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It's Crafty!

Annual Art in Craft Media show at the Burchfield-Penney

The Art in Craft Media exhibit at the Burchfield Penney Art Center seems to be two shows in one: a crafts show and a regular art show—not of painting but sculpture—the work in all of some 60 regional artists/craftspersons.

Raising the question of what is craft? How is craft distinct from regular art?

An old and possibly outmoded answer and criterion is that craft is utilitarian production—pottery, woodwork, jewelry, and the like—versus purely aesthetic works—painting, sculpture. (Pretty clearly outmoded from the looks of this exhibit.)

A more useful notion, as suggested in introductory commentary by Sylvia R. Rosen, whose interest in craft art and endowment made this exhibit and similar exhibits over the years possible, and Scott Propeack, the exhibit curator.

Their commentaries suggest that the criterion of craft is actual production by the artist. Versus, basically, the whole idea of conceptual art, in which artists are “directors of concepts, not necessarily makers.” Everything from Marcel Duchamp’s urinal to Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes—Warhol set up a factory to turn out the stuff—and further continuing permutations. As illustrated in a recent show at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery on “appropriation” art, a main branch of conceptual art.

But if the old utilitarian notion is outmoded and irrelevant, still there’s lots of play on it in the current exhibit. For substantial comic effect. For example in a handsome, very sculptural-looking piece by Richard Hirsch called Crucible #3. It’s ceramic, an old craft-association medium, in the form of a furnace to melt metal as if for some metalwork craft production. But as ceramic, it’s not utilitarian as a crucible. It’s an artistic representation of a utilitarian item.

Or Hillary Fayle’s several variations-on-a-theme whole bay leaves carefully, delicately sewn with black thread in various cat’s-cradle patterns. Not very useful items. Much more purely aesthetic-looking. You wouldn’t want to cook with these bay leaves (though actually you could). But the artworks have several seriously (household work even) utilitarian connotations, the cooking reference, but also sewing. Along with more purely aesthetic connotations, poetry, laurel leaves.

The most seriously sculptural-looking piece—and hard to see how this is craft, except perhaps by the introductory material criterion—is Lee Crowley’s untitled piece consisting of a series of seven largish rusted steel plates with progressive degrees of what looks like volcanic eruption distortions.

Other works are in the more clearly utilitarian category—jewelry, of course hand-made, and woodwork furniture. Tracy Fiegl’s beautifully carpentered walnut and maple small table.

But even here, the play on the utilitarian idea. Trevor Ritchie’s Larva Vessel, another beautifully carpentered more or less table-like item, but with a bizarre kind of clamshell device in place of the tabletop. A little like a mangle clothes-pressing machine. There are other basically comic items, such as Frederick Wright Jones’s (basically sculptural) clay, wood, and cloth statues of Dick Cheney and Booker T. Washington, both packing serious heat.

And Stephen Merritt’s aesthetic even more than utilitarian superb clay pots with Japanese formal connotations on a white platform, intended to be (and they succeed in being) evocative of the meditational aspect of Zen stone garden art.

Among other particularly beautiful craft works are Julia Skop-Duax’s two beaten-metal jewelry necklaces, and Sunhwa Kim’s two exquisite woodwork walking sticks.

Among other particularly sculptural works (but with references to craft in the old sense) are Jonathan Matecki’s Yellow Stone Moss, consisting of fired slabs of ostensibly unformed clay, and Sarah McNutt’s comical clay sculpture Intrusive Investigations of Intimacy, showing a headless couple in highly unusual posture for purposes of either intimacy or mutual investigation.

Maybe as good a definitional criterion for craft as opposed to regular art would have to do with prevalence of a sense of humor.

The Art in Craft Media show continues through January 15.

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