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    Crafty Contemporanea
by Eduardo Costa
Josiah McElheny
From Verzelini's Acts of Faith: The Last Supper According to Bonifazio Pitati
and Beato Angelico

Michèle Blondel
Self-Portrait as a Mermaid
Silvia Benitez
Peter and Paul
Elena del Rivero
Letter from the Bride
Sonia Labouriau
Migratory Birds
Teresa Serrano
The River
Teresa Serrano
Roxy Paine
Psilocybe Cubensis Tray
"Interlacings: the Craft of Contemporary Art," Sept. 11-Nov. 21, 1998, at the Whitney Museum of American Art at Champion, One Champion Plaza, Stamford, Conn. 06921.

"Interlacings," a new exhibition organized by the freelance critic and independent curator Berta Sichel, illustrates the union of craft techniques and conceptual ideas usually associated with contemporary art. Color, mass and proportion are given formal expression through the skilled handling of blown glass, textiles, embroidery, basketry, ceramics and even the use of polymer. However, these crafts share an art vocabulary that is generally more nuanced, intellectual and current than that traditionally attributed to craft.

In Josiah McElheny's From Verzelini's Acts of Faith: The Last Supper According to Bonifazio Pitati and Beato Angelico, we see an encased display of drinking glasses and bowls. These beautiful objects stand alone as elements of the glass-maker's craft, but McElheny has included textual clues that add more meaning and depth to the work.

According to the accompanying text, it is clear that the glass pieces are replicas of the tableware used by Christ and his disciples at the Last Supper (or in pictorial representations of it). It thus seems like McElheny is putting you in touch with the cups used by Christ -- Wow! Highly suggestive, the piece prompts endless questions concerning the construction of history. Are these glasses actually like the ones used by Christ, or like ones used in the period when the painted interpretations of the scripture were made? And so on. The work is an exercise machine for the mind and the senses.

Michèle Blondel excels in the use of blown crystal to illustrate dreamy, self-referential stories. In her sculptural assemblages, Baccarat crystal cohabits with odds and ends like leather shoes and tiny, silvery dry fish. An array of precious glass objects, among them vases, a mermaid's tail, hollow phallic forms and unicorns, are dispersed on a platform close to the ground. They refer to points of interest in a loose narrative that somehow binds them together.

The craft here is responsible for the translucent and fragile beauty of the objects. But, by themselves, these objects can only form a work with a strong feeling of internal dislocation. As with McElheny's vitrine, however, the titles of Blondel's works, Self-portrait as a Mermaid and Self Portrait as a Unicorn (both 1997), put the viewer on the track of the interpretive narrative: the story of a mermaid who looses her tail and, already on the beach, is forced to wear shoes.

In her eye-catching work Peter and Paul (1998) -- two large balls of interwoven vines -- Sylvia Benitez has appropriated the sense of uselessness, size, and drama typical of much cutting-edge art, yet she builds the sculptures with basket-making techniques. Using lush vines, often several inches thick, she seems to be constructing a huge ball of wool with a hard and sclerotic thread. There is an innocent sophistication here, suggestive of a girl who sets out to weave a basket with some vines and warms up to the task to create these huge objects. They are feminine in a grandiose sense, and artistic in an unpretentious, effective way.

Elena del Rivero's works hang loosely on the wall. Made of white linen or paper with embroidery and painting they investigate the geometric obsessions of minimalism, recalling the continuous studies on the square in early Sol LeWitt drawings. Her Letter to the Mother (c.1919-1996) is made from her grandmother's bridal sheet. Del Rivero has embroidered the opaque white linen with a series of glowing white squares. Some of these show the most interesting grids, wildly innovative at times. In an enchanting exploitation of the possibilities of the medium, a grid of flowing threads suggests a three-dimensional jail -- a caustic reference to the confines of marriage.

Sonia Laboriau's work can be considered a type of ceramics. In Migratory Birds (1992-1998), she has made a number of small birds out of a paste that looks like reddish clay, but is actually a mixture of cornmeal, urucum (a red die used by native Brazilians), an organic binder and water. The small, naive-looking birds are accompanied by a photographic explanation of the process, a series of nine pictures that show the basic hand movements the artist went through to model them. Formally, the birds are similar to those found in several craft traditions. To differentiate them from folk-art birds, the artist left a couple of them to dissolve in a dish of water at the beginning of the show. They will disappear by the show's end, leaving a dish full of blood red liquid, a reference to migration and extinction.

Teresa Serrano's two Rivers (1995-1996) are two huge tubes of a thick Mexican textile used to protect horses in bullfights. The tubes spring like jets of bluish water from two steel armatures on the wall, resembling waterfalls. The artist, however, sees them as "hanged" rivers, rivers that have been killed by pollution, although the materials are clean and vibrant. Serrano repeatedly has touched on environmental issues, and her other work in the show, The Mountain (1996) shows a dome-like, hollow steel frame that opens up in a formal tour de force to expose the outside and inside of her subject. The Rivers, almost 15 ft. in length, hang high up on the wall, achieving a monumentality usually reserved for stone or metal.

Roxy Paine is not a practitioner of a traditional craft, but rather develops his own with polymer acrylic. Using cast molds, he constructs fields of innocent looking mushrooms in a hyperreal style appropriate for exhibition at the Museum of Natural History. The mushrooms grow out of ready-made steel trays filled with what looks like loose, humid soil. In one case they are shown as a ballet-like group, stretching upwards toward the light. The hallucinogenic aspect of the mushrooms creates an aura of danger, adding a conceptual element to the work.

EDUARDO COSTA writes for the Internet.

John Mendelsohn's Reconstructing Craft