At the Renwick, Beauty Grounded in Nature

By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 13, 2007

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty" may be most of what ye need to know, and the formula certainly has a manly assurance, but art and nature have a similar mirror-image relationship of more ambiguity. The four artists, all women, showcased in "From the Ground Up," the Renwick Gallery's 2007 Craft Invitational, not only "make" art inspired by nature -- in some cases producing facsimiles of nature -- but use nature to raise issues about human values.

The most ornate are the works of glass artist Beth Lipman, a mini-museum of re-created paintings, a bas-relief mantelpiece and an entire banquet table fit for Miss Havisham. The layers of narrative back story, which the viewer is invited to invent for herself, make the already astounding works mesmerizing.

The centerpiece, the 20-foot-long "Bancketje (Banquet)," shows the aftermath of an elaborate feast, with piles of serving dishes and flatware, vases and goblets, candlesticks with half-melted candles, bowls of fruit and fish, table linens, ice scoops, caviar dishes, etc., all hand-sculpted, blown and lamp-worked glass. It's a condemnation of extravagant consumption, combing abundance and oblivion, spillage and spoilage (among the puns it evokes is that the viewer is "seeing through" the hosts' pretenses).

A smaller work, "Tea Table II," exceeds its apparent space with broken glass spilling onto the floor. A bouquet includes gilded leaves that seem to have tossed glass "droplets" onto the wall, thereby breaking its boundaries, too. (Mounting Lipman's works must have been a feat of logistical legerdemain.)

Lipman also restages one of those trompe l'oeil paintings of dead game birds that look so three-dimensional, only this time the black glass birds have escaped the canvas into real depth (though they've been "framed"). More double-entendres linger about a memento mori, a Victorian-looking swag of black-tinted porcelain that upon close examination is not jet beads on silk but the shells of snails and mollusks, which are, of course, the tomblike memorials of the vanished inhabitants. These chambered creations, Lipman seems to be reminding us, echo human architecture and relationships, for as the creature grows outward, it rebuilds the "house" and gradually reaches out toward its kin. Or perhaps art reveals only the "shell" of a life; they are not, after all, real.

Jocelyn Chateauvert is a master silversmith -- she earned a master's degree in jewelry and metalwork at the University of Iowa -- and a visionary papermaker who creates witty wearable art as well as large installations referring to reeds and flowers. One pun is, of course, that paper comes from nature (Chateauvert uses mainly abaca fibers from banana plants but also flax). That her last name could be translated as "greenhouse" makes it even more fun.

Chateauvert uses her jewelry to poke gentle fun at human pretense: She has two pendants of abaca fig leaves that hang, more or less, at hip level, titled "Adam" and "Eve, (Clothes Optional)." ("Ophelia" is a wreath of leaves, the only crown that unhappy prince's fiancee ever wore.) Chateauvert juxtaposes "industrial art" and personal adornment with a pin called "Electrolux" -- it could be an elegant insect as easily as a canister vacuum -- and companion earrings that are uprights. "Volume I, Pulp Fiction Series" is a miniature book whose sterling silver cover is covered in what could be cave drawings, twigs, code or a landscape half-erased by snow: You write the story.

In her largest pieces, Chateauvert requires the viewer to transplant herself, in a way. She makes a sunflower into a wall sconce -- like Alice, we are blossom-high -- and lights a canoe-like bed of reeds from below so the "ground" seems to be shifting beneath us. "Lily Clouds" is an overhead installation of parasol-like flax flowers; we could be underwater in a lily pond or in a field beneath the skies. It is ineffably peaceful.

Beth Cavener Stichter's works are likely to be the most popular, since her choice of "natural objects" is animals, and her sculpture is undeniably impressive. Her anthropomorphized subjects belong to a long tradition of myths and fables: humans punished by being turned into beasts, animals with truths to impart to humans. But Stichter makes political and emotional hay of these associations, and sometimes the intended allegory is heavy-handed. Most of the sculptures are ghostly pale, as if already dead; they are certainly victimized. The dog named "Pleasure" is coiled in apparent terror and collared at the neck by a real leather belt; it could be a reference to autoerotic asphyxiation or just his tormentor. "Please" shows an opossum with bared teeth as if cornered; "Run" is a horse, or rather the front half of one, leaping as if through the wall right out of a classical painting, except that his legs are shackled together. The goat in "Megrim" is yoked to itself. "The Inquisitors" portrays two goats with a single head, like conjoined twins. The catalogue essay by Renwick curator Jane Milosch mentions a "herd mentality," but one could also wonder, "To what end?"

Several works are brilliant. The goat in "Confessions and Convictions" has the bony torso of a Picasso grandfather. "Olympia" reworks Manet's famous siren as a reclining goat, surely the most seductive nanny since Rebecca De Mornay. Though blindfolded, she is knowing: One could even say she has pursed hips.

"One Last Word" shows a hare, leashed (by a cog? As in just part of a bureaucratic wheel?) with the stern visage of a judge and a thoughtful paw to its mouth, or perhaps it's going to its death kicking and screaming. "I Am No One" is also a hare but with a deeply sorrowing, almost Rodin-like presence, the color of dried blood, crouched in shrinking immensity.

Glass artist Paula Bartron began by working in nature-art puns (in the late 1970s, her signature pieces were blown bottles with tree-shaped stoppers), but now she works in a much more minimalist mode that pays homage to the more practical arts, mimicking brickwork and adobe, chimneys and manufacturing wheels. It also raises issues of how perceptions of "art" may blind us to qualities of texture, tint, even intent. An installation of 28 disks of cobalt glass, cast in packed sand, is hung with the shiny side to the wall, so that the color must be sought, and savored, by the patient viewer.

Intriguingly, there is a note in the catalogue that reads, "As one looks at [Bartron's] work -- and even considers glass as a medium -- it is crucial to keep in mind that there is no such thing as truth to the material." Yet there is beauty. Perhaps there is more on Earth than is dreamed of in Keats's philosophy.

FROM THE GROUND UP: RENWICK CRAFT INVITATIONAL 2007 Through July 22. Renwick Gallery, 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW (Metro: Farragut West). Open daily from 10 to 5:30. 202-633-2850.

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