In miniature, larger-than-life-sized and in between, three artists impress at the Society for Contemporary Craft | Art Reviews + Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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In miniature, larger-than-life-sized and in between, three artists impress at the Society for Contemporary Craft

What's shared by the artists is a keen aptitude for creating something glorious

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In Bridge 13, the Society for Contemporary Craft presents works by three different artists — Keith Lo Bue, Elisabeth Higgins O'Connor and Jason Walker — not in a group show but in a trio of separate exhibitions gathered together. What's shared by the three is work that transforms a staggering array of materials into brilliantly reincarnated new existence; a hearty respect for the natural world and investigation of the path man walks through it; and a keen aptitude for creating something glorious.

Lo Bue, of Sydney, Australia, delicately fuses disparate elements into finely wrought jewelry, diminutively scaled but enormous in scope, each piece a steampunk's wet dream. While these works are greater than the sum of their parts, their parts are pretty spectacular in and of themselves, ranging from plentiful organic material and precious gems to bits and pieces of manmade tools and documents: opal, amethyst, pearl, velvet, paint, soil, armadillo armor, sea-urchin shell, 16th-century Ukranian illuminated manuscripts, 1930s silver trophy plaque, 1919 St. Louis railway token, scissors, eyeglasses, locks of hair and baby teeth. Miniature sculptures suspended from chains, each is a tiny puzzle of ingredients, often with hidden messages secreted inside. These tiny and precise collections of ephemera are glorious reincarnations of rambling explorations of forests and seashores, magical junk shops, your great-great aunt's parlor minus the layer of dust and the ribbon candy. The result are wearable shrines to nostalgia, full of aesthetic beauty and intrinsic meaning.

Jason Walker sculpture
  • Photo courtesy of Ted Rowland, Arlington, Texas
  • Jason Walker's sculpture "Standing in the Grass"

While this artist's pendants captivate by drawing the viewer in close to observe their lilliputian worlds, Sacramento, Calif.-based Elisabeth Higgins O'Connor's works are big, brash, bold, in your face. Large-scale soft-sculptural forms have been shaped from afghans, blankets, towels, household linens, the literal fabric of people's daily lives, packed up and dropped off at thrift stores.

Reminiscent of the creatures from Where the Wild Things Are, cross-bred with Chinese parade dragons and raised in the household of Sid and Marty Kroft, the oversized monsters tower and loom over us, arrested mid-loping stride, floppy arms outstretched and shaggy heads brushing the ceiling. These beasts are hard to figure out: Their limbs and torsos are all worn to the point of impotence but their bodies still possess strength and perhaps also force. The handful scattered in the gallery are few in number but occupy a massive amount of space, both physically and psychically. There's plenty of space between one and the next, but as we pass through them we're careful not to get too close — maybe not to get within reach? We're unsure of their motivations, but their size alone puts us at a disadvantage.

Adding to our discomfiture as we walk beneath them is who among us they call to mind. Scrap upon scrap of fabric, sometimes torn, often frayed, blurry and ragged and lacking in sharpness, the many layers of their constitution resemble the many layers that the homeless often dwell within as they carry the possessions of their lives with them at all times. But while the homeless often shrink away, pulling into themselves for protection, these figures dominate us. We can't avoid them as easily.

Not big like O'Connor's works, not small like Lo Bue's, absolutely just right are painted porcelain works by Jason Walker. Songbirds, deer, penguins and wolves all have been reproduced in three-dimensional porcelain, finished with images emblazoned on their hides that tell the story of where they might be headed, and why ... highways interrupting pastures, forests invaded by industry, pipelines and factories and airplanes and skyscrapers, the overrunning of their habitats by our attempts at progress, our efforts to achieve stability compromising their safety.

Walker, who is based in Bellingham, Wash., says in SCC press materials that the word "nature" is overused, and that in the modern world the term has lost its meaning; he says that he intends his work to address "how technology has changed our perceptions of nature." But to this viewer, his sculptures suggest a somewhat different interpretation. Inventive and evocative, these works force us to confront our corruption of the creatures' purity. Walker's works are themselves fragile, the fineness of the porcelain vulnerable, and as we lean in to register the details, we're acutely aware of our ability to effect damage, whether intentionally — or even consciously — or not. We're forced to register what the consequence of our presence can be. We hold our bags, our arms, our breath. We become, even if only for the fleeting moments we stand close, careful. Maybe our carefulness, or at least our cognizance, will leave the gallery with us.

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