Art Guide Northwest

Crafty Artists:
Enormousely Inventive

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by Regina Hackett

The difference between art and craft no longer means what it once did. Instead of craft artists resenting second-class status, they're beginning to perceive the label as an advantage. Humble potters turning out plates, cups and saucers are still next to anonymous in the art realm, but higher end craft artists have opportunities denied to mere artists.

Call your work craft, and you have an extra cushion to bolster you, as well as your own magazines, fairs, collectors, galleries and friends. And within the category, there are categories, each with its own support groups.

Take glass, which remains the most powerful special interest lobby in the art of the region. Artists working in the liquid light medium used to complain about the glass ghetto. I haven't heard that phrase in years. Some artists who would be hard-pressed to maintain a regional reputation are international stars, just because their medium is glass.

If you doubt it, check out Joe Max Emminger's paintings. His figures drawn in fluid black line float in bright, clear colors. Because he's painting on paper, his market is limited. Were he painting on glass, he'd be booked in shows around the world and his prices would soar.

Compare his work to glass painters such as Cappy Thompson or the team of Joey Kirkpatrick and Flora Mace. Their reputations are huge, and his is tiny. On quality of painting, the difference makes no sense. Bottom line: They get the glass leg up, and he gets nothing.

As Bob Dylan said, "You can die down here, and be just another accident statistic." Painting on paper, canvas or panel, you're lucky to have a gallery at all.

There is no painter's lobby. The reverse, in fact. Painters are the most scorned group in contemporary art. For the last 40 years, no other group has seen the death of its medium announced with such frequency and glee. Painters sheltered under the craft label are a different story. They thrive, some exceeding the limits their own ability would have set for them, because craft comfortably carries them.

Within each craft category, however, are enormously inventive artists. They are the tide on which all craft boats rise. In the Northwest, the biggest tide is Dale Chihuly. More than anyone else, he is responsible for the rise of the studio glass movement in this country. Modernism disdained crafts, whether they were functional or decorative. Chihuly used the postmodernist era to force a reexamination of that stance, pushing craft into the now-hybrid art mainstream. He also co-founded Pilchuck School, which for the past 30 years has had international importance for the medium, serving not only as a hub for glass artists but an experimental center in which other artists can investigate using glass as an additional element in their work.

Jamie Walker: Cloud number 2

Jamie Walker, Cloud #2, stoneware, glaze, 8"h x 13"w x 9"d, 2005. Image courtesy of the William Traver Gallery

Claudia Fitch: Egyptian Cat number 2 (black spots)

Claudia Fitch, Egyptian Cat #2 (black spots), 2004. Painted cast polyester resin with flocking, 9" x 5" x 6", edition of 5. Image courtesy of the Greg Kucera Gallery.

Patti Warashina: Strong Man

Patti Warashina, Strong Man, 2003. Clay, glaze, mixed media 69" x 17" x 5". Image courtesy of Howard House

Then there's his own work. If Chihuly becomes an infinitive, it will mean to think big. He makes glass gardens within real gardens, chandeliers that play with the idea of breasts, snakes and growing greenery; slumping baskets; piles of Japanese beach floats, and vases that are the thing contained as well as the container. Chihuly Inc. is a big production number, with what seems like casts of thousands around the world. Chihuly is craft as spectacle, world view and organic riot.

Studio glass art now has its second and third generations, and Seattle continues to be, in Ginny Ruffner's phrase, the Manhattan of glass art.

Other craft media in the Northwest have been overshadowed by glass, but Seattle artists working in ceramics were nationally prized before studio glass got its first hot shop. In the 1960s and 1970s, three ceramic artists were a powerful force at the University of Washington: Patti Warashina, Robert Sperry and Howard Kottler.

They connected with Bay Area artists, but with decisive differences. The Bay Area had Robert Arneson, the guiding antic spirit behind Bay Area Funk. Warashina offered a fantasy feminist version, and Kottler enlivened his vulgarian wit with conceptual consumerist pranks. Sperry looked not to Funk but to Peter Voulkos' clay embodiment of Abstract Expressionism. Sperry filtered Voulkos through his appreciation of Asian clay aesthetics and came up with a style that was genuinely his own.

Warashina, Sperry and Kottler were craft leaders, but they were also leaders period. They didn't shun the craft label, but they didn't need it, either. They exhibited in and out of the craft realm. Craft roots were not for them craft boundaries. They were free to leave the craft reservation anytime they wanted.

Thirty years later, the same thing is true for the three ceramic artists who are leaders on the art school faculty at the University of Washington: Akio Takamori, Doug Jeck and Jamie Walker. Takamori has invented his own universe of clay figures, drawn from the 19th century Japanese "floating world" prints updated with a contemporary urban air. Walker specializes in a Pop vessel vein, but recently he has introduced a new series that mocks glass by duplicating its molten origins in ceramic, producing a frozen species of ancient cloud formations. Jeck is also on the move, leaving his signature style of grimly detailed, "living corpse" figuration for deeply bizarre collectibles: teddies with glass heads and cloth bodies on serving plates.

Takamori, Walker and Jeck use or drop their craft connections as they see fit. Affiliations are voluntary, not inevitable, as they are for other leading ceramic artists in the area, such as Lauren Grossman, Claudia Fitch and Jeffry Mitchell.

The same is true for wood carvers, jewelers and metalworkers. The top figures can take or leave the craft label. What does that label mean if it's arbitrary? Well, it's not entirely arbitrary, but material does not define that material's use. Charles Krafft is a ceramic artist but only in the most subversive sense can he be considered a crafts artist. Delicate, Delftware blue plates with scenes of carnage in their centers ("Disasterware") are intended to undercut decorative dinnerware, not embrace it.

Just as art tends to resist labels, so does today's craft. The label is like a good family - there when you need it but not clinging to you when you don't. In the end, craft aims to serve. It may not be decorative or functional, but at its heart the desire to lighten and brighten can usually be found. Scorning such a desire is out-of-date. No longer does significant art need to be tough, edgy, in-your-face and staking new ground.

I realized this one day in Pioneer Square, standing on the corner of Occidental and Jackson streets, waiting for the light to change. In an early evening rain, the metalwork gates across the street gleamed with dark, seductive promise. Drawing near, I saw they were decorative in the best sense, grace notes in a gray area.

I'm speaking of "Rain Forest Gates" by Jean Whitesavage and Nick Lyle at the King Street Center, funded by King County's public art program in 1999. Their tangle of iron leaves and nesting birds is so skillfully and tactfully done that it offers, however briefly, a fantasy of warmth and abundance on a cold street. They're new, but they seem to have been in place forever, with the soft gleam of cherished things.

Thank Postmodernism and pluralism in art for our culture's ability to appreciate art that is decorative as well as blighting. Today's art has many missions, and craft is just one of the doors that opens on a deeper appreciation of life itself.

Regina Hackett is the art critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.


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