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Four artists bridge the gap between art and craft in Artspace's "Similar Differences." 

Object Makers

There's a new breed of artists a-brewing, and they are coming your way. These artists are finding innovative ways of bridging the gap between fine art and craft, between high art and low. They are called "object makers," and four of them are being featured this month at Artspace.

"Similar Differences: Four Object Makers" probes into an artistic conundrum that tests the very boundaries of craft. The most obvious common ground the object makers share is their arts' undeniable tie to craft. What turns these former artisans-cum-sculptors into object makers is their ability to straddle the fence between fine art and applied art. All the objects in the show derive from traditional craft (something that has a function beyond purely aesthetic appeal), but for these creators, that derivation is only a fruitful touchstone for a rich new approach to making objects.

John Rais is a metalsmith from New Jersey who makes utensils like ladles and sifters, but distorts their scale and mounts them on walls. Out of context, the ladle cannot ladle and the sifter cannot sift, and, as a result, the viewer is forced to understand everyday objects in a whole new light — to contemplate the smooth arc of a handle as it sweeps through the air and anchors onto a delicate lace of a perforated ellipse. Placed on a pedestal and severed from the kitchen, the lush formal elements of steel, line, curve and surface dominate the object until its original function is all but a memory.

Travis Townsend, who received his MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University, relies on wood to convey a playful sense of functionless form. Citing such sources as Shaker furniture, Surrealist painting and the sculpture of Martin Puryear, Townsend takes two-dimensional doodles and sketches and re-creates them in three-dimensional form. His objects are, as he states, "personal and illogical wooden containers that grow from and play off the functionality of tools, instruments, and toys." Townsend's objects conjure up submarines, houseboats and birdhouses. They have rudders, wheels and peepholes, and are pieced together like a 3D jigsaw puzzle then carefully painted with whimsical sherbet colors. Townsend is able to create a wonderful sense of spontaneity; the objects seem to leap directly from their maker's imagination, leapfrogging past the process of their making.

A professor of crafts at VCU, Karl Burkheimer admits to his great "fascination with collection, possession and storage of objects." Part object maker, part storage technician, Burkheimer suggests a collection with his sculptures, yet denies its very existence through inscrutable self-contained cubes, spheres and nonsensical utensils. Many of his works involve an opened box on a stand — a type of wooden easel and display of minimalist curios. Old photographs, twisted metal shapes and hollowed-out spheres serve as bric-a-brac, where everything has its place as it is carefully cataloged and displayed by its collector.

The feminine forms of ladies' hats, purses and corsets serve as Felicia Szorad's art. Hailing from North Carolina, Szorad takes these normally soft, pliable forms and transforms them into hard, unyielding enclosures of metal. As the news release notes, these works can be seen as metaphors for women themselves, "beautiful and empowered, yet confined and incomplete." Some of these objects lack the subtlety of the other three artists, but her strongest works are actually the tiniest, most precious ones. Little abstract metal sculptures that could pass as brooches are mounted on white frames. Like musical notes across a score, these complex metal forms achieve a harmonious marriage between design, placement and quiet lyricism.

In terms of craftsmanship, coherency and content, this is one of the best shows I've encountered at Artspace. "Similar Differences" may be an oxymoron, but as the object makers of this exhibition rhetorically reveal, contradiction can be a powerful impetus for making craft into art.

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