Tradition/Innovation: American Masterpieces of Southern Craft & Traditional Art

Tradition/Innovation: American Masterpieces of Southern Craft & Traditional Art


Jon Eric Riis, Freedom's Price, 2005
Photo/Bart's Art.

Atlanta History Center Atlanta, Georgia March 1 – May 18, 2008

The South as a region capable of preserving craft traditions through the generations even as it attracts contemporary artists is highlighted in this touring exhibit organized by the Southern Arts Federation. "Tradition/Innovation: American Masterpieces of Southern Craft & Traditional Art" provides a curious mix of 120 works by 58 master craftsmen living in the region. Some follow traditional means of perpetuating a cultural heritage, while others consciously create something new. The viewer must tease out the not always obvious connections between the two.

Kathleen Mundell, curator of the traditional component of the show, selected the featured artists "based on their lineage and their reputation." Thus, Jerry Brown, a ninth-generation potter, is among the exhibiting artists, along with legacy basket makers, quilters, weavers, wood carvers, furniture makers, boat builders, a blacksmith and others.

The curator of the studio craft component, appropriately, was Jean McLaughlin, director of the Penland School of Craft in North Carolina, a nexus for craft education in the United States. The works she selected are more diverse by virtue of contemporary craft's ever-expanding vocabulary of international influences, new materials and forms and the inclination of many artists to use an object to express social or political commentary.

At the Atlanta History Center, the show's opening venue, a steel-and-glass sculpture representing an antiquated farm machine occupied the gallery entrance, symbolically combining the old and the new. Titled Amish, 1994, this visually compelling piece by Gene Koss features serpentine wheels suggesting movement and an arch of curved tines filled with glass blocks. The glass is embellished with corncob imprints and strands of color suggesting straw, a spider and other debris that might be upturned in a field.

Irony and sociopolitical commentary distinguish several contemporary works. In Blood of the Slaughtered, Part 1, 2001, a quilt, Gwendolyn A. Magee expresses outrage at the nation's history of lynching through a symbol of comfort. Organizing her composition in vertical columns like a newspaper, Magee lists African Americans lynched in the early 20th century, assiduously recording each name and state and interspersing graphic accounts of torture with the names. A black, white and gray palette reinforces the grim narrative, as does the cord framing the work. Freedom's Price, 2005, by Jon Eric Riis, woven of shimmering metallic thread and Swarovski crystal beads, is an opulent tapestry coat that opens to a blood red interior with a trompe l'oeil sampler reading "Home Sweet Home." It suggests the illusion of security while referring to the domestic origins of craft. Feminism is implied in Elizabeth Brim's equally ironic 'Catch' Apron with Flowers, 2007, a frilly garment made of forged and fabricated steel that stakes a woman's claim to the traditionally male-dominated field of blacksmithing.

Basketry is an area where the new seems to rise harmoniously from the old and it's not easy to tell the categories apart. Clay Burnette rejuvenates historic coiling techniques, building longleaf pine needle baskets with biomorphic shapes and iridescent colors in patterns recalling feathers or fur. Billie Ruth Sudduth modernizes a classical Shaker cat's-head basket by painting lines of small polka dots to produce an optical illusion. Bessie Johnson's expressive Gourd Basket, 2006, shines as a curvilinearconstruction of intricately woven pine needles, gourd and walnut slices-an innovation within tradition.

Ceramic variations on the vessel include Bonnie Seeman's surreal Teapot, 2007, a discomfiting hybrid of human and plant anatomy, rendered in colors evocative of the artist's Florida environment. Sinewy rhubarb stalks suggest muscles, while tiny cilia-like glass protrudes from an erotically shaped central opening. Connections between this highly detailed porcelain construction and the traditional face jugs and churns in the show remain elusive, aside from their common identity as decorated, fired vessels. Sunkoo Yuh's Consolation, 2003, a totemic porcelain grouping, seems even farther from Southern tradition, though the Korean-born ceramist claims to be deeply connected to folk art from multiple cultures, including the South. Made with 40 glazes, the haunting work is a dreamlike configuration of Christ figures, fish and fowl, and a trinity of a blue faces.

The glass category, representing only contemporary studio artists, includes an allegorical statue by Richard Jolley with sexualized Adam and Eve figures; Richard Ritter's Floral Core Series, #72, 2004, in which a core of murrini flowers is revealed between sandblasted and etched "wings"; and Mark Peiser's basket-like bowl, tightly coiled from a single line of satin glass, whose form unravels like spaghetti toward the center.

With its wide embrace, "Tradition/Innovation" may at first seem a hodgepodge until the viewer finds threads connecting the objects. While many objects have materials, techniques, form or function in common, others share thematic references to religion, nature or the stereotypical Old South. Some works from Florida, such as ceremonial Vodou pakets by Carole Demesmin, an artist of Haitian background, and retablos by Nicario Jiménez, originally from Peru, may seem outside the purview of traditional Southern craft. They offer, however, a refreshing addition to a rich cultural heritage. Viewers may wonder whether a show can be too inclusive while appreciating the diverse treasures to be found in the region.