Work in the so-called crafts media animates some of today’s most ambitious gallery art. Contemporary artists working in textiles, ceramics, glass—and beyond—navigate the tricky terrain between traditional decorative and functional forms and the more individualistic demands of today. Not everything works equally well. Being far out for its own sake or adopting fashionable concerns from the mainstream can be a distraction or a disaster. The best “craft” artists combine respect for their medium and its traditions with an eye towards reinvention. 

Two strong museum shows, both currently on-view in Syracuse, indicate diverse possibilities. Through the end of the year (December 31), the Everson Museum of Art, is showing “Raymon Elozua: Structure/Dissonance.” The veteran artist, based in New York City and the Catskills, is known for his gnarled, grungy sculptures that combine steel armatures with ceramic and glass, as well as other found materials. This exhibition was originally scheduled for 2020 and postponed due to the pandemic. 

Over at the Syracuse University Art Museum, “Anni Albers: Work with Materials” (up through December 11) demonstrates a radically different sensibility. The German-Jewish textile artist’s aesthetic, formed in the modernist crucible of the Weimar Republic’s Bauhaus school, is rigorously geometric yet frequently warm and playful. Curated by Fritz Horstman of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, the show is particularly strong in exploring her late career work in printmaking. 

Active since the seventies, Elozua has travelled many winding paths throughout his career. From functional pottery and trompe l’oeil ceramic sculpture to social documentary photography and digital graphics, his most significant work comes in the form of a contemporary reinvention of abstract expressionist sculpture. Drawing on his longstanding familiarity with vernacular and industrial materials, as well as his training as a ceramist, he creates dense conglomerations that suggest miniature worlds.  

“Structure/Dissonance” fills two of the Everson’s large second floor galleries.

While the sculpture is undeniably at the heart of “Structure/Dissonance,” the exhibition also gives ample room to his diverse activities as a documentarian, archivist, and collector. These occupy much of the first gallery, which also houses the artist’s earlier sculptures. 

This writer is skeptical towards the tendency, widespread in contemporary art circles, to treat collecting and curating as interchangeable with making one’s own art. Still, it is interesting to see, lined up along a wall in the first gallery, modest selections from some of Elozua’s collections: rusty metal buckets, washing machine agitators, gas stove burners, and colorful enamel cookware. 

Hung floor-to-ceiling on one large wall, as well as elsewhere in the gallery, Elozua’s documentary and still-life photographs and digital renderings accompany found photos representing the artist’s interest in labor history. With a studio in Mountaindale, NY, his recent documentary work focuses on the decaying, abandoned homes and resorts of the so-called Borscht Belt. 

The first gallery also contains his earlier, mostly smaller sculpture. Collaborations with the photographer and art collector Alan Chasanoff and the artist’s life partner, painter Micheline Gingras, are characteristic of his way of working. The latter, from 1991, take the form of a pair of figurative sculptures. Both “Demon: Defense” and “Siren: Public Relations” —the latter holding a Mickey Mouse mask in front of its face—are grotesque caricatures enlivened by his distinctive clay-over-steel technique. 

Ten large sculptures, similar in scale and proportion, fill the second, beautifully installed gallery. Completed between 2014 and 2021, all incorporate delicate, brightly colored glass vessels. Incongruously smooth and pretty, these were created with the assistance of master glassblower Lorin Silverman, working together in Corning and Brooklyn. These come from his “Tri-Harmonic,” “R&D,” and “C.i.C (Clarity in Confusion)” series and represent his maturity as an artist. 

Straddling the worlds of industrial design, craft, and fine art, Anni Albers (1899-1994) is arguably the most important textile artist of the twentieth century. Long overshadowed by her male Bauhaus teachers and colleagues—including her husband Josef as well as giants like Klee and Kandinsky—she has gained increasing attention in recent years. Embracing global folk traditions, novel techniques and materials, and subtle formal innovation, her work here delights and astounds.

“Work” is a modest exhibit by museum standards. Featuring relatively few large or substantial textile pieces, the show focuses on her printmaking. Albers took up the graphic arts in the early sixties. When she abandoned the loom later in the decade, it became her chief artistic medium. Working in screenprint, lithography, etching, and inkless embossment, Albers’ late reinvention offers variations on her classic, gridded motifs as well as explorations of triangular and knot-like forms.

I cannot offer a full account of this show here. Readers interested in experimental textiles or modern art in general would do well to see the show before it closes. (A review by Lance Esplund in the Wall Street Journal is also well worth checking out.) 

While representing seemingly polarized tendencies with abstract art, both the Elozua and the Albers exhibitions demonstrate playful, experimental approaches to material and technique. Both show a definite joie de vivre—unfashionable in this age of didactic and polemical art.  

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