Friday, April 2, 2010

Ladies First at Art Palace

I'm not sure I understand why this is an all-woman show. There is no over-arching theme that the work speaks to. Maybe it's that some of the pieces reflect arts that have traditionally been part of the world of women--home decoration and knitting, for example.

Regardless of whatever guiding curatorial principle there may be, the work speaks for itself. There's a lot of interesting art here. I've made it pretty clear in the past that I like Elaine Bradford's work. Her thing has been to take taxidermied animals or taxidermy forms and to knit colorful new "skins" for the critters, often altering them to become fantasy fauna. She has been, in a sense, creating in three dimensions what Dr. Seuss did with pen and ink. They are delightful.

This time around, she used duck decoys and plants as her base. The ducks are actually combined with the plant elements. In addition to this, and in addition to her customary knitting, she has added a variety of decorative odds and ends.

Elaine Bradford
Elaine Bradford, I want the whole world, mixed media, 2010

The additional decorative elements are things like dried flowers, feathers, and mylar fringe. It's the kind of stuff you would get at Hobby Lobby for party decorations, table centerpieces, etc. My problem with it is that I don't think it adds anything. In fact, I think it distracts from the basic concept. She's already asking a lot of viewers to accept that her knitting is actually the "skin" of a new species. I think we accept it because it's beautiful and funny and delightful. But this other stuff? It's like a cake with way too much icing on it.

I really liked Margarita Cabrera's tools. Cabrera had a show at Box 13 recently that had an interesting concept but which was ultimately disappointing. (Michael Bise disagrees. By the way, I want to acknowledge that Michael Bise is one of the best critics in Houston--there aren't too many of us, and I'm obviously just a dillettante. But Bise is thoughtful and more than willing to go to the mat with the art he writes about.) But her pieces here are modest and homey and funny.

Margarita Cabrera
Margarita Cabrera, Arbol de la Vida (Pico/Pick), clay, slip paint, hardware, 2008

Calling something "modest" may sound like I am damning it with faint praise. But what makes me use that word is that Cabrera has created deliberately unobtrusive pieces. I imagine them in a house where the walls are covered with decorations--framed photographs, other ceramic decorations, etc. Only when you notice them amid the clutter would you realize how strange they are. (Of course, on the white walls of a modern art gallery, they are more visible.) Each piece is a tool slip cast clay, and attached to each one are little decorative clay birds and flowers.

Margarita Cabrera
Margarita Cabrera, Arbol de la Vida (Cerrucho/Saw), clay, slip paint, hardware, 2008

The little decorative elements, along with the un-glazed brown ceramic, feels really Mexican, but I don't have any specific images or objects I can reference for that.

Margarita Cabrera
Margarita Cabrera, Arbol de la Vida (Martillo/Hammer), clay, slip paint, hardware, 2008

Of the three, the hammer is the most encrusted with birds and flowers. The titles are Spanish for "Tree of Life." There is a contrast between traditional masculine and feminine things in these pieces--hand tools contrasted with homey decoration. I don't know what is being said here, I can't say what these pieces mean. But I like them a lot.

My favorite pieces in the show are by Bari Ziperstein. She takes furniture and chinzty decorative ceramics and recombines them. The vintage of the basic material is similar to that used by Wayne White, and I bet they find it at many of the same thrift stores, flea markets and yard sales.

Bari Ziperstein
Bari Ziperstein, Fruit Full, altered slip cast, earthenware, finished with low fire glaze, on metal stand, 2009

As strange as her recombined kitsch is, it doesn't feel like a criticism of the source material. It's really loving in a way, and by turning these things into deeply weird pieces, she refocuses our attention on them. If we saw them in a thrift store or on the mantle in the home of a nice little old lady, we might not pay much attention.

Bari Ziperstein
Bari Ziperstein, Singular Herd, altered slip cast, earthenware, finished with low fire glaze & gold luster, 2008

Ziperstein is not doing anything new; this has been a strategy of art ever since Duchamp. But the use of common objects to create art is not the point here--the point is what objects are used and how they are reimagined. Ziperstein is really pulling up a specific time and place and making it strange, foregrounding the strangeness that always lay within. I had a similar feeling when I watched Blue Velvet for the first time. When an artist can make me feel this way, well, I'm impressed.

Bari Ziperstein
Bari Ziperstein, Perfect Pitch, altered slip cast, earthenware, finished with low fire glaze, gold luster & wooden base, 2009

Bari Ziperstein
Bari Ziperstein, Pirate Head, altered slip cast, earthenware, finished with low fire glaze & gold luster, 2009

In addition to the ceramic pieces, she created an installation out of chopped up pieces of old end tables.

Bari Ziperstein
Bari Ziperstein, For Display Purposes I, altered thrift store end tables, 2008

 Ziperstein has created an homage to a certain type of home from a certain period in time. The familiar furniture and ceramic nick-nacks become something really compelling in her hands.

There is also other work in the show, but these three artists are the ones who really stood out for me. This work is at Art Palace through May 1.

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