"THE FINE ART of Private Commissions," an exhibition at George Washington University's Dimock Gallery, consists of 21 works by 18 artists from around the country selected by a local collector to make a special piece of art, or furniture, or jewelry. Being dependent upon a particular taste, it is predictably an uneven affair.
It also hurts itself with some really mushy-headed, or at least questionable, rationalizations. "I became involved in the creative process without attempting to influence the final work of art but expecting to understand with greater feeling the result of that process," writes Ronald D. Abramson, the collector, with irritating imprecision, expressing in his first breath a not uncommon delusion among payers of artistic bills (that of involvement "in" the creative process) and contradicting the claim in his second breath by absolving himself of any real responsibility for the art. (In his third breath, he simply states he hoped to learn something.)
"The positive feedback provided by the patron encourages the artist to express new ideas in palpable form, without certain economic restraints," writes Lenore D. Miller, curator of art at GWU, as if her statement were a fact instead of an assumption or a fond hope. Whether the patron-artist relationship encourages artistic originality or inhibits it or has nothing whatsoever to do with it is a debatable issue. The result may have as much to do with timing or blind luck as with the participants' intelligence and sensitivity.
Still, Abramson deserves credit for his venturesomeness and Miller for advertising the idea of private commissions. Collectors can learn a lot and artists do indeed benefit, although, not to put too fine a point on it, the money is the main thing.
Owing to Abramson's special interest in contemporary crafts, the exhibition is part pure craft, part pure art and, typical of the crafts scene these days, part in-between. In several instances the collector encouraged experimentation. He asked Margie Jervis and Susie Krasnican, glass artists working in Falls Church, to design a room added onto his house, and he suggested that California furniture maker Ruben Guajardo make his first piece of pure sculpture. To Guajardo the stimulation was spirit-lifting ("I can't tell you enough what this project has meant to me," he wrote) although, as so often is the case, the work itself is a technical tour de force and something of an aesthetic dud -- certainly in no way an original sculptural idea. Douglas Hoppa's wood table, without at all losing its identity as a table (though coming very close to denying its function), is more satisfying.
All of the more or less strictly crafts pieces--Whitney Boin's wedding ring, Joseph Detwiler's ceramic tiles for a patio, David Ebner's benches, Pat Flynn's hammered pewter bowl, Guajardo's chair, Richard Scott Newman's chairs and Mary Ann Toots Zynsky's blown-glass bowls--are testaments to extraordinary skills and appropriate insights on the nature of the materials.
The art and in-between categories are chancier: Sidney Hutter's rectilinear constructions of glass and metal are rather tired minimalist gestures, while Dan Dailey's spirited three-dimensional figural tableau in colored-glass plates on an aluminum frame (depicting a "classy club encounter") is fresh air itself. Robert Strini's "Still Life in Blue Frame," a three-dimensional piece involving a steel chair tautly held in space with huge rubber bands, is tension-filled and thought-provoking.
All 18 artists will be in Washington next month for a symposium on the subject of private commissions at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 20 in the Marvin Center Theater, 800 21st St. NW. The exhibition continues through Jan. 28 in the Dimock Gallery in Lisner Auditorium at 21st and H streets NW.