Friday, November 13, 2009

The Art of Fine Craft in Philadelphia

The Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft show is up and running, 4 great days of eye-popping ingenuity, imagination, technique, and high perfection. One of the best parts of a show of this quality and scope is first, trying to figure out how-the-heck the artist did THAT and then asking them to explain it and marveling at how they got from HERE to THERE. One of my favorites in the ingenuity category is JoAnne Russo, who makes baskets - I should say basket forms, as she transitioned from functional baskets to more magical interpretations a couple of years ago - which she decorates with sewing notions! As with the best of truly fine craft, she gets to a completely new place from the traditional (the technique and materials) - anyone who's done sewing has buttons, hooks and eyes, and zippers lying around but has anyone else thought to do THIS? She dyes the wooden buttons herself, thus creating organic color schemes, and carefully stacks and arranges them with other findings into precise satisfying patterns on the surface of the forms. I noticed several more basket makers in quick succession, a nice reminder of the endless interpretations of a single theme. Ed Bing Lee from Philadelphia makes small, entertaining baskets out of things like striped shoelaces while Debora Muhl from North Carolina makes her deconstructed shapes out of sweet grass, aware as she does so of the sacred Native American view of her materials. I taught ceramics for a while so am always interested to see the offerings in this category; I found a favorite in Brian R. Jones's small solid handbuilt wares, painted and glazed with milky pastels touched with color. The jewelry range is, as always, fascinating, from strong dark metals to delicate work with stones and ivory. Two other favorites were Akiko Sugiyama's paper creations, and Christine Kaiser's narrative boxes - more to come later. The show invites a different international group each year; this year the focus in on Korea, with 26 Korean guest artists. Most of the artists spoke of keeping prices at an accessible level - they offer amazing value for such astonishing work. I talked with some of the artists about the old chestnut of 'functional vs. non-functional' - a limiting, earthbound discussion that often equates ceramics and other craft with something you buy so you have a way to eat your cereal. This show and these extraordinary artists are reminders that beauty of form and spectacular demonstrations of imagination and technique lift the spirit, provide joy, and inspire better versions of oneself: what could be of more use than that? This is the 33rd year of the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show, which according to the website ( was the first retail show of its kind, run by volunteers as a fundraiser for the museum. It's the prototype for other Craft Shows of this caliber, and artists are chosen by a highly selective jury process. The show runs through Sunday.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

William Blake at the Morgan Library

To see a world in a grain of sand... William Blake's lovely words from "Auguries of Innocence" wink up at you from a small brown notebook as you enter the Blake exhibit at the Morgan Library. It's a thrill to see them in his own neat, polite hand - the well-behaved script of the 18th century - especially as they come from a mind that was anything but polite and conventional. The Morgan Library specializes in that kind of thrill; you can find Tenniel's original drawings for Alice in Wonderland, musical manuscripts by major composers, an original Gutenberg Bible (2 1/2, actually) - as someone said about the collection - "if not the only, the best." I lived for a number of years around the corner from the Morgan and still feel nostalgic for the days when admission was free and nobody went there except us book arts lovers (my days as a limited edition book publisher.) Now, with its airy new interior by Renzo Piano, it's more accessible and far better attended ... a good thing, as it always has very interesting exhibits in addition to the jaw-dropping treasures in the inner sanctum, J.P. Morgan's private library. The Blake exhibit is the Morgan at its best: excellent quality original art and text, beautifully displayed with intelligent, articulate explanations. If you go, be sure to allow time for learning by careful examination of details. William Blake (1757-1827) had little use for conventional religion and social artifice; he believed in equality of gender and opposed slavery. He is considered by some to the be forerunner of 20th century anarchism. His signature medium is engraving, a method that allowed him to give his idiosyncratic visions full rein by combining the linear arts of drawing and writing. He lived at a radical moment, witnessing the American and French Revolutions, with all that implies about hope for humanity and disappointment at human chaos. The exhibit contains several of his illustrated series, including the Book of Job, but I was most fascinated by the Prophecies, one for America and one for Europe. He tells the stories by focusing on a God/Tyrant figure, expressing in his lushly cryptic poetry and elegant, sinuous drawings the fears and triumphs of his human characters. This link to the exhibit has interactive features, including Jeremy Irons reading "Auguries of Innocence" and "Tyger."