Visual Arts

Crafty Folk

In serious art circles, "craft" is a dirty word. It means crocheted doilies and wooden birdhouses, the handmade kitsch you would find at church rummage sales. Form is secondary to function. Installation artist Bruce Nauman, who was featured in PBS' Art:21 series, said, "It's the intention that turns a staircase into a staircase as a work of art." For him, intent is what separates the artist from the mere craftsman.

These are just a few of the preconceived notions Mesa Contemporary Arts fought when putting together its "28th Annual Contemporary Crafts" exhibition. The show contains textiles, ceramics, baskets and other traditional crafts by more than 40 artists nationwide. It's a solid exhibit that illustrates how modern crafters are bridging the gap between art and craft by pushing their media past conventional limits.

Take Masako Onodera's Eruption Bracelets, for example. Molded rubber bubbles in pale shades of pink, orange, and sickly whitish-yellow protrude like fleshy tumors through fuzzy felt strands. A matching fist-size brooch hangs nearby, the pustules even larger and more garish. The rounded forms feel organic and familiar, like the slides of white blood cells attacking germs I remember viewing in college biology.

It's grotesque, but oddly appealing.

In The More the Merrier, Emily Dvorin challenges the naturalistic, feminine aesthetic of basket-weaving. Fluorescent orange and hot pink zip ties are woven into a traditional basket form with the ends left unclipped. Straws in matching colors are used to shape the lip of the basket. The resulting piece looks like a giant plastic anemone waving inside a fish tank. It's modern, sculptural — and utterly useless. Not what I'd expect from a container. But that's what makes the design so brilliant. Here, the artist has taken away two hallmarks of basketry: traditional materials and functionality. The viewer has no choice but to consider the piece as fine art.

Dvorin isn't the only artist who takes advantage of this strategy. Peggy Wiedemann's traditional pine-needle baskets take twisting, snakelike abstract forms, while Margaret Realica's Porcelain T carefully examines the teapot through the combination of porcelain shapes and modern electrical tubing. Bruce Nauman would be dumbfounded by furniture maker Steven M. White's Yin, Yang and Young, a beautiful three-piece cabinet with curved lines that hovers somewhere between feng shui and Disney's Beauty and the Beast. Spotted maple and cherry gracefully intertwine like seasoned lovers. It's hard to believe that anyone would doubt the worthiness of this cabinet as fine art, regardless of White's intentions.

Reflecting Mannequins II by Ruth McCorrison is another example of exceptional craftsmanship. The nine-inch-square beaded portrait depicts two ethereal women: one grimly pale with dark, recessed eyes, and the other an armless, headless torso. A fountain of rusty red blood erupts from the severed neck. It's a grisly sight.

And it's also an optical illusion. To make the piece, McCorrison took a photo of elegantly dressed mannequins she'd posed in a store window. The snapshot was scanned, digitally processed, and made into a plotting grid that determined how the beads should be woven to re-create the image. Every detail was captured, even the silver streak of a passing bus reflecting in the window.

Not every artist is as successful. Alice Simpson makes the ultimate gallery faux pas in her artist statement by revealing that her contribution, a cartoonish tunnel book titled Matthew with the Turquoise Eyes, was her first attempt at bookmaking. Sigh. Brian J. Taylor's Four Stacked Mugs is minimalist enough to disappear into the background. At a mere $35 a pop, I'd put the salt- and soda-fired cups in my cupboard for daily use. But they're not exactly pedestal-worthy. I'd be shocked if either took the Juror's Choice Award, an honor that grants the winner a solo show the following year.

Last year's recipient was Margaret Whiting, a former medical technologist from Waterloo, Iowa. Her exhibit, "Margaret Whiting: Laws and Nature," is tucked in the small gallery connecting the crafts with the neighboring "Molten" show. A diehard environmentalist, Whiting transforms old law books she finds at antique shops and garage sales into works of art incorporating nature. In Commentaries of American Law ". . . respect nature," three law textbook pages are mounted on board and separated by the frayed ends of other ravaged books. Mounted in the center panel is an image of a nautilus shell taken from a natural history manual.

Random words are circled on the carefully chosen book pages, forming a completed thought that speaks to the laws of nature. "Many of the doctrines have been swept away by the current of events, yet the ancient law is too great and venerable to be neglected." Whiting's works are so powerful because they send a clear message that cannot be ignored. There's no color to distract the viewer. Just the stark yellowish-white pages and sun-bleached sea life. It's a subtle, contemplative show.

Contemporary craftspeople have something to prove: namely, that their work can simultaneously coexist in two completely different worlds. These aren't your granny's crafts. No crocheted toilet paper holders. No Amish quilts. Perhaps Nauman wasn't so far off in his assessment of what constitutes art. Artists like Emily Dvorin and Margaret Whiting purposefully contradict the stereotypes of craft by using alternative materials or construction methods. They intend to create fine art.

So the next time you spot a funky fluorescent basket or a beaded portrait at a craft fair, buy it. Because as soon as the artist changes his intent and establishes a gallery presence, you'll pay 10 times the price.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Wynter Holden
Contact: Wynter Holden