Something about The New Yankee Workshop on HGTV makes me want to stick my head in a drill press. Norm Abram (of This Old House fame) doggedly creates a $69.95 retail bench from $150 worth of lumber through 187 intricate steps -- measuring, sawing, planing, chiseling, nailing, joining, gluing, sanding and staining until his Yankee fingers snap off in the New England cold. Some of us do not have the temperament of craftsmen. Fortunately, Darryl Lauster does. And in his new exhibition at Devin Borden Hiram Butler Gallery, Lauster's craftsmanship is manifested in hydrocal and resin facsimiles of American decorative arts classics from the 18th century.
The Houston sculptor has an innate appreciation for the formal qualities of beautifully crafted furniture. Lauster was introduced to woodworking as a child in rural New York state, a region with a long history of furniture making, and he still uses the hand-turned lathe his father gave him when he was 15. For a time, he even had his own furniture-making business.
Today, working from measurements and visual observation of objects in the collections of Bayou Bend, the Smithsonian and the Winterthur Museum, Lauster painstakingly attempts to duplicate pitchers, teacups, tea tables and chairs. He isn't allowed to touch, much less cast, the real thing, and sometimes he has to work solely from photographs.
Lauster has a history of trying to re-create or preserve in his work: He's cast magnolia blossoms and diligently reassembled broken eggshells. His current series began two years ago with clay models of baroque and neoclassical silver teapots and porcelain cups. He created molds of the models and reproduced the objects in clear resin. Lauster started reproducing the furniture as a means of displaying these smaller objects, but the furniture winds up stealing the show. A translucent chair feels more alien and has more sheer visual impact than tableware in the same acrylic resin.
The chalky white hydrocal tea table and side table were Lauster's first forays into large-scale casting, but the objects are most successful when translated into resin that is then sandblasted to create a frosted, fragile beauty. The slender, crystalline legs of a basin stand seem perilously close to snapping. The rococo frame of a parlor chair looks like a glassy skeleton. A Shaker tea table becomes strangely contemporary, its tripod feet displaying Alexander Calderesque curves.
For Lauster, the point of his reproductions is to draw attention to the design of the originals. By recontextualizing the objects, he seeks to focus on their formal aspects, the quality of their lines and shapes. In fact, he regards craftsmen as "predecessors to American formalist sculptors such as Donald Judd, David Smith or Alexander Calder." Lauster includes in his artist's statement a Kasimir Malevich quote that sums up the conventional attitude toward craft: "If it is useful, it cannot be art." But Lauster feels that the "decorative arts" should be presented as part of the lineage of high art. One can make the case that baroque furniture and baroque painting grew out of the same cultural zeitgeist. Developing the form of a vessel or the lines of a chair is an art, and the people who created these objects contributed them to the public visual consciousness.
But the most intriguing aspect of the project is Lauster's own obsessively rigorous attempt to re-create the output of these skilled craftsmen. In demi-Luddite fashion, his wooden replicas are crafted almost entirely with hand tools. He takes the individual sections of a chair or a table and creates molds. Using the resin, he casts the parts, down to the pegs that join them. The resulting pieces are then meticulously assembled using the resin pegs. Lauster has taken a laborious process and cubed it. Eat your heart out, Norm.
Lauster's results come close to the originals but won't fool anybody on the Antiques Roadshow (a program that Lauster finds "absolutely riveting"). This failing at verisimilitude not only reinforces the extreme excellence of the originals but also serves to make his pieces more engaging. His resin model of an 1850 New Orleans cream pitcher has a quirky chunkiness and a snoutlike spout that impart an animated quality. The ball and claw feet of the hydrocal side table may be less elegant than the original, but they have a genial idiosyncrasy. If he were able to cast the objects directly and exactly, the results would be far less interesting.
In his attempt to re-create, Lauster creates something else entirely. Drawn to the art of useful objects, he renders them beautifully useless. One wonders what Malevich would think.
As always, Houston has far more art than we can possibly cover. En route to spending the country back to normalcy, swing by these shows:
"Secret Wars" If it's good enough for the FBI, it's good enough for you (see "Quirky Yes, Al Qaeda No," by Jennifer Mathieu, November 15). Visit this pre-9/11 exhibition of art-as-political-commentary for a refreshing, First Amendment good time. Plus, you can show your relatives the art cars. Art Car Museum, 140 Heights Boulevard, 713-861-5526. Through February 24.
"David Fulton: Walking" Sculptor David Fulton continues his linear fascination as he moves to two-dimensional art. Especially nice is the trio Coastlines for D., covered with pale and meandering parallel lines of geographic origin. Fulton thins the paint until it becomes like a stain on the raw canvas. It's interesting new work from an artist who has managed to create witty, unexpected beauty from frosted Plexiglas and other people's soap slivers. New Gallery, 2639 Colquitt, 713-520-7053. Through January 6.
"The School of the South" A museum-quality exhibition of modernist work from Latin American artists associated with the workshop of Joaquín Torres-García in Montevideo, Uruguay. Torres-García studied in Spain, knew Picasso and advised Joan Miró. He influenced a generation of artists to meld elements of indigenous American art with aspects of constructivism and geometric abstraction. Sicardi Gallery, 2623 Kipling, 713-529-1313. Through December 30.
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