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Magnificent Obsessions

Magnificent Obsessions

Magnificent Obsessions

April/May 2009 issue of American Craft magazine
Mediums Mixed Media

Ron MueckTwo Women, 2005, mixed media. Photo/courtesy of Ron Mueck, collection Glenn Fuhrman, New York.

Israel Museum
Bizarre Perfection
Jerusalem, Israel
December 20, 2008 -
June 6, 2009

The Israel Museum, whose encyclopedic collections include objects of supreme artistic virtuosity from a range of cultures, has organized an interdisciplinary exhibition that celebrates labor-intensive, not to say obsessive, handcraftsmanship in 50 objects by artists spanning the millennia, from anonymous craftspeople in ancient times to contemporary artists from around the world.

The show's seemingly oxymoronic title, "Bizarre Perfection," points to a number of attributes shared by these varied works. Some embody paradox, like the wedding of the mundane and the precious in Susan Collis's Also Ran a worn stepladder whose paint spatters are actually inlaid mother-of-pearl, opals and other precious stones, or the blend of hyperrealism and fantasy in Ron Mueck's portrait of two old women in conversation, a work so dead-on in its depiction of every wrinkle and facial hair, yet thrust, because of the weirdly reduced scale of the figures, into a fairy-tale realm.

Then there are the objects that bring attention to the infinite labor and its corollary, time, required to combine countless elements, as in Liza Lou's Kitchen, an everyday environment that is magically transformed by surfaces composed of millions of glass beads, or Do-Ho Suh's glass Floor detail, held up by thousands of miniature human figures made out of plastic, or Tara Donovan's massive cube out of myriad wood tooth-picks, or Roxy Paine's Psilocybe Cubensis Field, comprising 2,200 life-size polymer mushrooms, individually molded and hand-painted, that seem to sprout from the floor.

These contemporary pieces are juxtaposed with similarly remarkable treasures from different departments of the museum: an egg hand-decorated in ink with Chapter 4 of the Song of Songs in micrography (Judaica), a colorful grouping of beaded Yoruba coronets (African Art ) and a Greek terra-cotta vase in the shape of sandaled foot (Ancient Art).

Accounting for the artisanal appeal of all these works and the impetus behind the exhibition, which is occurring while the museum undergoes renovation of its permanent collection galleries, Suzanne Landau, the curator, writes, in her catalog introduction, "Perhaps our constant fascination with and appreciation of handmade activity is in part a response to the loss of originality that characterizes today's technology. And perhaps it has to do with a profound need and longing for tangible things that are awesome and enduring, for acts of creativity that echo the divine."

The 65-page catalog is $25.