Against the Grain

Against the Grain

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Ulla West Divided Heart, 2004, plastic bags, crochet {h. 9.75 in, w. 7.75, d. 7.75}.

Scandinavian artists trump modernist aesthetics with individuality.

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
Irreverent: Contemporary Nordic Craft Art
January 23-April 12, 2009
San Francisco, California

For many, the idea of Scandinavian craft evokes simple but elegant lines, an emphasis on functionality and a modernist aesthetic that generates objects for an everyperson ideal. "Irreverent: Contemporary Nordic Craft Art," at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, asks us to reconsider those presuppositions. Collectively, the works, by 10 artists, not only challenge stylistic assumptions, but also suggest a rupture with modernist principles. Democratic design, like modernist aesthetics, can be alternately liberating and oppressive, promising equality for all, but sacrificing the quirks and pleasures of individual personality. This show makes a case for those idiosyncrasies.

The work of Eva Hild (Sweden) bears the trace of the sleek lines and sensuous curves usually associated with Scandinavian modernism, but taken to the nth degree. Her white stoneware constructions are a symphony of interwoven lines, spaces and shapes. As each form begins to curl in and enclose, a suggestion of interior spaces, it quickly opens back up to another exterior. Her work is a rigorous investigation of interior and exterior, positive and negative, containment and release, form and line. But it blurs those perceived binaries, proposing that not everything need be resolved into an either/or.

For Frida Fjellman (Sweden), the debased associations with kitsch are a strength. A large ceramic fox lies in the corner in weary repose, and glass owls adorn a chandelier that is by turns ornate and tacky. It's as if fussy figurines have been enlarged with the result that all the sentimental attachments one might ascribe to them expand to reveal a greater emotional complexity.

Anni Rapinoja (Finland ) and Ulla West (Sweden) both turn found material into quasi-functional forms. Rapinoja collects purple reeds and white pussy willows, but skips any processing step and uses them straight from nature to create a coat, hat, shoes and purse. The forms are alternately stylish and fragile, inviting us to wear them, but threatening disintegration should we do so. By contrast, West collects postconsumer waste such as discarded plastic shopping bags and crochets them into ropey tangled networks with lit tips. They look like organs-a heart, a stomach, intestines. Examining Rapinoja's work next to West's, the viewer is invited to reconsider the strategies through which we interact with our natural and our man-made surroundings.

A cross-culural form is achieved by Trine Mauritz Eriksen (Norway), who subjects Norwegian wool to the Japanese shibori dyeing technique and then mounts thin woolen strips vertically on a metal frame, some hung flat, some twisted. The result is like an activated Bridget Riley painting. But instead of flat paint, Eriksen's form rises up and twists away from the picture plane so that as the viewer shifts position, so does the image. It unfixes any proposed singular viewpoint of a "painting" and reveals that multiplicity sometimes trumps singularity. Breaking with the principle that form follows function, Anders Ruhwald (Denmark) in Ribbon Room presents a series of six furniture-sized ceramic sculptures, glazed in muted candy colors. The forms can be read as variations on stools or tables, but with a cancer introduced into the form-giving process. Rather than displaying these as discrete works atop pedestals, a device that distances the viewer from the object, Ruhwald has carpeted the floor and created "walls" out of alternating pale blue and white ribbon. Stepping into the "room" is like stepping onto a pedestal; the viewer is now implicated into the same space as the objects.

Louise Nippierd (Norway) works with aluminum and animal fur to fashion seductive pieces that hover between extravagant necklace and restrictive collar. Visually alluring but unwieldy, they remind us of the discomfort of looking good. Nippierd denies the wearer the expected pleasure of fur by turning it away from contact with the skin; the owner of the work thus suffers along with the animals.

In organizing "Irreverent," curator Kate Eilertsen provides us with the opportunity to reconsider our increasingly destabilized ideas about art, craft and design. By collecting an array of objects that are in some way rooted to craft through techniques and materials, she helps us see beyond the everyday functional nature of the work into that interesting border between functional and sculptural objects. Thus are we encouraged to consider the ways that the things we surround ourselves with con­tribute as much to the way we think and organize our world as the visual culture that bombards us daily.