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ART / CATHY CURTIS : Uncontrolled Substance : Crafts Show at Newport Harbor Intrigues in Many Ways, Most of Them Unintentional

March 22, 1994|CATHY CURTIS

What do crafts lovers Dorothy and George Saxe of Palo Alto collect? Really good stuff and really bad stuff. What qualities do their works have in common? Beats me.

A group of 124 objects in glass, ceramics, wood and metal--about one-fifth of the collection the couple have gathered during the past decade--is at the Newport Harbor Art Museum (through June 5). The show is on tour from the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, which owns 63 objects donated by the Saxes.

Unlike most exhibitions drawn from a single private collection, "Contemporary Crafts and the Saxe Collection" doesn't seem to reflect a specific taste so much as the desire to own work by well-known practitioners in the field. But despite its curious lack of personality--and the dismal way it is installed at the museum, which I'll get to later--the show is intriguing in several ways, most of them no doubt unintentional.

It includes objects with strong sensual allure as well as hideous clunkers. It sums up some of the central problems with contemporary craft, which is frequently too cute, bland or overdone to be taken seriously. It demonstrates the frustrating scarcity of irony (as opposed to parody) in the craft world, and that world's tendency to repackage artistic approaches into blander, prettified versions. And it comes with a catalogue that minutely documents shifts in patronage over the past 40 years or so for each craft medium.

The bulk of the work on view is in glass--the Saxes' first love and most assiduously collected medium--and ceramics, media that yield nearly all the beauty and wit in the show. (One exception: Kay Sekimachi's enchanting translucent paper bowl from 1982 with its flurry of linen threads tossing around the rim.)

Beauty lurks most often in traditional vessel forms, such as Mark Peiser's delicately descriptive crystal vase "Leda and the Swan" and Rudolf Staffel's creamy floral relief porcelain vase "Light Gatherer." Both artists employ sophisticated techniques to heighten the qualities inherent in their media.

Drawing from art history's ample catalogue of visual imagery, Peiser introduces subtle surface effects of color and pattern that exploit the transparency of glass. Staffel expresses the pliant delicacy of plant life in the most malleable of media, one that retains the imprint and pressure of the artist's hand.

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Other works in the show reflect aspects of contemporary art, filtered in varying ways through the innately conservative aesthetics of the craft world.

The best--and probably the most amusing--piece is Adrian Saxe's speckled trio of gourd-shaped porcelain vessels, "A & B (Gourd Garniture)," from 1987. The comically squat gourds sit, like royalty, on stepped golden Chinese-style pedestals, and the little golden "crown" stoppers look suspiciously like the sort of candy dishes that used to be found in middle-class American parlors.

Each stopper, underlining Saxe's droll yet conceptually acute sensibility, bears an upright three-dimensional letter or elegant typographical sign (the a , b and & of the title). The larger central gourd wears the ampersand, as if to emphasize the importance of bringing together elements of design from different cultures--or different points of view at a tea party.

Although the piece by Saxe (no relation to the collecting couple) wouldn't be out of place in a forward-looking show of contemporary art, Mary Shaffer's technically ambitious "Hanging Series No. 24" from 1978 doesn't venture into the more intriguing reaches of '70s minimalism.

The huge, slumping mass of glass dangling from a cradle of twisted wires incorporates some of the anarchic, gravity-determined quality of Eva Hesse's last sculptures of 1970. But by forming the piece to look like a garment with sleeves (angel wings?), Shaffer remained faithful to the figurative bias of so many craft artists who break away from the vessel, thereby delimiting the viewer's field of association.

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Clifford Rainey takes a quasi-anthropological tack in "Fetish," a Coca-Cola bottle made of cracked and crazed recycled glass skewered with nails and layered with shards of plate glass. It suggests a cross between the bushmen-meet-Western-culture theme of the film "The Gods Must Be Crazy" and a symbol of the rage of the disenfranchised at corporate coercion in contemporary life. The problem with the piece is that it looks too much like a well-crafted object and not enough like the embodiment of bitter, make-do voodoo.

Peter Voulkos, generally acknowledged as the guy who turned the finicky field of ceramics into a Western fine-art medium, now suffers the fate of an artist whose revolution inspired legions of untalented imitators--and whose style has long been out of vogue. Today, his asymmetrical scarred, Abstract Expressionist-inspired sculptures have lost their original brute power and now read as stylized artifacts from the modern era.

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