For many people, the word “craft” summons images of quaint woven baskets and pretty pieces of pottery, whimsically repurposed pine cones and reimagined burlap sacks.
None of these objects are to be found in the Burchfield Penney Art Center’s sprawling “Art in Craft Media” exhibition, a biennial affair that is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month. It opens Saturday in the center’s east gallery and runs through Jan. 19.
Instead, visitors will find strange abstract sculptures made from glass and metal; ceramic pieces with conceptual overtones that serve no apparent function; and one enormous human hand hewn from wood that seems to beckon visitors into the gallery. This is, in short, not your grandmother’s idea of craft art.
The show began, with funding and a mandate from the craft art champion Sylvia Rosen, as a way to elevate the work Rosen and her fellow artists were doing in media not typically seen in museums and galleries. Twenty-five years later, the art world has so thoroughly changed that wood, glass and fiber on museum walls and in galleries is commonplace.
Contemporary artists make little distinction between what is a “craft” medium – traditionally wood, glass, fiber and metal – and what is a “fine art” medium such as oil paint or watercolor. Partially in response to the rapidly shifting nature of the art world and the fluid definition of craft, the center changed the exhibition’s name from “Craft Art in Western New York” to “Art in Craft Media” in 2009.
Now, said Burchfield Penney’s Scott Propeak, the show focuses on artists who have a deep connection to the material they use and are experts at manipulating it, regardless of whether their final work is functional. According to Burchfield Penney Director Anthony Bannon, the show is also returning in some ways to the simple medieval idea of art as “a thing well made.”
While this has alienated a handful of traditional craft artists who no longer apply to the show, it’s opened a new kind of creativity many gallery visitors may not have been expecting to find.
What follows is a look at five of the 75 pieces by 55 regional artists in the juried show, which contains work created only in the past two years. These pieces are sure to challenge the definition of “craft” you had in your head.
By William Keyser
Keyser, an accomplished craftsman, drew inspiration for this M.C. Escheresque piece from a sculpture by the famed artist Tony Smith in the collection of Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery. Keyser took Smith’s simple form and twisted it into a more abstract and complex shape that seems to fold back on itself.
“I’m interested in the way a sculpture meets the ground, or in this case, the pedestal,” Keyser said, “whether it plumps itself down flat, or stands on its tippy-toes. This stance impacts the negative space under and around the piece. When working on a piece, I imagine myself tiny, walking around under the giant sculpture, experiencing how it looks looming overhead.”
“Dressing Gown for Feminine Warrior #2”
By Carol Ann Rice Rafferty
From a certain distance, this dress seems to be made of delicate lace overlaid with funky abstract patterns. On closer inspection, it becomes clear that the material is not lace but coffee filters. The piece, said Rafferty, “was created as a metaphorical protection inspired by my experience as a breast cancer survivor.” The almost weightless quality of the paper filters, she added, plays “in perfect juxtaposition to the monumental weight of a diagnosis of breast cancer” and serves as “metaphorical body armor protecting myself from people’s reactions to me after they learned I am now a breast cancer survivor.”
“House of Wish Fulfillment”
By Kevin Kegler
With a combination of oil, wax, copper and wood, Kegler has produced a sculpture from craft materials that tries to “provoke thoughts about what home is and how that concept of home can be transitory.” The bicycle wheel at the center of the piece, under a blue roof, seems to say something about the omnipresent desire to be elsewhere, to view comfort with suspicion and to always be seeking a change of scene.
“The materials are warm,” Kegler said. “They conduct ideas about shelter and warmth.”
By Jesse Walp
This abstract polished wood piece, according to the artist, is meant to look like a living thing with a life of its own. Like the sculptures of Kenneth Price on view across the street in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, its form looks somehow organic, with two bulbous ends seeming to be caught in the act of scurrying off the wall.
“I hope the viewer will be able to connect with the piece in a somewhat visceral way,” Walp said, “feeling that separation of being pulled in two directions at once and maybe even relating that texture to their own bodies and their own skin.”
By Bethany Krull
Though it has an immediately playful appearance, Krull’s ceramic sculpture of a piglet in an old-fangled athletic uniform attempting to jump over a hurdle has more complicated undertones. It’s part of a larger series called “Dominance and Affection,” which looks at the relationships humans form with animals, especially those we keep as pets. And far from being a one-off piece, the piglet in the sculpture carries an entire backstory courtesy of Krull.
“Pig racing, like dog fighting and horse racing, are forms of entertainment that exploit the animal while exciting the spectator,” Krull said. “Underdog, the runt of his litter, is determined to win his race.”