Figures: Alone and Together

Craft Alliance, through April 16

Craft Alliance's Figures: Alone and Together, curated by Gail M. Brown, brings together works by 39 nationally known artists, working in a variety of media, who address that age-old artistic staple: the human figure. The prospect of a figurative show isn't exactly riveting. To make it work, an exhibition would really need to include some critical or self-critical dimension. Exhibitions can often get by with even weaker premises than "the figure," if they organize their premise around contemporary cultural and theoretical debates. But such things are not in the interest of the Craft Alliance, where the emphasis clearly falls more on "craft" and less on "theory." (It even appears that the Craft Alliance lacks interest in the theoretical issues surrounding the definition of "craft" itself; that, however, is another thing.)

So Figures: Alone and Together delivers up the expected: a survey of interesting works that deal, more or less overtly, with the figure. The best works in the exhibition feature the figure only secondarily; the primary interest lies elsewhere, usually in the artist's manual skill, or the sheer imaginative force that generates the form, or the very potent, suggestive content.

The best work in the show feels oddly out of place. Theresa Batty is represented by three works -- "Love Me Tender," "Maryska" and "Brother-Sister/Sister-Brother," recent constructions consisting of found photographs transferred to photosensitized cast-glass pieces in the forms of houses. When viewed through 5 or so inches of clear glass, the photos become distorted, as if submerged in deep water, just beyond our grasp. Like memories, they are present but lack clarity. There's a conceptual weight to these pieces that sets them apart from the other works in the show.

A number of pieces are witty and well done at once: Mark Hartung's "Still Searching," a small copper construction based on turn-of-the-century toy forms, is nostalgic without being sickly-sweet; Hirotsune Tachima's stoneware "Family Enchilada" is hilarious. Willy Sholten's colored wire-mesh figures-within-figures ("Rosemary and Son," "Lori and Mother") are visually keen; they leave you wanting to see more and more and more.

Most of the works come complete with lengthy artist statements attached, which is not always such a good thing. Often these read like painful, heartfelt confessionals; they can certainly detract from enjoyment of the pieces for their visual lyricism. Case in point: Ann Wood's "Touched" and "Brick" are fascinating constructions, with crushed eggshells forming mosaiclike frames around complex, delicate bead compositions. They're utterly absorbing visually. But Wood's statement explains that the pieces are ultimately about the sexual abuse she endured as a teenager. It's hard to enjoy the pieces in the same way after reading that.

Too many of the works in this show are narrowly personal. It's as if some of these artists use the figure as a kind of surrogate self through which they can work out individual crises. The practice of art is, for some, a kind of self-therapy; however, art-as-therapy doesn't always make for good art, and knowing about the artist's internal crisis can actually make the art less enjoyable for the viewer. Words of advice: Look at the art. Read the artists' statements at your own discretion.

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