THE ARIZONA DESIGNER Craftsmen exhibition, what with its quilts, pots, lamps and handmade clothing, looks more like a display in a high-end gift shop than an art show.
That comes as no surprise. After all, more than a few of the craftspeople exhibiting their wares in the big new space at Tucson/Pima Arts Council regularly sell their work to people looking to beautify their homes or themselves with hand-crafted goods. There are any number of colorful bowls, for instance, that would cheer up a dining room table. One of my favorites, Dee Cox's witty "Last Summer," encloses within its sloping stoneware walls a full-fledged picture of the artist and her animal friends happily lazing their way through a monsoon storm. I'd snap up Kim Yubeta's gorgeous blue bead necklace, "I've Got the Blues," in a minute if I had several hundred spare dollars to pay for it.
Then and Now: 35 Years of Arizona Designer Craftsmen celebrates the long life of a group founded to promote the state's craftspeople and to educate the public about the glories of craft. Though most of the works are unfortunately not dated, the pieces in the show span the organization's whole life from 1959 to the present. The mixed group of jewelers and potters and weavers and bookbinders, hailing from 20th century Arizona, are part of a tradition that stretches back to the English Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 19th century. Reacting to the shoddy mass production of the Industrial Age, the movement's proponents wanted to recreate the high-quality goods made by small-scale artisans in the days before the big factories. The idea was that sturdy functional goods for the home could be both well designed and well made, and immeasurably improved by the touch of a human hand.
The historical Arts and Crafts Movement had mixed results, as this exhibition demonstrates. It won new respect for fine crafts artists and it gave credence to the idea that clay and wood and cloth are wholly respectable art materials. But it was a failure in its efforts to bring crafts to the masses. Then, as now, they're just too expensive. Cox's handmade bowl, costly and definitely not dishwasher-safe, just can't compete on the open market with the likes of durable and inexpensive Corning Ware. Like most of the other pieces in the show, it has to be thought of as an art object worth investing in.
The high ideals of the Arts and Craft Movement also have undergone a corruption of sorts. Somewhere along the way to the marketplace, a lot of craft has degenerated into kitsch. This show has its fair share of the kind of corny craft that gives the genre a bad name. Maurice Grossman, a talented clay artist who's retired from the UA art faculty, has won many prizes for his skill with the complicated raku process. So why did he make a piece like "Shrine," a Southwestern-looking church that would be real hit in a tourist shop?
Another problem with contemporary craft is that it too often prizes materials and skill at the expense of aesthetics: too much craft, too little art. You can think of it as a case of being unable to see the art forest for all the trees of tiny stitches or careful splicing of woods or turns around the potter's wheel. Bob Hassan's "Flying Wedge" is a sculpture made of handsome wood, painstakingly fitted together into long gleaming strips meant to look like wings. Clearly Hassan is gifted with wood, but his end product just isn't interesting enough visually to justify all that hard work.
Fortunately, among the 65 artists exhibiting, some have an overriding artistic vision. Aaron Frogge's jaggedy bowl and Ruth Garrison's jazzy quilts challenge craft conventions. Weaver Barbara Brandel's two pieces of tapestry, shaped into a jacket and a dress, chart her continuing journey into the new field of art that can be both displayed and worn. Her pieces of clothing are canvases for ambiguous biographical works, given mysterious names such as "Small Checks and Balances" and "Leaves on the Porch." Rose Cabat, widow of the late Erni (he has a couple gouaches in the show), exhibits an exquisite ceramic called "Green and Blue Crystalline Feelie." This small, vivid gem, swooping round in a sensuous curve, can compete with the best of abstract sculpture.
Then and Now: 35 Years of Arizona Designer Craftsmen continues through January 20 at the Tucson/Pima Arts Council Building, 240 N. Stone Ave. Hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Admission is free. For more information call 624-0595.
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