By Bob Hicks
“I didn’t do it!” the woman barked, pointing a long bony finger accusingly at another woman who stood in shell-shocked horror. “It was her!”
Not for the first time in his life Mr. Scatter felt a mild urge to strangle someone he’d never actually met. In moments of crisis the scramble for self-preservation is a natural human impulse, but there are times when it really ought to be held in check.
For one thing, it was obvious how the accident had occurred. For another, the woman who had unknowingly swiped against the beaded kewpie doll, which was perched in a high-traffic zone in Lyons Wier Gallery‘s booth at the SOFA West art fair, obviously felt horrible: tiny little colored beads were scattered all over the floor, the doll itself was lying there smashed among the litter, and the artist who had so meticulously made it, Jan Huling, stood by gazing dejectedly at the wreckage. Stuff happens, especially in crowded rooms crammed with expensive breakable items, and a little empathy goes a lot farther than a pointing bony finger.
After attending last week’s second annual SOFA West in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Mr. Scatter can imagine a few other pointing fingers, and maybe a few pointed sniffs. Both are predictable, and say more about the mood of the art world than they do about SOFA. This popular art fair, larger versions of which are also held annually in Chicago and New York (SOFA stands for Sculpture Objects & Functional Art), represents a lot of things that much of the contemporary art world hold to be unworthy of serious attention.
Most of the work is unabashedly decorative. It’s obsessed with craftsmanship. A lot of it is wildly extroverted, and, like Cyndi Lauper, just wants to have fun. It isn’t political (except when it is). It isn’t theoretical (except when it is). It isn’t intellectual (except when it is). And it just strides out there, guns a-blazin’, brashly acting as if there’s no valid distinction between craft and art. Yet all of those attributes are descriptive, not qualitative: art is many, many things.
The first thing to understand about an art fair, whether it’s a country craft market or a gathering of old masters at Maastricht, is that it’s fundamentally different from a museum exhibition. Art fairs are commercial enterprises. People take part for various reasons — pride, ambition, even missionary zeal and genuine love for the product — but primarily they’re here to sell art. For customers — the collectors, museum curators and interested art lovers who show up to take it all in — it means finding the fair with work of the quality, price and approach that interests them.
SOFA West included a bit of kitsch, a bit of cute, a bit of bland, a bit of the frankly derivative and painfully outmoded. And there were times when you wished even some of the good pieces would push beyond skill into a deeper sort of perception. But a reassuringly high percentage of the work on hand was of excellent quality; walking through the fair was like strolling through the aisles of an especially tempting candy shop. Curation was amply evident, too. The fair included both primary market dealers (essentially, gallerists who work directly with artists, nurturing their careers) and secondary market dealers (who don’t work directly with artists but concentrate on acquiring specific pieces based on their quality, and then reselling them). If there was a theme, it was exuberance: a sense that art arrives in a kaleidoscope of images, and it exists to be enjoyed. SOFA is a place for people who believe in the pleasure of beautiful things and the craftsmanship that creates them. In an art scene that sometimes seems overly obsessed with theory and self-important big statements, that’s kind of refreshing.
Art has always reveled in the joys of technique and the mysteries of illusion. Both are aspects of entertainment, which is not a dirty word: It’s as important to a Titian painting as to a Damien HirstÂ sculpture or a cunningly crafted mechanical toy. Without resorting to show-off tactics, a couple of artists represented by Santa Fe’s Jane Sauer Gallery exemplify that vital element. Geoffrey Gorman’s “Creatures of Curiosity” are shaped basically out of junk: sticks, bolts, nails, wire, cloth, whatever works. Their resemblance to actual creatures is obvious and yet less a testament to reality than to their viewers’ ability to imaginatively fill in the blanks. “People talk to me about how much they like the muscle structure,” Gorman commented with a laugh. “There is no muscle. That’s just sticks.” Carol Shinn is a textile artist whose landscapes, including the wonderful Chimney Rock, have a subtle three-dimensionality and are remarkably complex in their shading and variety of color. Although she works on a machine stitcher, the variations seem astonishing. How does she manage to make all those complex threading changes? “Well, she uses a very expensive sewing machine,” the booth attendant replies.
Basketry, jewelry, pottery and glass — all essential forms of craft, from before craft became the art that dare not speak its name — were major elements of SOFA West. And in glass as in the art fair itself, Portland’s Bullseye Gallery played a leading role. Richard Marquis’ puckish little toy pistols were on hand, and the gracious Japanese artist Yoko Yagi was in attendance with her quietly gorgeous glass vases and boxes. Klaus Moje, the affable German/Australian cold-glass superstar who has made some major pieces at Bullseye, was a featured player, both at the opening and afterwards: Bruce Guenther, chief curator of the Portland Art Museum, flew in to give one of the fair’s handful of lectures, Klaus Moje: Artist Innovator. And SOFA served as an unofficial coming-out party for the new Bullseye Resource Center Santa Fe, which brings workshops, classes, and Bullseye’s highly regarded glass supplies to the Southwest.
Artists and galleries arrived at SOFA West from all over the place, but the event had a distinct Southwest flavor. You could see it in the varied approaches to jewelry from Santa Fe’s Blue Rain Gallery, where Maria Samora’s exquisite contemporary cuffs and bracelets were given pristine display settings, and in the more swaggering displays at the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts booth, where the gorgeous contemporary pieces were set impertinently against backdrops of wrapped candy and galvanized nails. Rising-star artist Cody Sanderson was showing off one of his pieces, an orange coral bracelet with the concave and convex raised surfaces of anticlastic technique. It took him three or four years to find enough high-quality coral to complete the piece, he said — “so I call it Reefer Madness.”
A part of any good fair, or conference, in any field, is the inevitable lineup of sponsorship and commercial tables, where a visitor can get a good feel for just who thinks this is an important enough event to put in an appearance. Lining the hallways of the Santa Fe Convention Center were representatives of groups as varied as Washington state’s Pilchuck Glass Scool, North Carolina’s Penland School of Crafts, Collectors of Wood Art, and the International Tapestry Network, plus stacks of magazines such as American Craft, Metalsmith, Modern, Fiber Arts, and Ceramic Review.
“Do you know a lot about art quilts?” a woman at the Studio Art Quilt Associates table asked hopefully.
“Well, I guess that depends on what you mean by ‘a lot’.”
“People think it’s something that grows out of traditional quilting,” she said, pressing a pamphlet into Mr. Scatter’s hand. “But it’s very different. A lot of our artists come to quilting from completely different disciplines, and they bring their aesthetics with them. Check out our Web site. You’ll see. It has excellent reproductions.”
Garth Clark, the prominent gallerist and writer who lobbed a hand grenade into the Portland arts scene a couple of years ago when he delivered a provocative talk called How Envy Killed the Crafts Movement: An Autopsy in Two Parts, was a big player at SOFA West. He and partner Mark Del Vecchio live and work in Santa Fe these days, and their booth featured one of SOFA West’s best and most overtly political artists, Diego Romero.
Romero, brother of the important contemporary painter Mateo Romero (they call themselves “the Chongo brothers,” a term for Indian men who wear their hair in a traditional bun), is the son of a white mother and a Cochiti Indian father, and split his time as a child between Berkeley, California, and the Cochiti Pueblo between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. A superb technician, he’s brought a sharp contemporary edge to his pottery, combining his affection for comic-book style with a sophisticated sense of art history and a deep understanding of the racial, cultural and religious turmoil that arrived with the influx of Spanish and Anglo colonizers. A lot of his work is leavened with humor, and some of it celebrates the erotic, but it can also be both pointed and unsparing in its depiction of Indians’ place in history (including atrocities inflicted by priests and others) and contemporary politics. Here, perhaps more than anywhere else at SOFA West, craft and art fused into a potent and inseparable expression. Yes, you can have your decoration and think about it, too.
The afternoon after opening night’s disaster with the bead-studded kewpie doll, Mr. Scatter stopped by the Lyons Wier Gallery booth again. There, standing on a pedestal — this time shoved closer to the back wall, pretty much out of harm’s way — a big-eyed chubby figure stared out at the passing crowd.
“Is that the one that broke last night?” he asked the gallery attendant in amazement.
“Yes, it is,” she replied.
“How in the world did the artist get it fixed?”
“She got up very early in the morning.”
Which points a non-accusatory finger at a fortunate truth: Sometimes, craft saves art.
And, as Diego Romero’s work reveals, vice versa.
ILLUSTRATIONS, from top:
- Geoffrey Gorman’s invented creatures at SOFA West, from Jane Sauer Gallery, Santa Fe.
- Jan Huling, “Kewpo Libre,” 2010. Mixed media, beads, 16.5 x 9 x 4.5 inches. Lyons Wier Gallery, New York.
- Detail, “In Chephren’s Temple,” Mary Merkel-Hess, 2010; reed, paper, paint; each of three figures 31 x 18 x 18 inches. browngrotta arts/Wilton, CT.
- Carol Shinn, “Chimney Rock,” 2010; freestyle machine embroidery, 16.5 x 43.5 inches. Jane Sauer Gallery, Santa Fe. Photo: Randy Shinn.
- Klaus Moje, “Borders 3,” 2010. Kilnformed glass, 22.75 x 15.25 x 1 inches. Bullseye Gallery, Portland. Photo: R. Little.
- Syoryu Honda, “Reincarnation,” 2010, bamboo; TAI Gallery/Santa Fe.
- Diego Rivera, “Paris and Helen,” detail, terra cotta bowl. Clark+Del Vecchio/Santa Fe.