I am standing in an all-white gallery, trying to get a handle on what is "new" and "West Coast" about the folding screen before me. A lovely, substantial object, the screen features big round windows, like portholes. Each window holds a different colored design, sea anemones perhaps, or bright abstract patterns that resemble a sea urchin's underbelly. The screen, made by Beatrice Tesdorf, is beautiful. There is something watery and mesmerizing about the glass. I imagine taking it between my teeth. I imagine standing there, forever, sinking into its deep, rich colors. I've had this response before, but in front of two very different types of objects, a set of breath-taking stained-glass windows, and a particularly fine color-field painting by Mark Rothko.
New West Coast Design is full of such beautiful objects, things that toe the line between "glamorous" and "prosaic." Craft objects move me in a peculiar way. On a certain level, a bowl is a bowl, and one can never quite detach it from the mundane. Craft objects are the objects that live with us. They are, for the majority of us out there, the art of everyday life.
Art critics love to debate the line between "high" and "low" in art. When we speak of art, we descend into tangled webs of theory and aesthetics. Craft, with its connotations of the hand, and of labor, work, and physical skill, seems to live in another realm. Rightly or wrongly, I find craft more democratic than art. There's something refreshing about going to a craft exhibition, falling in love with the objects, and then walking home with an exceptionally well-made piece -- and then using that piece in everyday life.
New West Coast Design presents a multitude of objects -- surfboards, vanity tables, earrings, evening bags -- that are familiar and intimate, yet utterly exquisite. It is a big show with big ideas. Spread out across five separate venues, the exhibition (or constellation of exhibitions) draws from 170 artists, across 3 states and a variety of media. The exhibition takes up "the West Coast craft and design movement," arguing that the West Coast has long been a source for fresh, daring design. There is, of course, a blurry line between craft (which is never mass-produced) and design (which can be mass-produced). But the curators of New West Coast Design firmly situate contemporary West Coast craft and design within the modernist tradition. Whether handmade or mass-produced, these objects owe a collective debt to the Arts & Crafts movement on one hand, and modernist design on the other. This dichotomy gives New West Coast Design a blurry theoretical framework, but allows the curators to include a truly sprawling array of objects.
At Velvet da Vinci, we find jewelry and metalwork from both ends of the spectrum, but with a marked emphasis on craft. Kim Eric Lilot's Endangered Species Carousel and Carol Salisbury's Life Cycle of the Poppy are classic examples of the jeweler's art, while Judith Selby Lang's Got Milk? bracelet (made from milk-carton pull tabs) and Melissa Tolar's assemblage brooches are less conventional. Most of the objects at Velvet da Vinci announced themselves as products of intense labor.
A walk through Velvet da Vinci clarifies that there are no dominant ideologies today, no hard and fast guidelines. Though most of the jewelry designers in New West Coast Design owe something to modernism -- here and there, we keep picking up echoes of Bauhaus, of Constructivism, even Minimalism -- unlike their twentieth-century counterparts, these artists are everywhere.
The Contemporary Objects portion of the show, on view at the Museum of Craft + Design, is just as broad and varied as the jewelry and metalwork portion at Velvet da Vinci. Today, designers shy away from dogma. There are many roads to design, and not all of them look the same. So we can have, in the same exhibition, a pair of minimalist translucent fiberglass surfboards, a strange rectangular felt (or boiled wool) chair by Mike and Maaike, and a scarab-shaped jewelry case by Allison MacLennan. The strongest objects at the Museum of Craft + Design were also the simplest ones. Several designers (artists?) eschewed the contemporary enthusiasm for baroque ornamentation, shaping delicate materials (glass, ceramics) into strong, graphic forms. Three plates by James Aarons floated on the walls, eerie, like black-rimmed moons, their pristine white surfaces crossed by a multitude of delicate, Agnes Martin-like lines. A set of graphic bowls by Christina Corbin popped against the museum's all-white decor. Corbin's bowls alternately brought to mind African pots and '60s "op art." There isn't much to Lee Miltier's handblown glassware, just a set of perfectly balanced volumes, all executed in paper-thin glass.
New West Coast Design confirmed that, yes, there is such a thing as strong new design on the West Coast. The exhibition is less clear on the "West Coast" portion. I left wondering what, if anything, unites these artists. I took the exhibition as a twenty-first century equivalent of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century design expositions. These expositions functioned as a kind of visual sourcebook, delighting and inspiring visitors. New West Coast Design did the same for me.
Contemporary Objects is at the Museum of Craft + Design through April 27, 2008.
Jewelry & Metalwork is at Velvet Da Vinci Gallery through February 17, 2008. New West Coast Design exhibits include:
Is it a Fiber Show? at Bucheon Gallery through February 16, 2006.
Book and Book Arts at San Franciscio Center for the Book through April 25, 2008.
The State of the Art Quilt at Art Works Downtown through February 28, 2008.
[NOTE: Ceramic Artist James Aarons, whose work is mentioned in this article, is the partner of KQED Arts & Culture Editor, Mark Taylor.]