There is a certain weightiness in attending the Philadelphia Museum of Art Contemporary Craft Show which goes beyond its venue. While coziness and a red carpet entrance helps describe its comfortable space, this is one of those rare events where the focus is not the show itself, but the performers who inhabit it and breathe life into it.
Assembled artists and craftspeople gather every year here, at one of the finest shows of contemporary American craft. The Philly show gets it, not only in quality of the craft on display, but the greater landscape that it portrays. The common undertones of the use of functional objects, whose pragmatic purpose is merged, melded, with its aesthetic overtones. Baskets, ceramicware, wooden vessels, and rugs have been a part of human life for millennia, and their recurrent forms are both a reminder of their contribution to our development, and the great realms into which these craftspeople delve in their reinvention and continuance.
Take a basket by Jill Heir, of Reinholds, Pennsylvania. The lacquered weaving material is reminiscent of Japanese traditions, when all of a sudden intrudes a polished, knotted branch, curving up and down, twisting and turning on itself, forming a natural handle to this most ancient of containers. With her subtle nod of East meets West, the bond between humans the world over is brought to our attention.
Her interpretation, when compared to the rattan basketweaving of Kari Lønning, broadens our view, and puts both artists into stark relief of their representation of the whole field of homo sapiens culture. Finished and unfinished, whirring patterns blurring vision, a vessel hovering on the edge of functionality and ornament; hers draws more upon indigenous basketweaving, its sometimes simple boldness, as well as its mesmerizing mastery of the weave. Lønning, from Ridgefield, Connecticut, has made baskets full-time since 1975, and dyes the rattan herself. Her major and minor from college find harmonious accompaniment, ceramics and textiles, the basketweaving being the natural end result.
Jewelyn Franz, an artist new to the show in the Emerging category, expands that lesson in roots with her drawing upon Cherokee heritage, exploring how her Native weaving techniques can find expression in contemporary terms. Franz’s miniature pieces are less for use within the home, underfoot, and more intended for a contemplative resting place on a wall. But the cultural DNA is amply felt. Porcupine quills running down the middle of a tawny-colored scroll mimic a warrior’s breastplate, while little series of arrows upon a cloth are Franz’s homage to the symbolists of her past, interpreting geometry into emblems of the natural world. Here, they are puff ball mushrooms. From Wernersville, Pennsylvania, Franz reflects the deep contemplation of nature to be found within the state.
This shifting journey takes a hard tack into modernism with Bennett Bean’s fantastical marriage of ceramics and painting. Gold and silver also become incorporated as surface design, gilded earthenware mixing with brilliant colors to create a riot of visual expression. From Blairstown, New Jersey, Bean makes no bones about how he sees things. Every medium flows together, with no artificial separation, just the constant of the hand’s involvement. This is why painting, ceramics, rugs, and furniture-making, as well as working on his own house form a continuum, a thread that finds its way across media barriers.
This refrain, building, to a crescendo, is the triumph of the craftsperson. A life in which creativity is the credo, and life itself provides for inspiration—moments leaking into the next, a memory forming the foundation for a rendering that sits between worlds, figurative and literal. This coloring of our habitat and our surroundings is the injection of fantasy, of heritage and remembrance, and of world awareness into our every day.
Wearing that craft can make it a constant companion, and a much overdue outlet for self-expression. For those who shiver at visiting department stores, where each garment is a color and a logo, it is a breath of fresh air to have choice. Whether cut and tailored with custom fabrics, to having woven or decorated that fabric themselves, the free form practice of these fiber artists is entertaining and, more importantly, stylish.
K. Riley’s block-print black dresses and coats take a blank canvas and summon a contemplative majesty from it, luminosity in the form of gentle dapple or ivory moths floating above a pale blue vine. Riley carves the blocks to imprint intricate patterns, vignettes from a lush garden, moments from a secret, unlit night. Heralding from Havertown, Pennsylvania, Riley’s artistry is both demure and passionate.
Susan Otterson, from Janesville, Wisconsin, creates clothing that is made for travel. Hip, daring, yet comfortable and often easy-breathing, Otterson’s wearables find that sweet spot of having flair but at the same time practicality. Aside from knitwear, she is also into innovative uses of synthetic fabrics, sometimes pairing different textiles to forge stark contrasts between patterning and primary colors.
A fellow Wisconsinite, Kaoru Izushi, from Madison, takes knitting down her own road, one where sculpturality and shape of the fabric itself takes preeminence. Acting more like a crocheter, with stiff yarns that hold their form, Izushi’s blouses and jackets are sometimes just accents to the body; at other times, the form is simple, blocky angles, made instead to sport bold surface designs.
This rainbow, this cornucopia of methods and approaches permeates every corner of the show. Janice Kissinger, of South Dartmouth, Massachusetts, and Amy Nguyen, neighboring in Boston, dye their own fabrics, but with unique results. The medium upon which the dye is set, the techniques employed in reserving an area from the dye, and then, how the resulting textile is cut and partnered with fabrics of different kinds spin off in wildly varied directions. Kissinger uses vintage Indian saris and handfelted fine wool, the existing textures and patterns giving their own voice to the outcome. Nguyen comes from a lifetime of studying shibori, the Japanese dyeing technique that created an American renaissance. Also finding inspiration in the Far East, her swing coats and long jackets blend the minimalism of both Japan and Western modernism with a lush forwardness in drape and cut, like as if Neo from the Matrix stepped through a Rei Kawakubo fashion show. Pairing yin and yang, Nguyen uses light and dark as counterbalancing elements, seeking to engage the eye’s natural curiosity.
Jewelry is the accoutrement that has the potential for the most beguilement. While some jewelry is made with one intent in mind, that of revealing to the world the material wealth of the wearer, contemporary art jewelry takes the same approach as sculpture, simultaneously figure, and occasionally figural.
Take Petra Class’s jeweled amoeboids, for example. Slices of emerald, ruby and other precious stones find themselves encased in frames of gold, prong sets, wire connecting dot to dot to dot. Hailing from San Francisco, Class brings an inhabitant of the microbial to gilt and celebrated existence as a brooch or a pin. Now suddenly the microscopic is as clear as day, and the tension between our many worlds cohabiting made manifest. Treading the fine line between fine jewelry and art, her sense of play is self-evident.
For the more sedate palate, and palette, Christy Klug’s use of atypical mediums together with gold, silver and enamel make for a bit of intrigue. From Grand Rapids, Michigan, Klug’s distillation of the modernist painting, and the free style spirit of the sketch make their presence known in her gray and white enamel brooches. The eye follows the smears and smudges of white down the fog gray background, exciting glimmers of recognition. Her oeuvre diverges into many branches, including putting pencil to metal, scribbles transformed into fine art.
If you appreciate the fun and eclectic, Lisa and Scott Cylinder, of Brunswick, Maine, have your number. Like mad scientists, they use the flotsam and jetsam of the human environment as materials for their mixed media jewelry. These found objects become integral components of the critters and characters they make. Old keys, calipers and broken watches become beady heads, insectile jaws and the round face of a bird. Currently, their mode du moment is the deconstruction and repurposing of musical instruments.
Which is all to say that the PMA Contemporary Craft Show is really about freedom of expression. It is a place where understanding of process is respected, and the lineage of our past and present is unbroken. Being at the show plugs you into life, and the basics of who we are as human beings—Imagination, adaptability and communication. What a potent combination, all to be found in a simple basket or a jeweled brooch.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art Contemporary Craft Show hosts its forty-third annual event at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, 12th and Arch St., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19107, November 8-10, 2019. Visit their website at www.pmacraftshow.org.
Patrick R. Benesh-Liu is Associate Editor of Ornament and continues to find time to enjoy craft in between writing, travel and tech support. This year’s travels will have taken him to the best of American contemporary craft. In May, he attended the conference commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Society of North American Goldsmiths in the Windy City, a visit that connected him to the metalsmiths in both academia and entrepreneurial who have created a community around their medium. The sparking electricity of creative thought was everpresent. In November, the Philadelphia Museum of Art Contemporary Craft Show promises to deliver the intrigue and diversity of American craft to the public. He writes of how this legacy helps to promote our human self-expression.