Domestic craft has long been admired for its aesthetic qualities -- quilts, ceramic plates and baskets are objects of both function and beauty, inspiring exhibitions, museums and even a movement. William Morris led the Arts and Crafts Movement of the early 20th century, famously saying, "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful."
The Houston Center for Contemporary Craft borrows Morris's axiom as the launching point for its newest exhibition. "Beyond Useful & Beautiful: Rethinking Domestic Craft" presents 13 artists whose works explore usefulness and beauty in craft through a wide variety of mediums.
As is the show's intent, the textiles and ceramics presented here go beyond being mere objects or tools, subtly or explicitly commenting on such big ideas as gender and labor and challenging notions of what domestic craft can look like -- rather successfully, too (there were some items that, frankly, we couldn't tell what they were supposed to be). But after taking in the show recently, we still couldn't help but look at the pieces in the context of their use. So to follow, here are some of the highlights of the show categorized by those that are the most useful in their roles, and those that, simply, aren't.
"Elapsed Retreat" By Jennifer Halvorson
You may easily miss Halvorson's intricate glass doorknobs -- there are three of them all in a row as you enter the exhibition, found at waist-height on a pink wall as if ready to be turned to some unknown pathway, or elapsed retreat, as the title suggests. But they're not to be missed -- thanks to the tatted raw silk and ruby red glass doorplates, they're sweet, romantic pieces that are reminiscent of some earlier, maybe Victorian, era. They're apt introductions to "Beyond Useful," too -- they show off craftsmanship, beauty and function. Except, of course, for the fact that there's no keyhole for the hanging cast glass key to unlock. You'll just have to get a deadbolt.
"Selections from Plate Collections: Fair Winds, Blue and White and Roseware" By Darryl Lauster
Lauster is a scholar of American history and mythology, and these porcelain plates are a product of that, decorated with such iconic American images as the Statue of Liberty and a teepee -- they seem destined to be served during Thanksgiving dinner. The faint, faded pink gives the impression that these are heirlooms, though they've been made as recently as four years ago.
"Handmade / Homemade Series: Grammy's Runner By Blake Jamison Williams
Williams's piece looks like something you'd come across at a furniture store, thanks to the spotlight and platform -- the only thing missing is the plastic price tag. The main element here, though, is not the table, but the elegant runner stretching across it. The small ceramic components are in the shape and size of the bones found in the human hand. How's that for a conversation starter?
"Bedroom Buddies" By Aaron McIntosh
McIntosh came up in rural Tennessee, where the pastime of choice was quilting, unless you were male. Given his gender, McIntosh was not allowed to quilt -- it was deemed "women's work." That didn't stop the artist from exploring fibers as an adult, and he certainly shows them in this clever, comic specimen. The comforter is made using the cover of a gay magazine, something usually confined to under the mattress but here blown up and digitally printed on cotton sateen. The added grandmotherly paisley patterns are just another great touch.
"Handmade / Homemade Series: Nourish" By Blake Jamison Williams
Williams makes her second appearance on this list, this time with a more colorful creation (with the bold teal and complementing orange, we can see why the museum chose this as the lead art on all its marketing). The artist employs the same bone construct here, this time on an apron "textile." Though as is, it looks more like those car seat massage cushions dads use.
"Touchmarks: No. 901 Made in India" By Venetia Dale
"No. 901" is, as implied by the anonymous, numbered title, one in a series of plastic baskets cast in pewter. All pewter, but completely unique, they comment on the long history of basket making, in the face of mass production. None are as visually striking as "No. 901," though, with its impressive silhouette. Though as is, collapsed upon itself, it's pretty useless as a basket.
"Half" By Jennifer Ling Datchuk
Someone please tell us what this is. This porcelain piece left us baffled and slightly disturbed. We're not sure which bothered us the most -- the balls of wound hair slightly visible under the lids, or the intricate, pointy chicken feet that serve as the handles on the top. Needless to say, though, it's one that'll stick with you long after you leave the show.
"Nail Trimmer" By Jan Arthur Harrell
By name alone, this piece seems useful -- that is, until you look at it. This "nail trimmer" would take your hand off. It's part of Harrell's clever Vanitas series, comprised of objects that are larger-than-life versions of powder puffs, combs, nail brushes and clippers made from repurposed farm tools, before the artist gussied them up with femininely colored enamel. It's a humorous comment on male and female divisions of labor, with these manly tools now co-opted for a women's beauty regimen, however inept they are in those roles. Which is kind of the point. Vanitas is Latin for "emptiness," and is often used to describe the meaninglessness of material goods.
"Between What I Say and What I Keep Silent" By Lauren Mayer
Mayer coated various pieces of fabric in porcelain slip and stacked them as you would in a drawer before firing them to create the hardened versions before you. The result is something that looks like the frozen remnants of Pompeii -- once-viable items now made permanent, via lava or, in this case, porcelain, like a sculpture. It's a neat visual -- the bras and shirts are all perfectly white and wonderfully textured in a way that only folded clothes can be, but are still nonetheless completely unwearable.
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"Vanity" By Shannon Brunskill
Brunskill's piece is one of the most stunning in the show, which, given its impressive display of craftsmanship and provocative ideas, is saying a lot. It's intentionally imperfect, but that's part of its charm, and the cast glass looks gorgeous on the dark wood. As a vanity, though, it's pretty useless -- the cloudy, cracked glass is a poor substitute for a mirror (at least you won't have to worry about seven years bad luck). But it'll still have you standing before it, admiring the form, if not your own reflection.
"Beyond Useful & Beautiful: Rethinking Domestic Craft" will be on view through January 8 at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, 4848 Main St. For information, call 713-529-4848 or visit www.crafthouston.org.