When I spoke recently with Mark Richard Leach, the juror of the Burchfield-Penney Art Center's "Craft Art Western New York 2004," he talked about how a ceramic pot, like any work of art, can reach -- or fail to reach -- a certain level of artistic excellence. He cited as example the making of a handle on a pot, how one might be very finely formed and another made with sloppy indifference.
There are no sloppy pot handles in "Craft Art Western New York 2004." There are no sloppy anythings, in fact. This trimly balanced exhibition -- the 17th in a series of biennials founded by the Sylvia L. Rosen Endowment -- is made up of 55 art works by 39 artists, all of whom apply the craft of their particular medium with technical finesse and often with striking levels of refinement.
Leach seems to have consciously attempted to minimize the disconnect between objects that often results from the necessary inclusion in a juried show of so many different sorts of works. Even with flamboyant, arty pieces like Carrianne Hendrickson's folkish-cute, quasi-erotic ceramic sculpture and Kathryn Granchelli's surrealist rehash ("I Left My Heart in San Francisco") in the mix, Leach still manages to tilt the show toward traditional craft definitions.
Well-made pots abound: from the understated beauty of Bryan Hopkins' "Ewer" and Stephen Merritt's three elegantly proportioned terra cotta vessels, (one of these majestic objects won the Silvia L. Rosen Award for Traditional Ceramics) to Tom Hoffman's squat, self-effacing stoneware vase. Finely wrought jewelry is likewise apparent, ranging from Tom Ferrero's "Chalice Bracelet," with its positive and negative interplay of sterling and gold, to Liaung-Chung Yen's geometric "Cages (Four-finger Ring)," quizzically topped by an encased cigarette. The one article of functional furniture is also superb -- Tracy Fiegl's cleanly designed stool, "Praline Cream Torte."
A few critical works brilliantly bridge the gap between utility and sculpture. In Richard Hirsch's "Mortar and Pestle #3" (Sylvia L. Rosen Endowment Purchase Award)function survives as metaphor, coding human action by means of finely balanced textural weights and the surprising introduction of a translucent glass pestle. Jackie Pancari's blown-glass piece "Blue Line" implies some unnamed scientific process that has slipped into poetry.
Dennis Nahabetian's marvelous "Vessel #63 (Empire State)" is only nominally a vessel. His rendition of solid formbeautifully encapsulates ideas of architecture, furniture and the table-top artifact that hints at other cultures.
Among the many impressive sculptural pieces, none present craft as a thing to be played against, let alone be purposely mucked about with. Nobody here feigns awkwardness and nobody employs non-art materials in a raw, unassimilated way, as so many contemporary artists do today.Impressive works by Hweawon Chung, Kathi Roussel, Brett Coppins and Bethany Krull all depend on beguiling technical effects and the unburdened display of beautifully manipulated materials. The effects of Krull's serenely balanced "Seed Monument II," for example, come in equal part from the sculptural profile and the decorative markings.
Holly Nora Brown's affecting "She Falls Down" echoes sculptor Bruce Naumen's use of decapitated heads in some recent works. But Brown's rolling craniums are also nicely fashioned pots doing an orderly tumble down a precisely constructed incline. The effect is more reflective of restless minds than severed heads.
This enforced equilibrium between content and craft produced some of the most exacting and formally satisfying work in the exhibit. Josef Bajus' two paper works are the prime example. These patterned wall pieces certainly possess precise craftsmanship. But the technique is so tightly wed to the formal content of these unassuming abstractions that the act of cutting, taping and stapling seems part and parcel of the larger expressive point.
Leach's emphasis on craft excellence makes the exhibition something of a brief for craft as a singular art form distinct from painting and sculpture. Leach is bucking the current trend that envisions all art as a continuum, but he bucks it with dignity and confidence. What the show lacks in daring and audacity, it more than makes up for in elegance and some flashes of grandeur.