Just when stocks and bonds are skittering ever so slightly, contemporary craft -- that sometimes sly specialty made up of glass, ceramics, metal, fiber and wood -- is hitting a high. Simply consider the ninth annual International Exposition of Sculpture Objects & Functional Art in New York, June 1-4, 2006, otherwise known as SOFA, the brainchild of former potter Mark Lyman. When the 59 dealers at the fair closed up shop this past Sunday evening at the Seventh Regiment Armory at Park Avenue and 67th Street, they left in their wake banner sales, new price benchmarks and some startling new taste trends.
Now, it’s not like the notion of "craft from the dark side" makes a lot of sense. But spotted at SOFA were all manner of craft works edging into downright creepy shadows. It seems to be a time, at least as far as the craft artists are concerned, to dress everything from bugs and slugs to guns and drugs in, shall we say, domestic garb for the upscale shopper.
Check out the accessories at Ornamentum Gallery from Hudson, New York, where a collector ordered a handbag from Dutch designer Ted Noten featuring a replica gun encased in its clear acrylic body. One otherwise frumpy bag, with a string of pearls for a handle, includes some rather unladylike belongings in its clear plastic case -- some (imitation) cocaine and a slivery ice pick. All dolled up, this example was aptly titled Bitch Bag. Well, that one was snapped up by an Arkansas collector opening night for $14,850, or considerably more than a Prada bag.
No, it didn’t go to Alice Walton of the nascent Crystal Bridges museum in Bentonville, Ark. But both the Museum of Arts & Design and the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum expressed interest in Noten’s accessories. His Donna Corleone bag from 2004 features a cross of twinkling diamonds, a smattering of white powder and a golden bullet, and is destined to go to a New York collector at $16,200. Haven’t we seen all this before? Drug paraphernalia paired with cheap gilt for shock value. Well, yes, but usually in the vanguard art districts.
Quite frankly, the Noten bags make the current "Anglomania" show at the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute, with its punk galore John Galliano and Vivienne Westwood togs, seem rather restrained in contrast.
At SOFA, textiles were front and center. The Mobilia Gallery of Cambridge, Mass., was featuring one of the newest fashions: a Donna Rhae Marder dress, sewn of crumpled up photographs (of her own works) and paper with gilt and silver thread. It sold for $5,800. "They speak to people of their childhood," says Libby Cooper, gallery director. Another Marder dress made of tea-bag wrappers stitched with gold thread is still available. "They’re intended for a child who has died," she says. Call this the new funerary clothing.
Talk about new fashions. Crowns are in, especially when they come wrapped up in the fashionista’s favorite packaging -- orange Hermes boxes. Dean Project, which is headquartered on Central Park West in Manhattan, sold a number of Reinaldo Sanguino’s ceramic crowns in black. Boxed up, they go for $3,000. They come customized with a photograph of the collector wearing the crown but shot from the rear, affirming the fact that the buyer is not regal in real life.
Moving on, Manhattan ceramics dealer Garth Clark was featuring the latest clay creations. Clay is now clothed. So Adelaide Paul has crafted fierce life-size greyhounds in porcelain and then encased them in leather complete with zippers, which Clark terms "masterful tailoring." Their sleek paws are covered in 19th-century furniture brass feet, making them inappropriate as tabletop decor.
Prices for those creatures run from $8,000 to $18,000, and Clark sold three of them. What’s the appeal of these critters? "Dogs interface between man and nature," writes Clark in an email message. "It’s a complex relationship and then the choice of the fine lamb's leather to surface them gives a curious feeling like skin, which is both comforting and disturbing at the same time, saving them from the worst of all fates, being cute."
Also selling well were Akio Takamori’s Chinese-styled stoneware figures termed Karako. Curiously premodern, they resemble the obese pigtailed figures commonly found in netsuke and on porcelain. They’re $18,000 each. Betty Woodman’s quixotic vessels, which now grace the Metropolitan Museum entrance hall niches in homage to her retrospective there, were also finding buyers.
Further confirming the rise of the contemporary animalier, Barry Friedman, Ltd., was hawking canopic jars expertly made of glass by William Morris (b. 1957). One example features a hand-blown buck head as a lid. "Canopic" is a term of art for jars holding internal organs, of course, familiar from exhibitions of ancient Egyptian funerary art. Morris’ contemporary use of the form can be considered both a venture into taxidermy and a visit to mortuary traditions.
Flying off the shelves of Holsten Galleries from Stockbridge, Mass., were Charles Miner vessels of cast glass decorated with frog reliefs. Holsten’s Jim Schantz says, "We were especially pleased by the strong sales of Miner’s vessel forms, as this was the first time we have shown his work in New York." Miner’s Ranas went to the Fuller Museum of Art in Brockton just outside of Boston. Once at home as part of the preppy vocabulary, frogs in Miner’s hands seem to transcend their swamp environment and reach into sculpture. Perhaps that’s why his prices, which run up to $24,000, don’t seem to faze this particular audience.
Accenting domesticity, R. Duane Reed Gallery, which is based in St. Louis and has a Chelsea outpost, was touting baskets of food -- but in bronze. The team of Luis Montoya and Leslie Ortiz had crafted baskets of gargantuan escargots and a pail of mussels that looked like they were on steroids. None sold. Yet a six-foot-wide "tapestry" titled Song of September and made of hand-blown glass, African beads, found objects and steel, woven and blown by Jenny Pohlman and Sabrino Knowles, went for $36,000. It’s more like a necklace than tapestry, and its sale underscores the taste for what can be called tribal craft.
What’s new in jewelry is also not for the faint of heart. Hurong Lou Gallery of Philadelphia was featuring jewelry actually cast from beetles, huge ones, by the German jeweler Georg Dobler. Sold were brooches and necklaces with beetles in silver priced at $5,000-$14,000. Nearby, Jewelers’ Werk Galerie from Washington, D.C., was showcasing slugs in gold by David Bielander. "They’re funny but the iconography isn’t right for this country," says the gallery’s Ellen Reiben. She reports that his slugs sell well in Europe. Other items of painted cardboard, stainless steel and enameled cooper, forged gold and cast silver jewelry were popular among visitors to her stand.
Arguably the most important work at SOFA was at the booth of Bellas Artes / Thea Burger from Santa Fe and New York, respectively, whose artists include Olga de Amarel, Ruth Duckworth and Richard DeVore. Several major de Amarael tapestries woven of gold leaf, fiber and sometimes silver leaf sold quickly. Large Duckworth murals, one of grey- and mauve-colored ceramics, were also plucked up. Works by all three of these artists can be found in close to 50 museums, attesting to their formidable talents. "While those artists fit the categories of clay and fiber, their work is really universal and appeals to a huge range of serious collectors," says Burger.
Also upping the quality level was London gallerist Anita Besson, who brought early clay vessels by Hans Coper and Lucie Rie. The pared-down simplicity of their work, with its subtle gradations in texture, shape and palette, is masterful and appears in sharp contrast to many of the other offerings elsewhere at SOFA. Somehow, those oversized glass eyeballs, just slightly smaller than soccer balls, which were spotted at the fair, seem hardly appealing esthetically or even tantalizing. So fourth grade! But the sensibility does seem popular these days, unfortunately.
Still, real craft is making inroads at traditional museums. One sign of its rising stature can be seen in the Philadelphia Museum of Art appointment of Elisabeth Argo as associate curator of American crafts and decorative arts. She joins the museum in October. It would be interesting to follow her around the next installment of SOFA.
CHIPPENDALE writes on art and fashion from New York.