Gail McCarthy's lusterware radiates an aura of some sumptuous, color-sated ancient civilization where all the gods possess ridiculously exquisite taste.
Taste -- especially "exquisite" taste -- is not something that's prevalent in contemporary art today. Many contemporary artists actively set out to dislodge the senses by disrupting any apparent harmonies by means of awkward proportions, coarse techniques and abominable craftsmanship.
Not McCarthy. There is an ultra-refinement and rare delicacy in the objects on view in the Burchfield-Penney Art Center's exhibition, "Fire and Light: Lustered Works by Gail McCarthy." McCarthy's vessels -- I'll address the three tile wall pieces momentarily -- are gorgeous antidotes to purposely clunky and crude art, and maybe to a whole age that is too noisy, cluttered and shock-oriented for its own good.
McCarthy seeks a rightness of proportion in her casual-seeming twirl-top vessels and gracefully collapsing bowls. They are delicately shaped and subtly veiled in tantalizing iridescent color -- flecked reds, beaming golds, luminous blue and greens and an infinity of other tinctures and hues.
The bowls tend to fold in on themselves, like dying flowers or failed pastries. But their resplendent color restores their vitality and splendor. One little vessel-piece ("Lustered Vessel #117") would seem to unwind skyward like an ordinary onion looking for light but for the incredible bloom of a green-blue that spreads across its gently undulating surface.
Another slightly larger, bulkier object ("Lustered Vessel #129") stands like some romantic caped figure with a knot of hair tilted in an almost conversational gesture. Its low sheen and gorgeous shifting gray-blue tone draws the work back to the world of vessels, where figures are always half-formed specters and never quite solid human beings.
One piece is distinctive for both its size and form. "Lustered Vessel #139" is 27 inches high and has a truncated shape like a chopped-off twin tree branch. It is a gold-ochre object with a crusty texture that goes dead matte in places where a half-clinging, elephantine crackle has pulled away from the surface. It is a rough giant among the more fragile work. But as assertive as it is, it still carries with grand elegance the signs of what must have been many fiery assaults in the kiln.
The elaborate processes that brought these objects into being -- arduous and always unpredictable multi-firings employing a wide array of precious metals -- are part and parcel of all the standing pieces. The furnace that so miraculously transforms cobalt, copper, gold and platinum chloride and other colorants into those lustrous, elusive hues seems to linger over these objects the way that an artist's hand seems to linger over the painted canvas.
McCarthy avoids preciousness by the informality she lends to the base form. Her melting spirals could suggest anything from wandering roots to Persian minarets to Mr. Softee twirls. It is the color that makes them pulse and breathe and take on a mysterious organic life.
The "Luster Paintings" have none of the happy informality that makes the vessels so beguiling. These adjoined tiles seem to me overproduced, their designs too doggedly worked out. The internal surprises of McCarthy's ingenious firing are there, but it is not enough to redeem what are insistently decorative panels suitable for architectural murals. (McCarthy has done one for Cornell University). As independent art they are heavy and doctrinaire.
The vessels, on the other hand, are hauntingly ineffable in their lightness. "I hunt after miracles with smoke and alchemy," McCarthy writes in her artist statement for the show. The vessels are the miracles.
WHAT: "Fire and Light: Lustered Vessels by Gail McCarthy"
WHEN: Through Feb. 12, 2006
WHERE: Burchfield-Penney Art Center, Rockwell Hall, Buffalo State College, 1300 Elwood Ave.