CAM's Craft Exhibition Will Bowl You Over

Cincinnati Art Museum has launched so many new exhibitions this summer — large and small — that it's hard to keep up with them all. But 'Outside the Ordinary: Contemporary Art in Glass, Wood and Ceramics' from the Wolf Collection is a don't-miss-it stunn

Jul 1, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Cincinnati Art Museum has launched so many new exhibitions this summer — large and small — that it’s hard to keep up with them all.

But Outside the Ordinary: Contemporary Art in Glass, Wood and Ceramics from the Wolf Collection is a don’t-miss-it stunner. It accomplishes exactly what it set out to do — show that crafts, when freed of their need to be functional or merely decorative, can be fine-art sculptural objects.

Sometimes they are accessibly beautiful and sometimes conceptually confounding, just like all contemporary sculpture, but they exist as art for art’s sake. (A couple are perhaps too cute, a risk when artists toy with an object’s conventional purpose.)

The exhibit, which is up now through Sept. 13, contains 67 objects (by almost as many artists) chosen by Amy Dehan, CAM associate curator of decorative arts and design, from those collected by Cincinnatians Nancy and David Wolf during the past 35 years.

The Wolfs have promised to bequeath these — and more than 125 others — to the museum, along with their library and an endowment to care for and expand the collection.

One of the most important artists to push crafts in this direction was Peter Voulkos, whose work with ceramics in California in the 1950s created earthy, abstracted shapes that sometimes looked cracked or broken. They had a worn, questioning, anti-materialistic quality that jibed nicely with the era’s Beat movement. Luckily, this show has one of his stoneware pieces, “Untitled (Plate)” from 1981.

But there is another side to ceramics as art, one that accentuates color and patterning and has a playful quality in the way it flirts with functionality when it has no intention of being used. Betty Woodman is one of the masters of this, and the show displays an example of her resplendent “Hydra Vases” from 1999. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to obscure the beauty of a Woodman vessel by sticking something as common as flowers in one.

The show’s centerpiece is a 1993 glass installation by Dale Chihuly consisting of 11 separate seashell-like pieces perched above the gallery entrance. It’s evocatively called “Cobalt, Cerulean, Purpura, and Oxblood Persian Installation.”

The show is divided into sections that group together the work, such as “whimsy and wit,” “narrative” and “geometric abstraction.” But the pieces often rise above categories, inspiring awe and wonder in their intricate workmanship and/ or illusory qualities — and, in some cases, their thoughtprovoking qualities.

For instance, there is a knockout 1981 piece, “Cityscape,” by Jay Musler — blown, sandblasted and cut class — in which the circular edge of a bowl has been shaped like a miniature city skyline. That’s impressive enough, but the artist has used airbrushed oil paint on the base to create a luminous red-orange finish. There is an ominously symbolic quality and a mysterious narrative complexity to it — it’s like a city burning from below. It’s definitely not just a pretty bowl.

There is at least one piece that, technically speaking, is functional — although not in any way you’d expect. Joel Otterson’s “Hot Rod Piano Coffee Table (Ford),” from 1995-1996, is more or less what it says it is. And it even has a car radio attached to a copper pipe that can play if turned on. (When I visited, it was turned off.) So, in other words, Otterson has used copper, glass and a piano soundboard to create … a radio. How strange!

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: [email protected]