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PST, A to Z: 'Golden' and 'June' at Craft and Folk Art Museum

October 7, 2011 |  2:08 pm

Pacific Standard Time will explore the origins of the Los Angeles art world through museum exhibitions throughout Southern California over the next six months. Times art reviewer Sharon Mizota has set the goal of seeing all of them. This is her latest report.

Ruth Asawa, "Untitled," circa mid 1960s
"What I'm aiming for now ... is to un-deaden the senses. I want to shock people into seeing and feeling and hearing." This quote, from Edith R. Wyle, founder of the Craft and Folk Art Museum, appears on the wall at the beginning of “Golden State of Craft,” a Pacific Standard Time survey of craft-based practices in California from 1960 to 1985. It sounds a lot like what artists and writers say about modern and contemporary art — that, as art critic Robert Hughes wrote, it’s all about “the shock of the new.”

Indeed, the exhibition, which is roughly chronological and divided into small sections based on time period and movement, largely reveals how California craft practices in furniture, jewelry, pottery and textiles paralleled the influences and concerns of their fine art counterparts. It traces that tradition, rooted in the anti-industrial values of the Arts and Craft movement of the late 19th century, as it moved into the academy (following the postwar expansion of the California public university system), and engaged with a wide range of political and social ideas: environmentalism, multiculturalism, psychedelic and drug culture, postmodernism, and even industrial design.

 

Front-and-Back_72dpi

The show opens with the kind of work you might expect to see in a “craft” show: A beautiful walnut wood door from 1968 by John Kapel tiled with many angular, rough-cut pieces of wood that form an almost musical pattern over its surface; a majestic salad bowl, circa 1970, carved by Bob Stockdale out of Honduran mahogany whose shape and grain seems to preserve the rings of the tree, and a humble  round basket woven by Ed Rossbach in 1976 out of rolled pieces of newspaper.

These pieces and many others throughout the show are a joy to behold, but the exhibition quickly becomes more surprising. Douglas Deed’s sleek, hot red fiberglass chair from 1968-70 and Donald Chadwick’s egg-shaped dining chair from 1969 seem the antithesis of handmade, and raise questions about the boundaries of the genre. Where does craft end and industrial design begin?

The same could be said for fashion design. Two of the most arresting pieces in the show are by jeweler Arlene Fisch. “Front & Back Pectoral,” from 1971, is a silver necklace that covers the chest and back like armor. Etched almost imperceptibly with tiny faces, it also suggests the joints of a small, delicate skeleton. “Capelet,” from 1976 is represented only by a black and white photograph: the ethereal, layered “shirt,” knitted from gold and silver wire, cascades down the model’s nude chest like an extruded Elizabethan collar.

Then there are Garry Knox Bennett’s roach clips from 1964-67. Made of a variety of metals shaped into thin, sinuous curls, they are the most elegant, almost patrician drug paraphernalia you could ever hope to encounter.

Bennett-Gold_72dpi Bennett created both custom and production versions of his roach clips; perhaps the term “craft” pertains to only the high-end, exclusive version of useful things. However, under that definition, many of the 70 works in this exhibition would not be considered craft at all. Ruth Asawa’s prickly, wall-mounted star, which looks as if it is made of twigs but is actually bronze and copper wire, has no discernible use. Neither does Brad Miller’s “Spheres in Compression” from 1976. Composed of rocks that have been carefully worn down to nestle perfectly together inside a small glass box, it’s craft’s answer, perhaps, to Minimalism.

A concurrent PST show (also on view at CAFAM) of the work of 88-year-old metalworker and enamellist June Schwarcz provides something of an answer to the craft versus art dilemma. Schwarcz makes gorgeous, expressionistic vessels that are remarkably consistent in their artistic vision. Over her nearly 60-year career, she has circled around the same visual ideas: how metal can look like fabric, or paper, or ceramic, how technique can be harnessed to heighten expression rather than refinement, and how the simple form of the vessel can be a source of endless variation and experimentation.

Schwarcz#878_72dpi Created by folding and sewing thin sheets of copper, electroplating them — a chemical process by which metal is built up in layers — and then coating them in richly colored enamels, Schwarcz’s pieces are small and often look dented, crumbling, or wrinkled. Some resemble organic forms or geodes, with jewel-like centers. Despite her rigorous, multi-step technique, there’s a roughness and a breeziness about the works, as if each one is an improvisation or a sketch.

In a short video in the gallery, Schwarcz talks about her fascination with the vessel as a form, emphasizing that her works are not “containers.” Although that may sound like a confusing distinction, I took it to mean that they don’t exist to hold things, but are objects in their own right. She is interested, she says, in things that have an inside and an outside: clothing is a vessel; bodies are vessels. Perhaps it’s at this point — where the usefulness of a thing also attains a kind of poetry — that the distinction between “fine art” and “craft” becomes irrelevant.

-- Sharon Mizota

Craft and Folk Art Museum, 5814 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 937-4230, through Jan. 8. Closed Mondays. www.cafam.org

Photos, from top: Ruth Asawa, "Untitled," c. mid 1960s. Credit: From Forrest L. Merrill.

Arline Fisch, "Front & Back Pectoral," 1971 / from the artist. 

Garry Knox Bennett, roach clips / from the artist.

June Schwarcz, "#878," 1983 / Collection of Forrest L. Merrill, Photography: M. Lee Fatherree.

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