Visual Arts

The Most -- and Least -- Useful Items in "Beyond Useful" at the Center for Contemporary Craft

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.

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Meredith Deliso
Contact: Meredith Deliso