Chew on This 

Artists working with traditional craft materials make a statement

Artists usually reject limits and categories, but some audiences and institutions still harbor prejudice against those who work with materials traditionally considered as craft media. “Food for Thought” tries to erase some misconceptions, and except for the unfortunate inclusion of two embroidered images on satin and a few other objects that seem half-baked, it does.

Sure, definitions shouldn’t matter, but consider the terms American Heritage Dictionary uses in its definition of craft: proficiency, manual dexterity and skilled artistry. Even as it tries to ignore conventional definitions, “Food for Thought” makes clear that these qualities matter. The objects here are predominantly executed with technical skill; those lacking skill are not compensated by thoughtful content. Cynthia Myron, for example, crafts highly articulated miniature pewter and copper rooms like an experienced jeweler, and Maj. Baltic sculpts clay corncob forms with sensuous color and texture that turn something banal into something gemlike.

“Food for Thought” is worth the trip to Glen Allen thanks to a few pieces that mesh mature technique with well-conceived content. Amanda Flutter’s dramatic sculptural figures display maturity in both arenas. Her technical prowess allows a scale more commonly seen in wood or stone sculpture. By boosting their size, Fletcher uses exaggerated, powerful gestures to gain theatrical presence.

In the white clay bust “Satyr,” Fletcher forms a terrible, evil-eyed creature that pushes the limits of horror without an ounce of gore. Bony-chested and armless, it extends its face forward as if it wants to consume the viewer. In “Jabberwocky,” she interprets Lewis Carroll’s strange creature into an appropriately horrible beast with the head of a hare and a reptilian body. Fletcher knows how to turn absurdity and terror found in myth into mesmerizing physical reality.

The most subtle and sophisticated art in “Food” is Leslie Hirst’s “Inhabited Landscapes,” an ingenious visual treatise on how human and natural systems can overlap. Hirst paints oblique views of medieval towns on thin cross sections of tree trunks — a seemingly strange pairing of image and material, until the viewer looks closer and recognizes that the organization of Hirst’s roads and buildings mimic the visible growth rings of each tree section.

Expressed in delicate strokes and earthy color, Hirst’s environments radiate from cathedrals or town halls, displaying a growth pattern in complete sympathy with nature. By cleverly preserving the wood grain in each image, the artist reinforces the life cycles that connect humans and nature. Wood grows outward from a center as did the first towns, and it not only supports her physical painting, but buildings and ultimately villages.

Susan Papa’s enigmatic hybrid clay objects that combine organic forms with machine-made ones, as well as Kathryn Oxhorn’s painted vessels, also depend on skill and concept. Both artists seem to deliberately confuse ideas of function and content, and both invest a high degree of attention to surface. Papa expertly applies color in flat or rubbed finishes to support the ambiguity of origination, while Oxhorn paints with oil paint or glazes multiple figurative images suggesting narratives. These are two more artists who contribute nutritional substance to “Food for Thought.” S

“Food for Thought” is on display at the Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen, 2880 Mountain Road, through Dec. 20. For information go to www.artsglenallen.com or call 261-6200.


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