Featured photo: J. Paul Fennell, “Emei Lattice,” wood, 10 x 12 x 12. Courtesy of Mesa Contemporary Arts.
In previous years, when I’ve either reviewed or casually strolled through the annual “Contemporary Crafts” exhibition at Mesa Contemporary Arts, I’ve always found several objects to ooh and aah over — pieces that defy the material from which they’re created, whether it be clay, wood, glass or fiber. Yup, I love the new experimental avenues in crafts.
But I’ll have to put on my art reviewer’s hat here and say, this year’s selection is too tame. Too few of the works excited me intellectually, despite how handsome they look and how well staged they are in MCA’s lovely main gallery. This year, in its 37th iteration, “Contemporary Crafts” covers most of the bases, but it over-relies on fiber works, not that I don’t love the crazy ways artists uses material scraps, thread and yarn these days. And it skimps on ceramics and glass works which, at least for me, usually rank higher on the “I-can’t-believe-this-is-made-of …” scale. That said, I continue to admire MCA’s dedication to showcasing contemporary crafts in a metro area where such shows are too sparse (Arizona State University’s Ceramics Research Center at the Brickyard excepted, of course).
Should you see the show? Why, of course, because here’s where I’ll single out some remarkable works that can only be fully appreciated in person. Furthermore, a visit gives you the chance to read the artists’ statements, which in many cases are quite profound. Elliott Kayser’s terracotta piece “Scholar’s Rock for Keynesian Economics,” for interest, prompts you to ponder “questions of cultural identity here in America.” I also want to praise the museum for its generous inclusion of works by Arizona artists, including Kayser, Michael Cajero, J. Paul Fennell, Molly Koehn, Danielle Wood and Clare Verstegen. All in all, there are 53 works by 34 artists, representing 13 states. Highlights include:
— Three works by Katy Bergman Cassell of Greenville, S.C., using enamel, copper and silver for a highly organic take on jewelry. I was especially fascinated by “Pollen Collar,” a squash blossom-like piece mounted on a mirror, which seems to comment on decay and rebirth.
— Two quilts by Jim S. Smoote II of Chicago, which arrestingly evoke African-American pride through acrylic portraiture on cotton and the sewing together of bright, flag-like colors.
— Two long fiber wall pieces by Courtney Richter of Phoenix, which had me entertaining thoughts on life cycles, confinement, strength and other subjects, while still marveling over the texture and form she wrested from felt, yarn and other found materials.
— A fiber wall hanging called “Lichen Cluster II,” by Polly Jacobs Giacchina of La Mesa, Calif., which really does look like lichen once you get over being fooled into thinking it’s just a brown basket.
“Contemporary Crafts” continues at MCA through April 24, 2016. While visiting the museum, be sure to check out “Recurrent Edges” by Jeff Reich (through April 17), geometrically strong acrylic paintings interpreting the Arizona landscape, and “Distant Visions,” mixed-media sculptures by Steve Gompf (through May 1) that serve as a hallowed throwback to “televisors,” the imagined precursors to TV.
Speaking of out-there uses of fiber, the exhibition that opens April 15, 2016, sounds promising. “Threads: Gathering my Thoughts” is a site-specific installation by Susan Lenz, which invites visitors to lose themselves in a tangle of colorful threads and baskets hanging from the ceiling. Also slated for April, in celebration of the Mesa Arts Center’s 10th year at the current location, is a survey of the diverse works that have been gifted to the museum over the years. The 10th anniversary, by the way, sparked the commission of an El Mac mural on the arts center’s north side; it shows a woman holding a rose and bears El Mac’s distinctive, glowing style of portraiture. Its verticality fits the space perfectly.
Below: The new El Mac mural at the Mesa Arts Center (my photo). Jim S. Smoote II’s “Georgie,” quilted textile, 46 x 49. Katy Bergman Cassell’s “The Cycle,” enamel, copper, silver, 12 x 12 x 4. Courtesy of Mesa Contemporary Arts.