Five years in Los Angeles and I finally made it to the Craft and Folk Art Museum with a Southern California ArtTable event and I’m glad I did. The museum is practically across the street from LACMA and is a few doors down from the new Los Angeles branch of the Sprueth Magers Gallery. Two exhibitions are on view through May 8, 2016.
The first, Little Dreams in Glass and Metal, presents paintings, sculptures and objects selected from a vast collection of American work in enamel dating from 1920 to the present belonging to the Los Angeles-based Enamel Arts Foundation. Bernard N. Jazzar and Harold B. Nelson, who established the foundation devoted to this under-documented art form, are both specialists in design (the latter is Curator of American Decorative Arts at the Huntington Library); they curated the exhibition and authored the book accompanying the traveling exhibition. Enameling is an ancient process whereby powdered glass is fused to metal through a brief, high temperature (kiln) firing process. Works in the exhibition range from small, wearable jewelry to large wall panels. While a few of the pieces are far more accomplished versions of the “art” seen in the Bronx apartments of family relations during my childhood (enameling flourished as a hobbyist’s craft at mid-century), there are also any number of remarkable works.
Among the standouts are two vessels, one with walls resembling stitched-together fabrics in jewel tones, by the San Francisco-based artist June Schwarcz, who died last year at age 97. (Like Louise Bourgeois and Beatrice Wood, Schwarcz’s example suggests sculptor as a profession of choice for women seeking longevity.) Schwarcz, who but did not have a dealer the last twenty years of her life, but is considered “the foremost enamellist in the country,” will be the subject of a retrospective exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in 2017. Another artist whose work caught my eye was Gretchen Goss, a professor at the Cleveland Institute of Art, who is represented by a work consisting of five uniquely shaped enamel-on-copper plates whose surfaces are embedded with digital images of treetops (transferred by means of a gum bichromate process). Each panel is beautiful and makes so complete a statement that it could well stand alone.
Several works in series were shown in the second exhibition on view, Made in China: New Ceramic Works by Keiko Fukazawa. Fukazawa was born and raised in Japan, came to Los Angeles in 1984 to study ceramics at Otis College of Art and Design and then began to teach and is now head of ceramics at Pasadena City College. The sculpture in the CAFAM exhibition, which is her first solo museum show, was produced during three residencies in Jingdezhen, China. Jingdezhen is the historical (2000-year- old) center of China’s fine-porcelain production and today has ceramic factories in dizzying abundance mass-producing dishware, statues and objects for the tourist trade. Fukazawa worked with local skilled artisans to produce many of the objects in her exhibition, using existing ceramic products and techniques in new ways to create new forms. These works comment upon capitalism and consumerism in contemporary China as well as upon the continuing cult of Mao.
In her Hundred Flower Series, local craftspeople worked with her to alter the molds for standard busts and sculptures of Mao Zedong to which were added flowers produced by still other artisans. The resulting portraits are mesmerizing and speak to the ambivalent status in China today of Mao, who is revered as a leader (hence the continued proliferation of statues) and reviled for his ruthlessness. The title of the series refers to Mao’s 1956 Hundred Flowers Campaign that encouraged citizens to criticize the Communist Party, but was curtailed a year later so that those who spoke out were imprisoned or “reeducated.” Fukazawa’s works of this series recall the portrait busts of the Beijing-born, Sydney-based artist Ah Xian, who sought political asylum in Australia as a young man after the traumas of Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. In 1999, Ah Xian traveled to Jingdezhen, where he employed artisans to paint porcelain body casts made from live models using traditional porcelain-painting techniques and motifs. Representing different ends of the political spectrum, Fukazawa’s Maos and Ah Xian’s everyday people are equally mute yet speak volumes.
Fukazawa’s Chinese Landscape Series features rectangular porcelain boxes normally used as lamp bases and umbrella stands, upon which porcelain painting specialists were enlisted to render traditional Chinese landscape paintings. Close looking reveals that McDonald’s Golden Arches, airplanes and the Shanghai skyline appear in these not-so-traditional paintings, as well as the occasional abstract splat or a polka dot motif. The “LV” logo of Louis Vuitton covers the sides and often the faces of the boxes, evoking the costly luggage made by a company whose luxury goods are coveted by the Chinese and often copied in China’s prodigious knockoff market. Fukazawa’s sculptures, which are as gorgeous as they are amusing and clever, also point to her fellow Japanese artist Takashi Murakami’s collaborations with Louis Vuitton in the design of handbags, luggage and the like.
Finally, Fukazawa’s Spout Monsters were inspired by her having found discarded spouts for teapots on Jingdezhen greenware factory floors. She “recycled” them into a charming series of non-functional works that simultaneously evoke traditional dishware and mutated creatures. When I was in Beijing in August 2015, I saw an installation by Ai Weiwei at Tang Contemporary Gallery that I initially thought was a field made of bones. It was instead a “carpet,” measuring about 16 x 14 feet, reportedly consisting of antique spouts from Song to Qing Dynasty teapots.
If Fukazawa’s works find parallels and precedents elsewhere in art, this testifies to their contemporaneity. Each presents forms and make statements that are very much their own. That said, it is remarkable to me that although the artist was represented by Garth Clark Gallery early in her career, she is without gallery representation. As in the case of the enamellist June Schwarcz referred to above, women artists and particularly those associated with craft remain underrated and underrepresented. I applaud the Craft and Folk Art Museum of Los Angeles for calling attention to their work.