Editors' pick

History in the Making: Renwick Craft Invitational

Ceramics, Decorative Arts/Furniture, Folk Arts/Crafts
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Editorial Review

Art review: 'History in the Making: Renwick Craft Invitational 2011'

By Michael O'Sullivan
Thursday, April 7, 2011

A bright line runs smack down the middle of "History in the Making: Renwick Craft Invitational 2011." On one side of the four-artist exhibition -- the latest in the Renwick Gallery's biennial series of contemporary American craft showcases -- you'll find craft's rich and storied past; on the other, its future.

No sign marks the transition, but you can't miss it. Like activating an invisible motion sensor, you'll trip the alarm the minute you walk out of the galleries featuring the work of silversmith Ubaldo Vitali and ceramicist Cliff Lee and into the ones displaying the creations of glass artist Judith Schaechter and furniture-maker Matthias Pliessnig. I know. I stood at that midpoint for several minutes, listening to the reaction of random visitors as they crossed the unseen threshold.

"Now this is disturbing" was a typical comment. "It's a nightmare" was another. Both statements, I would like to believe, were intended as compliments.

The artwork inspiring such strong sentiments is by Schaechter, whose postmodern twist on the stained-glass window has more in common with comic books -- albeit darkly subversive, R-rated ones -- than ecclesiastical decoration.

Death, arson and lust are just a few of the themes of Schaechter's bold and striking, if ambiguously narrative, works. Mounted in softly luminous lightboxes, Schaechter's pictures transform the part of the Renwick where they're hung into a church of the weird and wonderful. They're easily the most powerful, and disturbing, things in the show.

The artist's connection with traditional craft, however, is more tenuous. (See "The Story Behind the Work.") Schaechter's first big splash in the art world came courtesy of the 2002 Whitney Biennial. Like Schaechter herself, that's an exhibition series more interested in breaking rules than in observing them.

But before you even get to Schaechter's pieces, there's a whole separate show to get through.

Vitali and Lee are deeply rooted in the tradition of the vessel. (Vitali makes gleaming silver tea services and soup tureens; Lee, porcelain urns and vases.) The great-grandson and namesake of an Italian artisan who opened the family silver business in Rome in 1886, Vitali has a strong debt to his artistic forebears, and it shows in his gorgeous but conservative work.

Lee, for his part, is similarly invested in history, having spent the better part of two decades attempting to duplicate a single glaze, imperial yellow, that had been lost since the Ming Dynasty. It took him 17 years to get it right the first time, then three more before he was able to repeat it. (The color is a knockout, by the way. So are Lee's teardrop- and gourd-shaped vases, though their necks and mouths are so narrow as to make them impractical except as sculptural objects.)

Rounding out "History," and immediately following Schaecter's gallery, is the bent-wood furniture of Pliessnig. As with Schaechter's art, Pliessnig's undulating chairs and benches -- which the artist fashions from eight-foot-long strips of white oak, softened in a steam chamber until they have the consistency of limp noodles -- are a radical departure from convention.

For one thing, they have more in common with boatmaking than furniture-making. For another, Pliessnig relies on powerful computer modeling software to design their intricate, wavelike shapes. Unlike the work of Vitali and Lee, but much like that of Schaechter, they draw the spotlight on craft that couldn't have been made at any other time than now.

The story behind the work: Judith Schaechter's art uses flashed glass, not stained glass

Judith Schaechter's intensely colorful pictures on back-lit glass are sometimes called stained-glass windows. That's not entirely accurate. The Philadelphia artist works with a material called flashed glass. (Think of it as a sheet of light-colored glass that has been fused to a glass "skin" of more intense color.) Using a sandblaster, a flexible-shaft engraver and a diamond file, the artist removes, rather than adds, color, sandwiching small pieces of etched flashed glass on top of one another -- at times five deep -- to create the desired effect.

It doesn't always work out. There are boxes of scrapped glass in her studio labeled "crap" and "bulk rejects."

Though one of her finished works can have the look of a painting, there's usually very little paint in it: typically, a bit of black vitreous (or ground-glass) pigment, with only an occasional wash of transparent oil or glass stain.

-- Michael O'Sullivan