Contemporary craft artists have a habit of toying with functionality in an effort to separate what's art from what's craft or decorative items. The dynamic can get tiresome after you've seen one too many ceramic tools or aluminum blobs. But as CraftTexas, a juried exhibition at Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, proves, there are still surprises to be had (spoiler alert!).
The biennial show purports to feature the best in Texas-made contemporary craft, and the 40 artists featured don't call that into question. They also provide some great variety, working in clay, glass, metal and wood, though the most striking pieces had wood in common. Paula Gron is a basket weaver by nature, but used her skills to concoct a wooden handle with found tree branches protruding creepily, chaotically from it like some alien takeover. For all its creepiness, it's not without a sense of humor -- the piece is called "My Toothbrush."
Danny Kamerath also works in wood. He provides one of the more iconic pieces of the show -- a chair named "Jill" that has four knobs jutting out from the spine like the pegs on an upright bass -- and one that is likely the first piece you'll see. But I found his "Table for Two" more compelling. He's crafted two Barbie-sized chairs and a table out of a stump of yaupon holly. The stump leans at all angles, pulling apart this quaint little set and making you feel incredibly uneasy in its unevenness. The dining room table -- often seen as a domestic rock -- is coming apart.
The absence of wood also plays a part in "CraftTexas" in George Sacaris's "Faux Bois Stumps" -- "stumps" of aluminum that sprout from the floor and even have remnants of severed tree limbs jutting from their sides. But these highly polished pieces don't try too hard to fool you, which I like. They're too polished and shiny, for one, and they come in all sorts of unnatural colors, from rose to an Excel-logo green. In not resembling the stumps it so clearly does try to resemble, the piece makes you think about those differences even more.
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"The Optimist Luggage" by David Bogus, on the other hand, is a piece that tries desperately to fool you. The wall installation consists of 11 pieces of patterned luggage that, upon closer inspection, are revealed to be ceramic. As a trompe-l'oeil effect, it's successful, but it's too superficial. It doesn't go beyond mere representation.
Shannon Brunskill's cast glass ironware is also too representational for me. You might be surprised to learn that these aren't iron frying pans before you, but then the trick quickly wears off and all you're left with are fake frying pans. Her three-part piece "Disintegration," however, plays a similar trick but goes beyond. She creates three glass sculptures in the shape of a frying pan that rot from within till you're only left with the handle. There's this self-destructive element to it that is really intriguing, and the idea of these pieces falling apart through their own use and mere existence no matter how well you try to craft them.
There's much more to see and like, from Diana Kersey's bonkers "Bird Pot" earthenware to Steve Hilton's epic wall installation, "Tea for ?" The latter is a clear winner in the show, even literally (Hilton, along with Gron and Sacaris, won jurors' prizes). It consists of families of teapots constructed out of stoneware. They sprout horizontally from the wall almost organically and resemble gnarls and knobs of wood, which in and of itself is a neat effect. But the teapots also seem to congregate like people do, even possessing distinct physical attributes. The longer you look at them, the more they seem to be reflections of ourselves.
"CraftTexas 2012" at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, 4848 Main, runs now through December 30. For more information, call 713-529-4848 or visit www.crafthouston.org.