- Purr-tinence: Patti Warashina's "Fat Cats" sake set.
Three artists, whose solo shows are on view concurrently at the Society for Contemporary Craft, prove that perfecting a traditional craft medium is a high art in itself. The works are intriguing, intricate and incredibly detailed. And while the objects are, first and foremost, functional, the artists offer unexpected social commentary, among other compelling themes.
Patti Warashina, who lives in Seattle, has crafted ceramic sake sets disguised as small narrative sculptures. Each set consists of a tray, sake pourer and numerous small glasses, masquerading as, for example, birds, boats, poker chips or tree stumps.
At first glance, the works appear lively and humorous. But careful observation reveals themes ranging from gender and race issues to environmentalism and comments on abuses of power. In "Fat Cat," an arrogant-looking feline holding a cigar is surrounded by oil drums (sake cups) spilling black ooze. Located near this comment on corporate greed is "Above the Storm," in which a girl sinks into a flood of water holding onto a broken telephone pole. Houses apparently flattened in a hurricane or some such natural apocalypse surround her. The "girl" is a sake pourer and the houses are cleverly concealed cups.
Warashina uses a very minimal palette, consisting mostly of black, pink and tan. Yet the variety of surfaces that she achieves with her deft hand and skillful glazing techniques -- from shiny, liquid-looking black to delicate nature-inspired textures and smooth matte surfaces -- warrant a closer look. The complex themes behind each work add yet another layer.
Displayed on a wall in the gallery, meanwhile, are approximately 320 brooches by Virginia-based Arthur Hash. Although these function as traditional jewelry, the materials from which they are made, and the way they are installed, are surprising.
For this "Silhouette" series, Hash collected photographs of people and had their profiles laser-cut into steel painted matte black. The images are the same size as their photographic sources. The pieces, none more than a few inches high, are pinned to the wall in haphazard groupings. The silhouettes imply narratives: Two figures seem to be in discussion; another makes a cryptic hand signal; others pose for the camera. Despite the minimal visual information in each brooch, the viewer is inspired to imagine the narratives behind each.
The most elaborate pieces in Bridge 9 are the robes woven by Atlanta artist Jon Eric Riis. Although they are wearable, the pieces are also poetic metaphors for social, political or psychological themes. In "Heart of Gold, Female" and "Heart of Gold, Male," the artist has used silk and metallic thread to construct works that cleverly show two parts of a figure simultaneously. The outer layers of the cloaks are flesh-toned and have an image of a male or female chest woven into the fabric. Seen inside each partially open coat are stylized lungs, ribs and veins and a golden heart. It is as if Riis has allowed us to see the "souls" of his subjects.
One of the more politically charged pieces is a camouflage-patterned coat. The inside is decorated with a banner reading "Home Sweet Home." Behind the sign, a pool of red "blood" drips in rivulets; the blood is embellished, ironically, with ruby-colored Swarovski crystal beads.
In "Frogs and Caviar," the front of a sumptuous coat is decorated with eight realistically rendered frogs, woven with silk thread and patterned with individual beads. The remainder of the coat is covered with thousands upon thousands of fresh-water pearls, sewn into spirals, that suggest a dark pool of water, or caviar.
Pushing the boundaries of their art forms, Warashina, Hash and Riis question the assumed oppositions between form and content in traditional craft mediums.
Bridge 9 continues through March 24. Society for Contemporary Craft, 2100 Smallman St., Strip District. 412-261-7300 or www.contemporarycraft.org