Contemporary Crafts exhibit asks viewers to consider what defines art
Several years ago, when Chicago-based ceramic artist Kevin Snipes lived and worked in Cleveland, a woman bought a piece of his work from his studio during an open house. It wasn't someone he knew very well. But about a year later, at another open house, he saw her again at the studio.
“She was talking to me about the piece that she had gotten the previous year and was talking about how much she still liked it,” Snipes recalls. “I thought, ‘yeah, yeah, whatever...' But then she starting to tell me that after she had owned it for a while the piece kind of started talking to her.”
Not literally, of course, but Snipes has a way of working that is all about communicating, especially through the imagery he carves onto his pieces, which result in intricate, layered surfaces that take on an allegorical sense of their own.
“When she first brought it home with her, she didn't know what everything meant, but she just liked it for the way it looked,” he says. “It took a while before she started noticing some other smaller, subtler details. But when she did, it made her think about the piece even more.”
Snipes says he got interested in what the woman was telling him when she started to describe her interpretations of the piece. “Eventually, she said, after a while, the narrative started making sense, and she started to make connections between the two sides and the symbols and even decoded some coded message that I had scribbled on the side of the piece.”
Snipes says that even though her interpretation was really fascinating, it still had nothing to do with his own impetus for creating that work of art. “This is not a bad thing. And, actually, it is quite good,” he says. “It means that the viewer is actively engaged in the work of art. Their imagination is firing and each viewer uses parts of their own histories to add to the art.”
Believing that it is important to engage people in this way, Snipes intentionally develops narratives when creating his work that have holes in them by design.
“This can be tricky, because if I give too little info, people would not bother to think too much about it,” he says. “They would probably assume that if there wasn't much there, why bother? … At best, my art is like a bridge, or a window between me and the viewer, giving a glimpse from one to the other's life. But (it's) never meant to be entirely understood, a sort of existentialist utopia. We are burdened with ego. Yet, we strive for connection.”
So, it is that Snipes is one of three artists who display their work in “Bridge 12,” the Society for Contemporary Craft's biennial exhibition series begun in 1988 to heighten the public's awareness of the powerful work being produced by contemporary artists ans to help break down the traditional barriers between the fields of craft and fine art.
Like Snipes, the remaining two artists, Melissa Cameron and Betty Vera, create pieces that also ask the viewer to make that leap.
Cameron, an Australian who lives and works in Seattle, creates intricate jewelry from antique-shop, thrift-store and flea-market finds, laboriously hand-sawing her designs with a jewelers saw into everything from old tobacco tins to vintage metal cigarette cases.
Take, for example, her “Cigarette Case Set,” which is a necklace and pendant Cameron created from the front of a solid-silver cigarette case that she purchased at a popular outdoor market in the suburbs of Melbourne, the Camberwell Markets.
“This object appealed to me, primarily, because of the existing pattern on its face,” Cameron says. “In part (because) it had a floral motif, which fit well with the kind of patterns I was making at the time.”
In similar fashion, Cameron made a pin from a tobacco tin she purchased from an antiques and collectibles store in Castlemaine, also near Melbourne. “I was told that it was perhaps a valuable tin, but the paint was so badly damaged and parts were beginning to rust that I found it a little hard to believe.”
“I chose to work with it because of the raised lettering,” she says. “With the state of the tin, I figured that even if I chose to sandblast it, there would still be the bumps from the lettering visible in the final works, and, in the end, I did sandblast it, quite gingerly as the material is very thin, to remove the paint finish.”
Cameron says she often chooses raised or engraved objects because they can be sandblasted. “Which, for me, is like being able to clean the objects of their lines of wear and neglect so they are pristine, yet they still contain important remnants of their past — their form and their decoration,” she says. “This is harder to achieve with a solely painted surface.”
Finally, her “Cold Handle” frying-pan brooch is a later work than the previous two, and the pan was bought quite recently in a thrift store in Seattle.
This work was hand-sawn like the others. If you look closely at any of the works, you can see the drill hole that begins each cut line. For the many rectangular sections in this work, Cameron put the holes in the corners so that they would be less noticeable. Made of steel, a much more resilient material than the rest, Cameron says, “The fry-pan provided the perfect vehicle, owing to the robustness of the material, and, especially, since it came with a ready hanging mechanism.”
The pattern, unlike some of the earlier works which have patterns generated more independently of the object, was generated with the idea that the object be at the forefront of the artist's and the viewer's minds when contemplating the piece.
“A pan that small and so obviously well used, perhaps over an open flame that had changed the pan to the point that it had a slightly concave base, demanded a unique pattern,” Cameron says. “I was also determined to enamel parts of the work, so this also had some influence on the design.”
Finally, the work of Betty Vera of Woodstock, N.Y., fills the remainder of the gallery. All tapestries, most of them are based on photographs she took of the textile-mill floor where they were created on a computerized Jacquard loom.
Vera says she is deeply interested in finding “beauty” in situations where people normally may not see it. For example, the dropped thread on a mill floor depicted in “Discarded” references Vera's interest in textiles and the materials with which the weaving was made — at the mill whose floor is depicted in the image. “So, there are layers of creativity and experience embedded in this piece, along with the aesthetics of the abstract composition inherent in the floor and thread,” she says.
Vera says she uses her “camera as a sketching tool.” For example, “Fenced” is based on a photograph she took in Halifax, Nova Scotia, while walking around the city.
“As a weaver, I am always interested in grids, and the pattern of shadows on the sidewalk and the textured light coming through the chain-link fence around a vacant lot attracted my attention,” Vera says. And thus, all the components of this scene came together to create a strong, but rather off-beat, composition.
“It is a view that people may walk by without even noticing it,” Vera says. “Some trash had blown into the shadows along the fence, a record of human activity (and perhaps a little negligence on someone's part) — the ‘tracks' of day-to-day existence.”
Both of these pieces can be said to represent aspects of urban reality that are always within sight but seldom noticed. “My intention, through my artwork, is to take a closer look at the world we inhabit, and to notice our impact on it, both intentional and unintentional,” Vera says.
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com.