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Art Review: Connecting craft with concept

'Bridge VI' exhibition spans variety of expressions

Wednesday, November 01, 2000

By Mary Thomas, Post-Gazette Art Critic

Churning raunch, internalized reflection and saucy humor are the three moods of "Bridge VI," the sixth biennial exhibition at the Society for Contemporary Craft that features artists who take traditional craft mediums into conceptual and expressive realms. Russian-born ceramist Sergei Isupov, Seattle found-object sculptor Terry Turrell and Milwaukee fiber artist Anne Kingsbury make this perhaps the best yet of this consistently smart series.

Fiber artist Anne Kingsbury combines words and materials in "Lizard on the Lawn," on display at the Society for Contemporary Craft's "Bridge VI" exhibition. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette)

Isupov's remarkable, meticulously crafted, complex, impish figures are in international collections that include the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Norwegian Museum of Art, Tronopjew, Norway; the Museum of International Ceramics, Keckemet, Hungary; and two important decorative arts venues, the Mint Museum of Craft & Design, Charlotte, N.C., and the Wustum Museum of Fine Art, Racine, Wis. A lecture he gave in Pittsburgh last month was held at and co-sponsored by the Carnegie Museum of Art.

Improbable scenes, fanciful creatures and lusty engagements playing against one another result in phantasmagorial sculptures that most resemble tangible dreams. "Untitled" takes the form of a large head with solemn, staring face (drawn in black line on a white matte porcelain background) that's supported by four short, stout claw-footed legs. On one side, a veined couple share a primordial embrace, and on the other a nude -- glossy with flesh-colored glaze -- tumbles off the surface into three dimensions, his own head dangling beneath the larger one. In back, a naked angel extends his hand toward the viewer as he flutters among pink clouds in a vivid yellow and blue sky. A tiny lid with a hand-shaped handle is the only vestige of the tea pots that Isupov became known for in the mid-1990s.

In another work, "Limits," a naked man with red toenails, stretched along the side of a striding cat/fox with striped coiled tail, unself-consciously handles his genitals. A mass of swimmers, fish and seals weigh down hunched, slack-mouthed, rainbow-colored "Rider." Surfaces are enlivened with pattern upon pattern.

His subject matter comes from personal experience -- his dogs, mowing the lawn, National Public Radio (which he listens to in order to learn English) -- enriched with a strong grounding in art historical images. The latter, and his exceptional facility with his medium, began early. Both of his parents are successful artists -- his father creates large works for architectural spaces and his mother is a ceramic designer -- who actually encouraged their children to become artists. Both parents also work in clay, and Isupov began assisting in their studio when he was 11.

Born in 1963 in Stavrapole, in the Caucasus area of Russia, he grew up in Ukraine. The slightly built artist with shaven head (he wanted to "shock friends for an opening in Estonia" and then decided he liked the freedom) is a quick study who has a winning warmth and directness. In 1992, he met an American woman at a ceramic symposium in Latvia and moved to her home state, Kentucky, in 1993, where they married. They have since divorced (which devastated him but made for some provocative imagery, such as a woman on fire), but he's remained in the United States and achieved national success through his association with New York's Ferrin Gallery.

A very different persona enriches Turrell's engaging, emotionally reserved, unblinking figures -- "dolls" would also apply -- which seem to be caught in a moment of contemplation or grace. Their joinings give them a nostalgic look, and the artist's use of recycled materials, like tin cans or cloth, add to their aged appearance.

Russian-born ceramist Sergei Isupov uses impish figures in his work, including "Selection." . (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette)

A self-taught artist, who was born in Spokane in 1946, he exhibited in the prestigious New York Outsider Art Fair this year and in 1998 and has been a regular at the American Primitive Gallery in New York. He's also included in the Museum of American Folk Art Encyclopedia of 20th Century American Folk Art and Artists.

With such recognition, it might be predicted that the appeal of his work is in the simplicity of the carved, wired and assembled forms, which have naive appearances that belie their underlying sophistication. Elongated legs, expressive hands and encrusted clothing give them the look of ritual objects.

"Pigeon's" lanky legs end in knowingly carved, bright red feet, and the metal plates of his chest part to reveal a small figure within. The red loinclothed male of "Hubcap" holds a hoop at his side that has a suited man suspended in its spokes. Some figures have smooth white faces that call to mind the masks of classic Japanese Noh theater, as do their dress and posture. One such is "Whispers," his arms inscribed with the word "angel," who tilts his head towards a small figure he holds near his ear in his oversized hands.

The "Big Head" is just that and projects a different feeling from the other works through construction that is more overt and Frankenstein-like and lacking the sensitivity of the smaller forms.

Shift yet again and enter Kingsbury's realm, where materials, subject matter and labor-intensive process all speak to feminine issues of women's work and domesticity. Handsome, painstakingly assembled beaded pieces represent countless hours invested, as in "Beaded Woman," which contains the words "repetition" and "discipline" in its composition. Kingsbury begins with a plan, but adjusts that as the piece evolves. She sees the time commitment as a necessary component of the work's creation, a sort of gestation period that allows it to develop as it is meant to.

Terry Turrell’s “Whispers” calls to mind the masks of classic Japanese Noh theater. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette)

Serious concerns and levity coexist in her "autobiographical pot holders" -- oversized leather panels that hang from one corner -- which combine hand-built clay components with fiber work that might include piecing, applique, crochet, reverse applique, embroidery and quilting. A central clay figure, sectioned and joined with crochet, is surrounded with such phrases as "She was not antisocial -- she just needed to be alone," an expression that any creative woman could empathize with.

The delightful "Fairy Beaver Cope" (a priest's ceremonial vestment), of 1983, is a large (72-by-48-inch) wall hanging that features the animal Kingsbury's deemed her personal totem, according to an article in American Craft magazine. She was inspired to make it after seeing an exhibition of liturgical vestments and realizing that they shared characteristics of time-intensive creation and preciousness with her own work. Three beavers, representing her roles as homemaker, artist and arts administrator, are surrounded by appliqued symbols of those positions. In two rows edging the work, more than 60 clay panels display phrases that range from factual -- "beaver teeth are self sharpening" -- to humorous -- "beaver books are water logs" -- to moral code -- "beaver is prepared and efficient."

Further insight into these artists -- each displaying enough work to be a show unto themselves -- may be found in informative, illustrated gallery brochures based upon interviews with them.

At 2100 Smallman St., Strip District, through Nov. 25. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays. For information, call 412-261-7003.

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