by David M. Roth
Crafted Illusions, a three-woman show encompassing painting, ceramics and fiber, points to the ongoing tug-o-war between craft and art. It begs, for the umpteenth time, the question of where one ends and the other begins. The answer, historically, has always depended on materials, with paint equating to art, fiber to craft, and clay falling somewhere in between. But today, in the wake of decades of innovation by feminist artists who've transformed what were formerly domestic arts into rigorous investigative methodologies, the old demarcations no longer apply.
At a glance, the show feels like an ethnographic display of fetish objects, each casting its own peculiar spell. Weaving, for example, undergoes fierce subversion in the hands of Jacqueline Surdell. Working in a manner reminiscent of Sheila Hicks, she employs thick cotton rope in grid-based works comprised of knots which, when strung together in protuberant blobs and hung from nets and/or slender tendrils, speak more about the creative/destructive potential of natural forces than of anything that might be construed as "women's work." Naturally Nasty Goes Dark, the show's centerpiece and highlight, illustrates. It spans nine linear feet of wall space and looks like what Thornton Dial might have created had he worked with charred animal remains rather than rural detritus. The dense knots, bathed in glossy black pigment, assert the object's handmade origins while suggesting, with even greater force, a once-living thing dredged from a tar pit.
Victoria Jang approaches ceramic sculpture from several directions, the most effective being a pedestal-mounted collection of floral shapes mixed with other forms that resemble bullet casings. Combined in a lopsided column and finished in a bronze-black metallic glaze, it compels sustained viewing by playing organic and mechanical associations against each other. The artist also submits several ceramic pieces crowned by tufts of spiky white horsehair that may remind you of Andy Warhol self-portraits – the ones where his hair looks as if he'd stuck a finger in a wall socket. Three such pieces are stationed in the gallery's main room, and they, perhaps, more than anything else, give the exhibition its tribal/fetish-like feel.
The most complex works in this show belong to Lien Truong. Packed with art-historical and pop culture references, these paintings purport to address the toxic legacy of colonialism. What we get, however, are free-floating collections of appropriated images that function as empty signifiers. The main appeal of these works is decorative, seen in supersaturated background colors and in phallus-shaped lengths of white silk that hang banner-like off the three canvases; each carries images borrowed from Orientalist paintings, role-playing video games and other western sources. Seen against hot background colors, the silk portions give off an erotic charge — something I doubt the artist intended if what can be gleaned from a written statement accurately reflects her goal of counteracting racial and cultural stereotypes.
Leaving the gallery, I was reminded of something Mary Constantine, a former MOMA curator, once said: "Craft is the mastery of techniques and materials; art is the investment of spirit in whatever materials are used." Some artists, as Crafted Illusions makes clear, bridge the art/craft gap more effectively than others.
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Crafted Illusions: Victoria Jang, Jacqueline Surdell and Lien Truong @ Patricia Sweetow Gallery through October 19, 2019.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.
Ruth Waters says
As a sculptor specializing in hand-carving hardwoods (and founder/director of a fledgling art museum), I have often been challenged to define art and craft. My answer: if it is some one else’s design or concept, it is a craft (including repeating one’s own successful design); if it is your own concept/design and created with your own hands (and eyes), it is art – good, bad, or indifferent, but art.