Art Review Archives:
SOFA Chicago 2007:
Navy Pier Festival Hall
Authenticity tells: a devotion to the material, to raising, coaxing, pulling from it an evocation that with all its presence, still contains within it the essence of the wood or stone, glass or steel itself. If the excellence sought in SOFA Chicago 2007 may be pared to its most fundamental, it is that truth to materials was that which separated artists of note from the rest, drew one irresistibly back for a second look out of this vast hall thronged with galleries and items: an experience of the essential nature of the raw materials, elevated into the best of decorative art through shape and fashioning. For those unfamiliar with SOFA (Sculpture Objects and Functional Art), this is Chicago's main art fair for objects of art and craft, primarily decorative, and this year, primarily sculptural. Studio glass, ceramics, wood, and other materials including stone and steel were all represented in this offering bringing to Navy Pier over 100 top galleries and dealers from 18 countries.
Of the must-see items at SOFA Chicago 2007, top on the list were the ceramic figurative sculptures of Christina Cordova, represented by Ann Nathan Gallery, Chicago. Pale and ungainly, Cordova's naked figures lingered at the edge of a strange humanism. These were imperfect bodies, some androgynous, many female, expressive of gesture with careful detailing of face and hands. While the surface of the ceramic was often left to blister or bubble, the eyes were carefully crafted with startling clarity, a clarity that imparted to each figure the impression of intense self-awareness, of, or despite, the deformations. In Guardian (34 x 28 x 15 in.), a standing figure, androgynous, was flanked by two beasts whose animal features were partway between dog and pig. One, red, female, crouched snarling at her feet; the other, black, male, was hefted beneath her arm. The figure stared forward with a clear, lucid eye; its pale skin was rough with craquelure and glaze blisters, and the right arm effloresced into an organic tuberescence, like the bloat of a fungal growth upon a tree. And yet, the impression itself was one of both yearning and dignity. Hellenistic sculpture emphasized physical ideals, shunned all suggestion of imperfection; Cordova's figures found in imperfection a suggestive spirit of adventure. The mood of these works was enigmatic, broody and somber; yet they held a depth of content that drew one back irresistibly for a second look. As reported in post-SOFA press releases, all Cordova's works on display were sold, testament to the pulling power of the artist. She is as well one who it would be well worth seeing in a solo show. As a note, Ann Nathan Gallery is consistently the booth to seek out first for the highest concentration of interesting and intriguing works of any exposition, whether fine art or sculptural; and this continued to be the case at SOFA 2007.
Playful, also figurative, were the ceramic groupings of Chris Antemann, Ferrin Gallery, Pittsfield, MA, bringing a bit of a wink to traditional porcelain figuration by infusing it with the mischievous capers of bedroom politics. Meissen met Boucher in these depictions of pert antics and petty jealousies between male and female. With a high glaze finish, floral ornamentation, and accents of gold, the presentation was that of traditional fine china figures; but like Watteau or Boucher, they represented a playfully amorous view of society, a lighthearted world in which flirtation and desire were the primary motivators. The figures of Covet (15 x 11 x 7 in.) formed a triangle of sexual interests in this risque little dinner for two -- or is that three? Amid the cakes and confections of an 18th-century table, a pert little milkmaid crouched on all fours, eyes cast slyly back to the appreciative male, who happened to be dining in the nude; his female companion at the far end of the table wasn't quite so amused. Pompadour hairstyles and the floral accents added to the feel of naughty proclivities at the French court.
Other ceramic offerings provided explorations of form and surface, glaze and structure, each with the deep appeal inherent in that which permits one to isolate such qualities and study them appreciatively. Nani Champy-Schott's curled forms, represented by Collection Ateliers d'Art de France, Paris, France, held such appeal. In pieces such as Feuille d'automne (approx. 18 x 12 in.) the simplicity of the open clay curl provided just the right amount of form to balance an appreciation of the glazing effects. The even swing of the curl suggested inner and outer, led the eye across the broad curved expanse which effectively showed off the opaque russet-red with its 'crazed' patterning of craquelure. Among other selections at Collection Ateliers d'Art de France, and providing a solid contrast, were the slablike forms of Agathe Larpent. In Vaste Tourbillon (2006), porcelain, the finest of ceramic clays and generally considered in dainty constructions, was here lumped, massed; the bulky form with its central hole served as foil for a thick frosting of glaze.
Roughness and sophistication both are characteristic of Japanese ceramics. Their appeal lies in an appearance whose informality is in reality based on a rigorous traditional handling of the material. Though glassworking actually has a similar pedigree of ancient origin (accomplished glass work has been found in sites of ancient Egypt and Phoenician trade), glass forms themselves almost always seem modern. It is in the aesthetics of Japanese ceramics that one finds a hearkening to ancient forms, evocative of their earthiness and closeness to the clay, that satisfies connoisseurship as much today as it has for centuries. The great kilns of Japan, among them Bizen, Shigaraki, and Oribe, have been in operation for hundreds of years, and yet, continue to be used by modern artists who employ the traditional methods, while taking the medium to new heights of expression. Oribe Platter (4.5 x 36.5 x 15.5 in.), completed in 2007 by Shigemasa Higashida, Dai Ichi Gallery, New York, showed the complex structure and beautiful glazing of such wares in this large, technically demanding contemporary piece executed at the Oribe kilns. Rugged edges, contours and fissures were enlivened with greenish glaze, clear and thin on the highlights, deep-hued in the crevices; the large hollows in this platter-shaped piece gathered a second glaze into deep pools of vitrified blue. Works such as Oribe Platter by Shigemasa, and vessel forms like the traditional Large Jar (13 x 15.5 x 14 in.) by Yasuhiro Kohara, presented the feel of the clay itself, a purposeful unfinished quality that lets the clay 'speak', enlivened with glazes and kiln accidents -- the combination of the ceramist's purpose, and the uncontrollable forces within the kiln. Dai Ichi Gallery was the primary presenter of Asian ceramics at SOFA 2007, representing both Japanese and Chinese ceramists, a fascinating contrast. While the Japanese approach focused on aesthetic appeal, the contemporary Chinese ceramics center on pieces with message or content.
Also worth seeing among the Japanese ceramics were a series of chawan or Japanese teabowls by Ryoji Koie, Galerie Besson, London. These displayed the variety of approaches that may be exercised in this inherently simple item, the hand-held stoneware bowl used for the drinking of the thick, specialized green tea in chanoyu, the tea ceremony. Fifteen vessels, no two alike, showed the variance and subtleties of beauty of the teabowl, from a thick-walled version with a heavy black glaze, to one delicate and thin, in which the reddish glow of the clay showed clearly. These are items which invite and reward connoisseurship.
Studio glass was far and away the most prolific presence at SOFA 2007, and chief among the most compelling works were the lute-like stringed instruments by Italian artist David Salvadore, William Traver Gallery, Seattle, WA. Tautly strung with fiber or nylon 'strings', works such as Spingarpa (41.5 x 12.5 x 22 in.) employ blown, colored glass, further enhanced with neat parallel scores of carving, to create the gourd-like vessel and its long semi-curved offshoots of neck and tailpiece, the extensions which anchor the strings. Warm colors and semi-opaque finish to the body make these works luminous, capturing light; vibrant hues of amber, cinnamon and cobalt enliven the presentation, while the instrument form emphasizes both interior and exterior volumes through the open 'sound hole' of the resonating chamber. The exotic color and shaping add further depths in suggesting an instrument of Africa or the Orient. Not meant to be played -- these were treats for the eye, not the ear -- Salvadore's evocations melded the tensile capacity of glass as a vessel as played against the shell-like lightness and tensions inherent in a musical string instrument.
Likewise compelling were glass pieces by Lino Tagliapietra, Holsten Gallery, Stockbridge, MA. Holsten also represents Dale Chihuly, and had set aside the obligatory salon area for Chihuly's popular glass; but nearby and more arresting was the adjoining exhibition of pieces by Venetian maestro Tagliapietra, including selections from his Masai and Ala series, which draw on long, large-scale forms, tapered at the ends. The installation of Masai (71 x 73 x 16 in) featured nine hollow, blown-glass forms in varying colors, each long and tapered in a form much like a narrow leaf, each differentiated by the intense, opaque color -- bright reds, spring-greens and yellows, delicate variations of orange. Unified by their overall shape, each piece was then given difference with patterning and carving, and the variance in the gentle, organic sway of curve or taper along the length of the form. Masai was large, bright, vivacious, a visual feast in both color and form; the shaping of the glass elements and the suggestiveness of the title bring associations of tribal shields, veldt grasses, the tall grace of the Masai themselves. Three versions of Tagliapietra's Ala (varying, but generally 53.75 x 6.5 x 17.5 in.), also on display, found a different expression of this hollow, spindle-shaped form by setting it on its side, buoyant upon a tall cast iron stand with the taper drawn out into two large, gentle arcs, an elegant evocation of flight in glass. Tagliapietra's glass elements invite a connoisseurship of form and skill: long, impeccable, evenly delicate in their shaping and color, clearly the work of much mastery in the glass studio.
While blown glass works such as those of Salvadore and Tagliapietra tend to emphasize hollowness and the shaping of forms inflated from within, cast glass, in contrast, expresses compactness and solidity: solid pieces which at the same time retain the medium's luminous opacity. Janusz Walentynowicz of Marx-Saunders Gallery, Chicago presented a variety of cast glass works showing the range of the artist's explorations. Pieces such as Bound (Variation II) (17 x 25 x 13 in.) or Untitled, Waiting Figures (16 x 88 x 6 in.) work the glass in the manner of a traditional figurative sculptural medium, the human body explored in stress of pose (Bound (Variation II)) or as a mute exploration of anonymity and repetition, male and female (Untitled, Waiting Figures). In each the artist directs attention and tension by varying the opacity, texture or color of the glass, even within the same cast piece. In an alternative handling, works such as Walentynowicz's Amy (Nude) reverse the sculptural volumes by hollowing them out from within a large slab of cast glass. The artist then paints these inner surfaces with oil paint in naturalistic colors. From the front is seen a figurative depiction of the female figure in volumes and colors true to life: reverse sculpting, if you will. It could only be done with glass.
Of contrasting effect was the rational abstraction of the extruded glass works of J.P. Long, represented by Habatat Galleries Chicago. The wall-mounted Wall 13 (32 x 7 x 7 in.) employed two blocky, rigidly geometric steel elements to frame a long, arrested globule of glass, liquid-like, but completely stopped in time. The combination of steel and glass, the apparent creation of the form through sheer gravity pulling upon the molten globule, and the impeccable transparency and purity of form all worked to suggest glass as industrial, scientific, molten.
But if glass was the overriding present at SOFA 2007 it was also the one most open to criticism. Galleries seeming to be banking on glass's popularity, and the result was a preponderance of unremarkable glass work. With a few exceptions, what was on exhibit fell within a limited repertory of popular forms or types of treatment. The standing glass vase or vessel, bulbous-based and with a long tapering neck, was a popular reappearing guise; and beyond that, there were loopy glass, colorful glass, biomorphic glass; delicate glass, block glass, wacky glass figures; there were prisms and crystalline forms, there were bowls, glass bubbles or spheres, and glass representations of fruit. All of it taking a considerable amount of formal skill -- but most of it merely playing, not really working within the medium, not really making a commitment to finding an intense aesthetic appeal in form, surface, or concept. To many of these pieces, the medium of glass was almost incidental: they could as easily have been made from something far less dramatic, such as colorful acrylic, without sacrificing their presentation.
Del Mano Gallery, Los Angeles, CA was the primary gallery featuring turned and sculptured studio wood, a surprisingly under-represented medium in SOFA 2007, but one more than made up for by the lavishness of del Mano's offerings. Among them were the wooden vessels of Ron Fleming, carved from a single piece of wood and bringing out the luscious texture capable of the medium, while at the same time emphasizing its organic flow. African Fern Basket (approx. 12 x 20 in.), carved from a redwood burl, showed the voluptuous handling of form in a vessel composed of fern-fronds, their upward-curling leaves comprising the enclosing sides of the vessel. A satiny finish highlighted the grain and complemented the piece with an elegant formal presentation. In a contrasting approach, Thierry Martenon, also at del Mano, worked with solid constructions, emphasizing exterior volumes and masses. Martenon's maple pieces were left all but bare; the fine grain of the maple was nearly invisible, and the artist instead used carving in rhythmic patterns, and some staining, to enhance and enliven the surface.
Field stones, rough, primitive; iron, ancient metal; both were incorporated into Palolo Valdes's sculptural bulls, Toro Cola (18 x 45 x 30 cm) and Samson (40 x 95 x 45 cm), represented by Galerie Vivendi, Paris, France. In Toro Cola the roughly shaped stone is held together with an outer framework of iron strips and wire, with iron hooves and iron horns, framing the crude materials in the form of a bull. Samson was animate with rude vigor, the stones here completely unworked, as rough and rounded as if straight from the earth, held in a matrix of iron that set out the image of the bull with tossing head. Iconic, Paleolithic even, Valdes's bulls give out the energy and power of primitive totems.
From iron, to modern steel: Tom Phardell, Next Step Studio and Gallery, Ferndale, MI, presented two sculptural constructions in fabricated steel. Untitled, smaller and neatly divided into hemispheres, and Inner Core, long and kayak-like, are both large, wall-mounted works, their clean, even shape and minimal color exploring the contrasts of vessel and cavity, protrusion and shaping. Meanwhile, photography might have been considered out of place at SOFA were it not for its subject. Raymon Elozua, Ferrin Gallery, Pittsfield, MA, presented photographic studies of battered household enamelware from a series entitled Temporal Objects: Photographs. These still lifes, constructed of discarded, half-rusted enameled pots, plates and kettles show how one may astutely explore a theme without turning it into kitsch. Elozua's crisply photographed assemblages transform these weathered items into compelling formal studies of shape, color and contrast.
In an arresting display of delicacy and balance, a working titanium mobile, Harmony With The Breeze (101 x 25 x 89 cm) by Kozo Nishino, represented by Artcourt Gallery - Yagi Art Management, Inc., Osaka, Japan, was noteworthy not only for being one of the few actually 'functional' pieces fulfilling the second half of SOFA's acronym, functional art, but as well for its simple elegance of counterbalance and mobility. Supported by an iron tripod, a freely rotating, mobile assemblage of two wings was outlined as a construction of silvery wire. Each was held in equilibrium by a small counterweight. In a fluid motion, perfectly balanced and without mechanical agency, the wings beat gracefully and delicately in response to the slightest of stray air currents. So integral were they in design that it took close observation to realize that each consisted of three segments, for the motion itself seemed one fluid wave. Why did it delight? Not only for the adroit construction, a deft realization of the concept, but for the delicacy of the forces involved in bringing it into reality: the exquisite balance of mechanical perfection becomes, of itself, an element of appreciation and appeal.
Surprising in its absence from SOFA's feast was Japanese bamboo basketry, which has been present in former years. The single example of this exquisite and highly collectible art was not a gallery or dealer, but a museum, The Mint Museum of Craft and Design, Charlotte, NC. Among the Mint Museum's diverse offerings on display at SOFA 2007 were Lightning Rod by Torri Ippo, 2001, of woven madake bamboo and rattan. Originally based on ikebana (flower arranging) baskets, bamboo work has evolved into exploratory forms all its own. The long coil of Lightning Rod folded back on itself in sinuous recurve, a mesmerizing undulation comprised of reddish bamboo both in thick pieces and tiny, striplike slats. Rhythms of repetition both small and large were built up into the powerful push of the coil's main contour. All was cunningly worked by hand in the type of construction that is unique to this discipline. The Mint Museum of Craft and Design will be present for the next three years of SOFA Chicago as it promotes and showcases its nationally renowned collection of craft items, both historic and contemporary.
Decorative and sculptural objects derive from a long tradition of collection and connoisseurship. The artists who went beyond simple cleverness, simple diversions, were those who proved the most memorable. Included as part of SOFA 2007's programming were lectures on topics related to the expo, including contemporary wood artists, current trends in ceramics and textiles, and aspects of collecting. Kazuko Todate, curator of the Tsukuba Museum of Art in Ibaraki, Japan, spoke on contemporary Japanese ceramics. Her words on collecting sum up the experience of SOFA: "Finding a work that catches your eye and won't let you look the other way is a deeply satisfying feeling."
--Katherine R. Lieber
Galleries and many of the artists noted above often have online representation. Select links are given below, presented in the order in which they appear in the review. Other online material may be found via a regular internet search.