Visual Arts

Arts and Crafts

My father disliked comic books, even smart, deep ones, like Art Spiegelman's Maus. He just couldn't get past the words-and-pictures-in-boxes thing. To him, the comic book was a crude, impoverished vehicle, and its content became less significant by virtue of its form. This frustrated me. After all, he liked art, and he liked literature. I knew that if he could just overcome his bias, he'd appreciate what Spiegelman and Lynda Barry and other comic book artists were doing. He'd see how rich and multifaceted their work was, and how the comic book as medium actually amplified the greatness of their storytelling. But it never happened. My father didn't like comic books, and that was that.

I didn't think I harbored any of those tired cultural biases myself. I liked to imagine that I didn't. And yet, when I heard that Mesa Contemporary Arts was presenting its 25th Annual Contemporary Crafts exhibition, the thought that sprang unbidden to my mind was: Tchotchkes. Artsy tchotchkes.

I know that I'm reflecting the mid-20th-century Western art historical emphasis on "fine art," so called, over applied art and craft. I'm not proud of that fact. But the word "craft" has always made me think of summer camp, of Popsicle sticks and yarn and the kind of clever but useless items our counselors encouraged us to manufacture, no doubt in order to have physical proof for our parents that we hadn't spent the entire summer and a good chunk of their change sitting glumly on our bunks waiting for the rain to stop. (It doesn't help that "craft" is often followed by the word "fair," which is forever linked in my mind with drunk people in bad costumes overeating and calling each other "thou.")

The contemporary crafts exhibition at MCA has more in common with the exquisite collection of objects at Scottsdale's galleria materia than with any camp project I ever had the opportunity to screw up. The emphasis is on craft as a verb, with all the skill, thought and flair that that entails. Consequently, the 40 or so pieces on display are at least as much "works of art" as were the paintings in the juried show at MCA last month. In fact, one of my favorite pieces from that painting show a quilt depicting guests at a wedding party could easily have been part of this crafts exhibition, further proof of the blurring of lines between art and craft. "To me, there's no distinction between them," says MCA curator Patty Haberman, who has a masters in ceramics from ASU and is now working in fiber. "I think we're way beyond that debate." She pauses. "I suppose calling it a craft exhibition doesn't really help," she acknowledges.

Harold Nelson, director of California's Long Beach Museum of Art and the juror for this show, has selected work by artists from 19 states, from Oregon to Rhode Island. There are four Arizonans, including Lesley Nishigawara, whose tea-stained and stitched silk organza piece Mokume-Positive hangs from the ceiling like an ephemeral lace corset. Work like this three-dimensional, and making use of unusual materials immediately engages the sense of touch: Your eyes, encountering something unfamiliar and appealing, will ask your fingers for back-up. But the eyes have to serve as substitutes for the fingers in this case, as well as doing the work of seeing. It's good exercise for them, especially if, like me, you spend a lot of time looking at a flat screen.

Forest Reptile, a four-foot-high urn from Michael Bauermeister of Missouri, dominates the middle of one half of the gallery space, both by virtue of its size and on account of its rich, mottled surface. (The elongated but smallish rectangle of a room is easy to dominate; it's not an ideal layout, but Haberman's been making do and looking forward to the move into a spacious gallery underneath the new Mesa Arts Center as soon as it's ready around 2004, she says hopefully.) From a distance, Forest Reptile looks as if it's related to a Tiffany lamp, but in fact it's made of linden wood, painted with patches of yellows and greens. Like a lot of the better pieces in this show (and there are too many to mention here), it manages to be both familiar and original.

Joe Muench of Iowa, for example, makes what Haberman calls "man jewelry." His steel and brass Ceremonial Guard for an Unbearded Metalsmith looks like a cross between an Amazon codpiece and an armadillo. It has a dignified, manly grace to it that intentionally echoes metal tools and protective gear through the centuries, and, as Haberman points out, it's also slyly funny.

The standout piece for me is Louisiana artist Sin-Ying Ho's Gibberish, which is both smart and beautiful. From a distance it looks like a larger example of the blue and white ceramic vases from China that were so popular in Europe beginning in the 17th century. But up close, it's clearly a modern kind of hybrid, using painted Chinese characters and English words over a background of typed symbols that look like garbled computerese. The vertical stripes that decorate the top portion of the vase are made up of the 1s and 0s that constitute binary code. In much the same way that the surface of a Ming vase gives us a snapshot of the place and time it was made, this vase tells the story of different cultures and means of communication merging to become something new. Gibberish is craft masterfully deployed in the service of art, and it hums with a power that no tchotchke can hope to harness.

Back to that word "craft." After seeing the exhibition at MCA, I'll try to think "artistry" the next time I hear the word, and not just Popsicle sticks. Unless it's followed by the word "fair," in which case I make no promises. Old habits die hard.

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Deborah Sussman Susser