THICKENING THE EDGE: CONTEMPORARY HOLLOWARE IN AN AGE OF PLURALISM
Throughout history, the vessel as format has remained a potent and viable metaphor. At its most basic, it is a form that both occupies space and contains it, a dialog that occurs somewhere between the lower base and the upper rim, a vectorial indicator that digs deep roots into the earth and moves upwards into the non-specific openness of accessibility. The force and velocity with which that movement of energy occurs is dependent on the very specific relationship between the occupied space, the contained space, and the opening through which its constrained energy is escaping. Hence, a vessel with a swollen belly and a narrow neck gives off a very different message than a wide open one that does not return inwards after it reaches its maximum diameter. It is a form ripe with possibility, and as one that so closely refers to the physical bodies which we inhabit, it has, in poetry and in art, become the quintessential symbol of our humanity.
It is impossible to talk about holloware of the late 20th and early 21st century without mentioning something about the separation between object and image that occurred both as a result of the industrial revolution that provided mass-produced consumer goods and the development of photography to which we owe the utter bombardment of our societal landscape with images. Most recently, a further transformation has taken place with the advent of digital technology that allows immediate access to image through the internet, and, additionally, the emergence of a new class of objects produced with computer assisted design technologies that allow for quick and subtle variations in product design. Hand-crafted functional objects can no longer be experienced on their own terms, and any interaction with a crafted vessel must be seen in light of the mass-produced norm from which it deviates. As Bernard Cache writes in Earth Moves, his brilliant work of conceptualization dealing primarily with architectural image:
Functionalism presupposes a certain kind of structuralism. For objects exist only inasmuch as there exists a sort of contract about their use or production. In the days of craftsmanship, the traditional object was overlain with a whole set of customs and usages that were the true source of objectivity, even if some objects only had the status of tertiary images: frame objects, fetishes or symbols. These images did not exist in virtue of the contract; they were the very representation of it. In fact, an entire side of traditional culture only served as a reminder of the contract that was at the origin of the object..1
The point that Cache makes cannot be overlooked in talking about contemporary holloware and should be taken into account when reading the artist’s statements for EIP that repeatedly refer to the act of “giving pleasure of use” or the “beauty of function”. These statements betray the reactionary nature of many of the works being
exhibited, which are not premised on the same structural contract of those produced
prior to the industrial revolution, but on a contract that includes image and its accompanying history-- a contract that can be seen as a complete exorcism of the Bauhaus and the early modernist agenda, a reversal of sorts, a third generation object that holds on dearly to the notion of functionalism for a kind of cultural legality while snubbing its nose at prudence, economy, and the purity of formalism in favor of image, decoration, and personal expression.
In 1993, Bruce Metcalf published two separate but related articles that provided convincing arguments for the separation of craft and art. In the first, titled “Replacing the Myth of Modernism”2, he followed the craft object as it re-emerged from the Modernist agenda that had stripped it of the idiosyncratic and placed it at odds with the theory of autonomy that defined the modernist notion of art for arts sake. In this article,
Metcalf looked at several examples by craft artists who attempted to make modernist-style sculpture in craft media, and concluded that craft artists should stop trying to make art with a capital A. In another related essay titled “Craft and Art, Culture and Biology”3, Metcalf makes a particularly interesting argument for the innate relationship between man and his craft, drawing heavily on the physical labor associated with craft-making and the domestic life in which craft is meant to participate. It is a fascinating argument worth making, but it is meant to undermine the recent appropriation by craftsman of the fine arts ideologies of modernism and post modernism and to get craft artists back to the business of satisfying society’s need for handmade objects to use. Metcalf, who has been making jewelry for years that nobody needs (but many want), that is, incidentally, chock-a -block with personal narrative and references to social issues, is a master at playing the Devil’s advocate, but at some point a more comprehensive and less confrontational theory needs to be put forth, one that embraces the sort of work that Metcalf, himself, is producing.
Mine is a theory that attempts to cut through the Cartesian rift of duality and express the relationship of craft and art as one that is in keeping with the generally pluralistic nature of the times we live in, and one that does not hold the mercurial state of the late 20th and early 21st century fine arts world as a standard by which craft objects should be evaluated. The histories of art and craft are two contingent but parallel time-lines that were borne of a common source, have occasionally merged, have nevertheless affected one another even when they have not merged, and that are responsible, in varying degrees, for the success of the best work in both arenas. It is true, as Metcalf asserts, that for some time craft has become a dirty word in fine arts circles, and he further suggests, almost in retaliation, that art should become a dirty world in the language of crafts. He recommends that we call ourselves silversmiths or jewelers, or ceramicists or furniture makers, instead of insisting that we are artists when we are clinging to a rigid set of parameters that have been set by the history of our craft, a set
of parameters that require that the object be executed with a technical virtuosity that honors its tradition, references its functional roots even if not fully functional, and relies on its physicality to provide a beckoning open window through which its content can be accessed.
The history of art has always included works in craft media and it always will. The degree to which the craft objects being produced at any given time conform to the theoretical agenda that is popular with the fine arts world of painting, sculpture, and the more recent non-material based art forms is, at best worthy of notation and discussion, but by no means the criteria with which these objects should be examined or codified. If one wants to examine the current state of craft objects in the post-modernist age, one must first make some attempt at understanding Modernism as a
time frame in which craft underwent its own development. We can define Modernism, as Suzi Gablik does so neatly in the the opening sentence of Has Modernism Failed?, as “the term that has been used to describe the art and culture of the past hundred years”4 or, as Sandro Bocala does in his excellent volume, The Art of Modernism : “I view Modernism as an independent cultural age comparable to Greco Roman Antiquity , the Middle Ages, or the Modern Age. A look at this chronology shows that these epochs successively diminish in length. Modernism, whose beginning I date around 1870, seems to be drawing to a close and is unlikely to survive into the 21st century.”5 I find it interesting that a craft practitioner such as Metcalf has chosen to define Modernism in terms of the emergence of the theory of autonomy of the art object that, in my opinion, caused the fine arts to become a contingent art form, choosing to permanently secede from a history that very much included crafts. What is clear is that the industrial revolution coincided with and facilitated this split and that crafts entered into a period of Modernist Design that was very much distinguishable from the Modernism to which Metcalf refers. The term design, itself, is a modern one, and has probably been more trouble than its worth. Although rooted in the notion of a plan or preliminary drawing for any work of art or architecture, it has taken on another meaning that relates to objects produced after the industrial revolution in which that plan or model became the end of the creative process, and the making would be accomplished by a machine that would reproduce it in quantity. From there it somehow evolved into general usage to signify an all-encompassing field of problem solving, which included craft, and in which function was a necessary concern, even if the object was hand-made. In spite of that larger and less specific definition, and in order to differentiate between Modernism as Metcalf defines it and the separate issues related to craft during the same era, I will refer to Modernist Design. The period to which I am referring can be thought of as beginning with a revolt against Victorian revivalism that resulted in the late 19th century with the period that is best know as Art Nouveau, but that is really a group of almost simultaneous movements that occurred in rapid succession across Europe and included the The English Arts and Crafts Movement, pioneered by William Morris, the French Art Nouveau, best exemplified in the works of Galle and Lalique, and the
Austrian Wiener Werkstatte, as founded by Josef Hoffman.. What all of these groups had in common was a secularism that broke with the past, and an attempt to find a unified design language that reacted to industrialization with a fervent belief in the handmade and a general distrust of the tired re-working of past decorative styles. Where the English Arts and Crafts Movement displayed an “enlightened traditionalism that focused on understated and sensible botanical motifs”6, the French Art Nouveau favored lively floral stylization, flowing lines, nubile nymphs, and a detached
sensuality. Shortly after, the Wiener Werkstatte introduced crisp angularity and modest geometric simplicity. Each in their own way contributed to what would later become the bastion of Modernist Design, the Bauhaus.
The Bauhaus, founded in 1919 by Walter Gropius in Weimar, and shut down in 1933 by the Nazis, was the last significant major movement to affect crafts and its legacy is
still very alive into the early 21st century. Although architecture played the leading role, it was a school that attempted to unify the visual arts under a single umbrella of formalism, stressing clarity, functionality, and a true fusion of fine art, craft, architecture, and industry. College foundation programs all across America in the post-war period were built on the Bauhaus curriculum, and it is only very recently that there has been any move away from it by the most forward-thinking educators. It is my contention that Modernist design and the Bauhaus are inseparable, and that crafts must be examined in light of the slow letting go of the Bauhaus influence that has manifested itself in the production of craft objects that are only tangentially functional. It may be true, as Metcalf asserts, that early attempts by craftsman to make sculpture were less than successful. However, crafts has now undergone a long and gradual evolution in which functionality has slowly diminished, and if these transitional works appear awkward in their relationship between content and a barely-functioning functionality, we finally have enough distance to appreciate that discomfort as an innate quality of transition. Although craft has been holding onto its utilitarian format for dear life, other things have been brewing while it has bought itself some time to develop a new language for the Post-Modernist age. As the fine arts world has moved away from materialism, I believe craft will be the sole inheritor of the future of the material arts. Whereas Bruce Metcalf claims to want craft to return to its place within everyday life, I believe its future lies elsewhere. Although I hope and believe that there will always be functional potters and silversmiths and weavers, this will not and should not be the direction that will emerge from the academic arena. American craft has a mission, unique to its particular time and place, on which it has been preparing to embark, and there are signs that it may already have begun.
In an essay titled “Writing about Objects we don’t Understand” by Jonathan Meuli7, he mentions a model suggested by the feminist theorist Griselda Pollack in her writing about the late 19th century French avant-garde. In Pollock’s model, the concept of originality is seen as contextualized, and each artists work can be examined and understood in a relative light, isolated from the limitations of the canon of art history to
which it may or may not be granted entrance, and accepted in its non-adherence to the grand theories of its own time. In Pollack’s model, she creates a clever triad of terms: reference, deference, and difference, that allow for a comparative system in which to discuss objects for which classification in the larger historical system and using the prevalent theories may not be appropriate nor effective. As a model designed to discuss works that were out of the mainstream during a pivotal transition that included Impressionism, Post-impressionism, and Cubism, and led to what we now see as Modern Art, it is as good as any I’ve found to work with any category of art objects that are still very much in theoretical limbo.
Using Griselda Pollack’s three-pointed model of reference, deference, and difference, one must necessarily attempt to establish the overall climate in which works in craft media are being produced and the current state of crafts education in North America. Since the vast majority of works included in EIP (and the vast majority of those submitted) came from metalsmiths who have been academically trained (and in many cases, who are now doing the training, as these same people now hold, or have recently retired from, positions at those same institutions), and there is no other system in place, such as that of the master/apprentice, training metalsmiths with the same level of proficiency, I will consider it safe to say that the academic standard in metalsmithing represents the prevailing milieu from which these late 20th and early 21st century works have emerged. Noting that most of these programs were founded by first or second generation modernists, including but not limited to Alma Eikerman, Jack Prip, Kurt Matzdorf, Richard Thomas, Hans Christensen. et al, one can acknowledge the still ever-present influence of modernist design while asserting that it is no longer the prevailing ideology. Artistic intent has replaced the modernist agenda and a move away from function towards the autonomous art object has certainly occurred. New materials have begun to replace the old standbys, and an attempt has been made to transfer the craftsman’s way of executing an object to materials that had formerly been the domain of fine artists. It is is not uncommon to find a metalsmith working in steel (and not forged steel, as in the blacksmith’s craft), plastics, flowers and twigs, paint, cut-up money, stone, cement, photographs, etc. Interesting and noteworthy, however, is that these materials are manipulated with the same precision and care when in the hands of the craft-trained practitioner, and the completed objects, with or without content that refers to the history of their field, contain that history, nevertheless, in the quality of the execution. In as much as American metals programs are purported to be moving towards the training of sculptors, I do not see that this is the case. What I see is a rather confused and ambiguous field striving to move forward
and, at the same time, to hold on to the part of its past that is essential and irreplaceable. Such can be seen as the explanation for the diversity of approaches in this exhibition in print, and the over-cautious and sometimes reactionary musings of formidable minds like Metcalf’s. However, examining these works in light of anything other than the evolution of the field out of which they have risen is as counterproductive as an assertion that craft remain craft. Craft is not listening, and it
has undergone its own transformation quite apart from what painting and sculpture are up to. A closed and relative system of inquiry, in the manner of that put forth by Pollack, can perhaps best shed light on this odd assortment of art objects called contemporary holloware.
For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and on that note I will begin with a discussion of the most traditionally based works in the exhibition, those of James Curtis, the silversmith of Williamsburg, who is producing expert near- reproductions of Early American silver holloware, and Valentin Yotkov, who is producing raised, chased and repoussed holloware in copper based on traditional Bulgarian design motifs. For both of these practitioners, superb craft and total functionality are the guiding principles and their work honors the history of their craft
with reverence and fidelity. These anachronistic works must be acknowledged in light of what Bernard Cache pointed out about the handmade object in the post-industrial age, and as something other than contextual appropriation, which would not necessitate the making of the object, nor mere museum shop style reproduction, which would not account for the exceptional integrity displayed in their execution. They can only be seen as referring to the current state of metalsmithing in a reactionary way, and by simply refusing to defer to the standards that have been set by the academic community that requires originality, intent, and some semblance of autonomy. They can be seen as authentic copies of the type that Borges refers to in his brilliant short story, “Louis Menard, Author of Don Quixote.”8 In the story, the writer attempts to re-live the life of Don Quixote in the late 20th century and then re-write the great work in his own words. In a typically clever Borgesian twist of irony, the new work and the original are presented side by side, in order that the reader can examine their differences, which the writer asserts are vast. The two texts are identical, verbatim, even though the climates in which they were produced were quite different. The new version necessarily assumes a second-generation status, and, in doing so, modifies the original and sheds light on the history to which that original belongs. In the case of the James Curtis works, it is our own history as American silversmiths that we are forced to confront, a history that included modest variations on English presentation silver of the 17th and 18th Century, and one is understandably compelled to wonder whether this process of re-evaluation could not be accomplished simply by visiting the originals in museums. To this question I can only answer yes, it is so for the viewer; not so, on the other hand, for the maker. Perhaps it is the function of the reactionary spirit to achieve no more or less than the profound slowing down of the tides of progress, and for this we, as metalsmiths trying desperately not to lose touch with the craft that is masterfully exemplified by Curtis and Yotkov, should be grateful.
Early modernist design roots can be seen in most of the works in EIP, and, not surprisingly, are most apparent in the group that constitutes the invited artists who tend to be the earlier American smiths. Since EIP was limited to living artists, many of the
pioneers are not represented. However, it is quite easy to see those roots in the functional holloware of Kurt Matzdorf, Fred Fenster, Chunghi Choo, Richard Mafong, Lois Betteridge, Bernie Bernstein, and John Marshall, and, additionally, the elegantly sensual silver vessels of Jack da Silva, the the stunning retro teapots of Charlie Crowley, and the starkly architectural and foreboding vessels of Billie Jean Theide, whose works have newer elements that cleverly allude to the death of Modernist design. One cannot but appreciate the modesty and altruism inherent in these objects that are designed to serve and embellish a lifestyle of peace and an ordered, dignified domesticity. Seen today, many of these works appear reactionary in their own right, refusing to defer to the tendency towards over-concepualization that has permeated the crafts, and remaining unerringly faithful to a craft agenda that values use and ceremony. In the case of several of these artists, such as Matzdorf, Bernstein, Mafong, and Fenster, liturgical and commemorative works became part of their oeuvre, and one can see the influences of the post-war awakening to humanitarianism and individualism that began to appear as a reaction against the painful legacy of Suprematism and the unified world order that had gone awry. In Kurt Matzdorf’s recent Hanukkiah lamp, for example, a quintessential modernist design in its streamlined form, economical spirit, and absolute functionality, the form is embellished with expertly modeled two-sided figures representing the history of Jewish martyrdom. The figures are rendered with a modest, non-threatening lack of sentimentality. This is a strength that has always belonged to Matzdorf’s style, and he is able, as a result, to imbue the works with a sense of healing and reconciliation that is characteristic of the best of the post-war modernists. In a slightly earlier work by Fred Fenster, (not recent, but requested by this writer), the pewter Star Kiddush cup, modernist design is coupled with the beginnings of an organic accessibility that renders the work devoid of the cool machine-age precision that often characterized modernist design. I have always found this work to be luscious and startlingly elegant in its reference to a modified and more sensual geometry that typified the design of the 50’s, 60’s,70’s, and early 80’s-- a peerless example of a new type of liturgical object, one that no longer sees religious ceremony with an exalted illusiveness but with an eye towards the fully-integrated and private spiritual experience that became part of the new spirit of tolerance that dominated the mid- twentieth century.
The transition from Modernism to Post-Modernism in crafts has been occasioned by a eclectic re-working of the decorative styles of the past without fully relinquishing the deeply ingrained formalist ideology. The resultant hybrids constitute the largest group of artworks in the exhibition and, arguably, the richest visually. In these works we see the reappearance of highly textured, patterned, decorated surfaces, intensely colored enamels and paints, forms embellished with gemstones, mixed metals, and an overall
sensibility that values beauty as “pleasure regarded as the quality of a thing”9. In this group which constitutes a third of the participants, I include Harlan Butt, Linda Darty, Sarah Perkins, Robert Stone, Susan Wood-Onstad, June Schwarz, Patricia Nelson,
Albion Smith, Helen Shirk, Linda Threadgill, John Michael Route, Komelia Okim, and
Catherine Grisez. Diverse as their works are, there is surprising coherency to the parameters to which they adhere. In all cases, the artists have chosen the vessel format while creating works that fall somewhere between being completely non-functional or barely, ceremonially functional -- these are decorative objects in the best sense of that word-- capable of adorning and enhancing our daily lives, but certainly not intended for everyday use. For crafts, these works are the true evidence of the break with Modernist design, and usher in the age of post-modernism with a lively pilfering of the past as if a caged population had finally been let loose to explore the world. It should be noted that these are not necessarily works devoid of content, in some it figures prominently, such as in Komelia Okim’s blend of modernist essentialism with the narrative form that is so indicative of Korean metalsmithing. But in all cases that content is subverted by a format that is intended to be seductive and appealing. A number of these artists, such as Helen Shirk, Linda Threadgill, Pat Nelson, Komelia Okim and even June Schwarz, have deep Modernist roots that can be seen in earlier works, and the featured pieces exhibit an energetic thrust over the top into an arena that shows new found enthusiasm, obsession, and stylistic flourish.
Patricia Nelson, who has always been the ultimate fin de siecle eclectic, exhibits a work that is jam-packed with references, yet refreshingly and movingly original. In her lidded copper vessel titled Kantharos Ammonoidea , Nelson shamelessly acknowledges her source, the two handled Hellenic kantharos drinking vessel of the 5th Century BC, and then exaggerates its basic awkward functionality with an extended delineation of form that is merely open wirework. In the lid she sets an ammonite, or fossilized prehistoric creature, and then carves the most elegantly Art Nouveau inspired handles out of butternut. From the ammonite she takes a repeating pattern of spirals that becomes her decorative motif and, in case you missed the point, history has repeated itself before your very eyes. What the viewer is left with is an object that defers to the entire history of design but refers directly only to itself. Its a brilliant trick-- revivalism meets formalism- and its a wonderful example of the type of object that a period called Post-Modernism can allow.
Equally rich in cross-pollination are the magnificent enameled vessels of Harlan Butt, who owes his largest debt to the mannered naturalism of Art Nouveau, complete with flowing stylized snakes, toads and dragonflies, flowers and foliage, but who also uses forms from Chinese enameled vases and patterns that resemble those of the Arts and Crafts style. These are works that are almost irresistibly seductive in their lush colors and creamy surfaces, even to the most hardened Modernist (or Post-modernist) -- they are tight, formal, and controlled-- executed with a technical perfection worthy of Faberge, and decorated with what could be called a reserved aristocratic tastefulness that stops just short of excess.
Other noteworthy examples from the above group are Helen Shirk’s fully-realized and
expertly manipulated vessels and platters replete with stylized, naturalistic and
colorful graphic images that she produces with prismacolor in a crackle-glaze style
that references illustration rendering from the 50’s and 60’s. These works occasionally cross boundaries into the surrealist style both in the almost airbrushed look that we associate with Dali, Tanguy and Magritte, and the curious grasping- body- parts imagery she sometimes employs. As with all of Shirk’s earlier works, there is a dry and aloof sophistication to her imagery, she remains one of the extraordinary stylists working in the field today. Richard Stone’s sensual raised silver vessels with Damascus steel supports merge the arts of the silver and blacksmith with a profound Art Nouveau reference that expresses the innate fluidity of his materials. In fact, these works reference earlier examples from the turn of the century in which glass is blown into a decorative metal armature and allowed to bulge out the sides. Catherine Grisez’s sensual monumental chased vessel forms are more form than function, closed hollow constructed inner/outer dialogs that surely reference works of the Late Antiquity. In most cases, the works in this group refer to both modernism and the history of the decorative arts, defer to the important precedents, and differ significantly from them as they try to balance the often combative menage a trois of formalism, content, and function.
Narrative work in American crafts became an important method of escaping the reins of modernism. It referred to Modernism only in so much that the lessons of formalism could not be unlearned, and chose to defer, instead, to the precedents in folk and outsider art, at the same time that it took valuable cues from twentieth century figurative sculpture. However, it differed drastically from both in that it attempted to bring specific personal thematic material into an arena (crafts) that had very much been dominated by society’s need for cultural homogeneity. I define narrative works quite broadly as those in which the artist’s own voice can be heard clearly and without subterfuge, utilizing recognizable images that have direct corollaries in the real world of experience. There is certainly a history of narrative work in precious metals, from the infamous Dinglinger Brothers “The Court at Delhi on the Birthday of the Great Mogul Aureng-Zeb” done in the early 18th C for the King of Saxony, to the tour de force miniatures of Faberge. This new work however, has clearly distanced itself from the often trite opulence of these relics of imperialism and chosen a more modest, socially aware agenda that is in keeping with the post modernist trend.
Narrative work plays a significant role in contemporary holloware, and into this diverse group I place that of Marilyn da Silva, Robin Kraft, Richard Mawdsley,Daniel
Wroblewski, Suzanne Pugh, Robly Glover, and Andrew McDonald. Particularly disturbing are the works of Wroblewski, and they call into question the uneasy marriage between the craft/decorative arts agenda and personal narrative. As his artist’s statement indicates, these flashy and ornate vessels make a reference to the somber realism of his past as a police diver, with titles, such as B/M/13 (Black, Male,
13 years old, I assume) that refer directly to the anonymity of the recovered victims.
The bases of the works contain a symbol that appears to be a tooth, a reference to the methods by which these victims are identified. The unsettling and socially charged
thematic material, however, has a life of its own that is separate from these precious, meticulously executed and polished chalices, and I can only assume and hope that the maker intended reflection on the ironic vacuousness of the social conventions we choose to commemorate. If so, it is a dangerous methodology that has often plagued narrative work in all craft media, resulting in subject matter that is not translated into the language of form. Choosing a powerful and meaningful theme and then relying on the beauty and preciousness of a well-executed craft object to elevate that theme is not enough. The form most necessarily act as a transparency through which the narrative can unfold, and in which is presented a convincing argument for the truth of its content.
In the best of the narrative pieces, a way of working has been developed that allows the viewer to become engaged in the narrative with or without an artist’s statement, and into this group I put Marilyn da Silva, Robin Kraft, Richard Mawdsley, (and Metcalf, himself, if this wasn’t a holloware issue). Mawdsley has always been the ultimate practitioner of the miniaturistic style and here he doesn’t disappoint--his work is awe-inspiring in detail and complexity. Da Silva’s lyrical and sensitive work, although not really holloware yet still more craft than contemporary sculpture, sets up a tableau in which the viewer is invited to enter and participate , and it is undeniably captivating in its carefully chosen and beautifully rendered symbolic imagery. Kraft, on the other hand, creates a narrative within the vessel format, choosing post-industrial imagery, such as repeating coffee mugs or metal silos. These are charming works that are rich in decorative textural effects that relate to the details of her late modernist reference ( it is a sign of the times that we are now sentimentalizing industrialization). They allure with familiarity and domestic lightheartedness.
At many periods during the history of Western Arts, one can find artists who have looked to Asian Art for inspiration, and certainly, as we entered an age of pluralism, there has been a general re-interest in the blending of Eastern and Western thought. The fundamental differences between the two could be the subject of another paper by another writer, since this is not my area of expertise, so I will defer again to the words of Bernard Cache, who offers some interesting, if not inclusive, remarks of the subject:
The first architectural gesture is acted upon the earth: it is our grave or our foundation. A plane against a surface of variable curvature, the first frame is an excavation. But perhaps this is just the bedrock of Western thought. We put substance first: the hard, the full. Eastern thought puts the void first, and therefore the first frame is not an excavation but its negative: a screen. Unlike our Western architecture whose first frame confronts the earth, Japanese architecture raises its screens to the wind, the
light, and the rain. Partitions and parasols rather than excavations: screens emphasize the void. 10
Two artists, Tom Odell and Dennis Nahabetian, seem to subscribe to this theory of
emphasizing the void and, in fact, both acknowledge the stylistic influence of Oriental art in their artist’s statements. I could have included both Chunghi Choo and Komelia
Okim in this category, because their work certainly exhibits the influence of Korean metalsmithing and the elegant ethereal forms that one associates with the arts of Japan, China and Korea. However, both of these artist have a firm foothold in Modernism that renders their work eclectic, and in Komelia Okim’s case, there is certainly a strong influence of the relatively modern trend of narrative work in Korean metalsmithing. The two artists I have chosen seem to exist outside of the mainstream of American metals, and to subscribe philosophically to a theory of possibility. Tom Odell makes quiet, modest and understated Kensui bowls that are often raised from Japanese alloys, or utilizing the Japanese mokume-gane process. The works convey a profound sense of the Buddhist belief in the tautology of wholeness and nothingness, the subtle details of surface are integrated with the form, which is always open and non-constraining. Equally effective yet quite different are Nahabetian’s works, which employ a textile process for the achievement of rigid, colored screen-like forms that are visually light as air, rhythmic in their tightly controlled yet fluid structure, that neither occupy space nor contain it, but , instead, allude to a temporality that is breathtaking in its fragility.
The final group of works I will discuss are the most diverse and the ones that most readily defy classification. These are the craft objects of an age of pluralism that belong most completely to post modernism. These objects have severed with any real pretense of utility, and have begun to use their history as a point of reference and not as a validation. In this group I include the works of Cappy Counard Wolf, Felicia Szorad, Evan Larson, Leonard Urso, Miel Paredes, and Myra Mimlitsch-Gray. Leonard Urso and Miel Paredes have created the works that are the most patently sculptural in the traditional sense, and one cannot but mention the legacy of expertly crafted sculpture that includes both Cellini and Brancusi. As I have said earlier, here one finds the continuation of a tradition that is all but lost in the fine