended in an unnecessary attempt to completely reconcile the two.

Still, here we are with two words, art and craft, that most people perceive as sharing some characteristics, but not as being synonymous. Whether any given object is labeled one or the other depends on an individual’s definition of the terms. So for the sake of this review, here’s mine: If the idea behind the work is paramount and the craftsmanship (or lack thereof) exists primarily in the service of the concept, then the emphasis is on art, whatever the medium. If the skilled handling of materials is at the core of the work and conceptual devices are employed essentially to showcase craftsmanship, then the work swings toward craft. So Jeff Koons is an artist even though he hires people to execute his ideas, because his work is not about craftsmanship. As I see it, art and craft are on reverse ends of a level playing field where participants regularly mix it up in the middle, and there are good and bad players at both ends. And giving a vase a title does not in itself nudge it over the halfway point into art territory. Now I prefer words to have meaning. When a term like craft grows so malleable that it can enfold anything, it becomes worthless. Wood, metal, fiber, clay, and glass are the traditional materials associated with craft, and the exhibition’s crafty title suggests that the works included utilize these materials. This enables Diane Baker’s found-object constructivist sculpture to qualify as craft because the unaltered objects used to make the sparse assemblage happen to be made of wood and metal, though the piece itself is unlikely to fit most people’s notions of craftwork. But even this craft materials distinction has become blurred. Ani Hoover, a well-known area painter, has recently escaped the confines of the flat rectangular painting plane. For Astro Dot Net, she paints on paper rings—the latest permutation of her near-fanatical obsession with the circle—and links them together with plastic twist ties to form something resembling draped netting. The rings, which are suspended out a bit from the wall, reflect their red-painted backs onto the white gallery surface creating an agreeable pink glow behind the work.

While Hoover employs some old tricks to pound fresh nails into the craft canon coffin, many of the strategies at work elsewhere seem hackneyed, uninspired, or overly precious. Attempts to be unconventional frequently feel conventionally unconventional. An example is Deborah Stewert’s Calling Out, an organic earthenware vessel made of three conjoined segments that suggest biological organs. It’s reminiscent of a vase I made in high school, though it’s constructed infinitely better. And that’s the dichotomy—a high-school-caliber idea crafted with a master ceramicist’s skill.

There are a handful of works in the show that hit the art target, or at least have an idea where they’re aiming. Nancy Belfer’s The Peace Conference transcends her fiber medium by integrating evocative hints of male-directed military conflict. Tiny plastic army figures perch above collaged images of seventeenth-century men, presumably at a peace summit. Everything is swaddled in a sumptuous vulvic form richly fashioned from traditional women’s craft materials. Freudian implications abound. Cassondra Argeros serves up some biting irony in The Good Fight. It’s a childlike painting of glaring jungle animals behind “broken” bars. The single traditional craft element is a small doll-like glass human figure in the foreground with an eviscerated abdomen and an “oh no” Mr. Bill expression. Childhood innocence meets Faces of Death.  

Frederick Wright Jones’ Action-Cheney, and Action-Booker-T are two twenty-four-inch clothed ceramic figurines that dryly recast historical figures as gritty gun-toting action characters. Props to Morgan Meheran for allowing his engagingly goofy ceramic cartoon figure, Tasteful, to be placed high up on a wall ledge where it can’t easily be seen and probably won’t be noticed by most visitors. Robert Wood adds fresh allure to the ceramic techniques he’s been exploring for years with Black Gold, which manages to be both strikingly crafted and politically pointed. Closer to the craft end of the field, the superficially functional Bat Tea II Teapot, by Ann Marie Perry-Smith, seems like something out of the Mad Hatter’s tea party by way of Tim Burton. Think Art Nouveau Noir. Leslie Schug makes witty jewelry that you can wear as you critically assess its socioeconomic implications.

There’s a few more interesting works, and quite a few that don’t go much beyond well-crafted objects. Maybe that’s enough, but as I left Art in Craft Media, I met a woman in the lobby who had already seen the exhibition and I asked her what she thought. “The last show blew me away,” she said, “I was really looking forward to this one.” Then she lowered her voice, “I was so disappointed.” Me, too. 



Bruce Adams writes about art, education, and more.

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