Don't get me wrong. I absolutely love Target. The discount chain has managed to combine the inexpensive, mass-produced qualities of Wal-Mart with the hip, coolly designed capabilities of the Pottery Barn. Nevertheless, as I purchase my two funky patio chairs, I cannot help sensing that I am surreptitiously being manipulated. As I wait in the checkout line and notice 10 other people buying "my" chairs, that inevitable sense of homogeneity sets in. There are ways to counterbalance such feelings: Peruse an antiques market, visit a vintage clothing shop, attend a crafts show, buy a 1964 Ford Falcon, take a quilting class. In other words, surround oneself with objects and things that are not only old or traditionally based, but more importantly, are unique.
The current exhibition at the Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen attempts to investigate not only unique craft objects, but to celebrate the process of how they were made in the past and continue to be made in the present. In "reFORMations: New Forms from Ancient Techniques," the curators, Deborah McLeod (a Style art critic) and Anna Fariello, seek to revive the authentic. They are interested in researching and gathering together artists who utilize ancient techniques and employ them as the foundation for their current artistic endeavors. The well-known skills of quilting, beadwork, needlework and metallurgy, for example, are just the tip of the iceberg. The organizers want to know who still practices netahwewieni? Who knows how to create millefiori vessels? Is the ancient technique of encaustic painting still being practiced? In their search, through calls for artists in various craft journals, the curators were able to assemble a traveling show that features traditional, sometimes nearly obsolete, artistic practices with a modern eye and sensibility.
The show is spread across two rooms and features 18 techniques from crocheting, to verre eglomise, to gilding in which the contemporary art object is paired with an older version of that technique. For example, Ingrid Bernhardt's "Out of Shells I, II, III" work of small beaded, polymorphic sacks is juxtaposed with a late 19th-century handbag also made by attaching glass beads to fabric. Another grouping places a 100-year old Russian icon of metal adjacent to a 1999 work by Cary Emile Jordan that, too, employs the technique of chasing and repoussé.
In this format, with descriptive labels and an accompanying catalogue, the exhibition is decidedly didactic. This is a good thing. Even if one is not interested in art per se, the show is stimulating because the organizers want to elucidate the viewers on what these ancient techniques are and how they historically came about.
One question the show raises, however, is that by focusing largely on the process of making the object, one wonders if these works could stand on their own simply as aesthetic forms, unfettered by how they came about. Certainly many of the works Tracy Krunn's delicate crocheted metal glove or Thomas Hoadley's exquisite patterned vessels, for example are autonomous objects that need no introduction, explanation, or comparison to their ancient antecedent. On the other hand, there are a few weaker objects that seem to be included simply by the virtue of the method in which they were made, rather than in their overall aesthetic appeal.
Another observation in comparing the old object to the newer one is that, except for a few examples, the more modern counterpart has been rendered strictly as an "art for art's sake" object: A crazy quilt does not cover a bed, but hangs on the wall; the crocheted metal glove hangs from a metal nail rather than covering human nails; the knitted rug is not trampled on but placed "uselessly" on the vertical. It is interesting that most of the modern versions of ancient techniques function, as Fariello describes, "in the realm of the metaphysical," rather than in the strictly physical.
To own an item that is "one of a kind" is an ineffably satisfying experience. The ability to make such an item may be even more so. Yet, in our postmodern world, it seems that the original, the unique and the well crafted have taken a back seat to the duplicated, the simulated and the mass-produced. Fortunately, there are many who still value something with a history or something actually formed by human hands. This exhibition is an exploration and celebration of that special something.