IN MANY ways "Six Master Craftsmen," on view at the Nina Freudenheim Gallery through Dec. 14, is a spectacular show. It has work of staggering technical virtuousity and more stolid pieces executed in what might be described as a working man's expressionism.
Of all the artists on exhibit here Dale Chihuly is by far the most exhilarating from a technical standpoint. His blown glass pieces billow through space like giant multicolored flower petals or sit in casual cluster like fragile, over-bright mushrooms.
The mottled and striated hues, often based on brilliant complements, lead a double life. They exist deep within the glass itself and then emigrate to the surroundings, radiating prismatic patterns on the white pedestals that hold these ever-delicate objects.
For all its technical accomplishment this work avoids calling any undue attention to the elaborate means of its making. Chihuly, like a modern version of a rococo artist, disguises his art in a flood of charming sensations, the sheer effervescence of the work denying the viewer any mundane thoughts about technique.
Chihuly's florid style is frankly anti-modern. Even though born of a specific material and a specialized process the work has a slippery beauty that artfully dodges the blunter, less glamorous facts of objectmaking.
This aesthetic shiftiness may be the work's overriding weakness. It is art about fantasy, imagined fairyland states that have very little to do with living in the closing years of the 20th century.
That last point is set in relief by Graham Marks' ceramic pieces that aggressively sit on the floor of the same gallery space. These massive hunks of matter, with their grayish and granulated surface, are emphatically earthbound. Although they look a bit like half-fossilized organic matter left over from some archaeological pit, they still maintain a stubborn immediacy and possess the feel of real-time experience and literal space.
In a different manner John McQueen's pseudo-baskets also recall the tangible world. His twigs seem like things that have some intrinsic need to form themselves as manmade objects. Subtly, McQueen's objects suggest an impossible sympathetic response -- like the magic of tribal cultures -- between the act of interlacing branches and the natural growth of plants.
The notion of vessel is important to many of the artists in the show. Betty Woodman, one of the liveliest of the group, refers to classical Italian pottery by a joyous kind of caricature. Her jaunty pots seem about to dance or gesture and sometimes, as happens in two wall pieces, literally spread their parts across the wall or leap from a built-in shelf. All of this animation is carried forward by the jubilant glazes that streak across Woodman's surfaces like disembodied Picassos.
In this lively context Wayne Higby's sober vessels appear self-consciously reserved. Abstract landscapes roll languidly along simple vessel forms and only tentatively hint at pictorial illusions.
On the other hand, Rick Dillingham's pots project a calculated glamour of some ancient craft reconstructed by the principles of modern design. He makes these suave objects by firing pots, shattering them and then rebuilding the final piece from the shards.
This "instant history," like all modern simplifications, only has temporary charm however. The appealing ruse soon becomes tedious and more than a bit coy.