Jeanne Willette2

by mimi fronczak rogers

“Slow art” is how gallery director Barbara Benish characterizes the work in Gallery Califia’s latest show, “Hand-Werk”, calling to mind the Slow Food movement of leisurely braises and simmers‑honest ingredients cooked with care. With so much contemporary art the aesthetic equivalent of a McDonald’s hamburger, a show like “Hand-Werk” invites viewers to slow down and savor some soul-satisfying work that blends strong concept with painstaking process.

Yet “Hand-Werk” has a completely contemporary sensibility, and art-savvy viewers will notice elements of deconstruction and irony along with feminist art practices. This group show brings together four contemporary artists from the United States, one artist from Germany and one from the Czech Republic‑the only man in the show.

Jiří Černický surprised the Czech art world a decade ago when he first presented miniature hand-sewn textile figures. The series began with an effigy Černický made of his father following a family conflict, then added to over several years. The exquisite detail in his “Pincushions” seemed to run counter to the conceptual broad strokes that characterize much of his work. Here, he is showing three pieces from the “Pincushion” series.

Černický has installed the figures throughout the gallery in the manner of “interventions,” for example high on the wall next to an exit sign. The Pincushions capture ordinary people in banal situations‑a mechanic working under a Vodafone van, a callous-looking young man in an Adidas T-shirt. Each figure is stuck with several needles trailing red thread, literally and figuratively skewering society, which relates to Černický’s wider body of work.

A practice that has fallen out of fashion since the dawn of digital art studios is hand-drawn illustration. Berlin-based artist Regina Heinlein is displaying a set of crisp black, white and red drawings that represent positive human qualities. American Alyssa C. Salomon, who lives in Virginia, is a standard-bearer for darkroom magic in the digital age. Her captivating photographs are made using the 19th century cyanotype process, which yields mysterious deep-blue images. The artist embraces arcane and time-consuming processes (she mixes and applies the chemicals herself), and her resulting pictures are poetic and haunting.

Jane Brucker, an artist form California who co-curated the show with Benish, is presenting two different but related threads of work, Both involve meticulous attention to process and detail while reflecting on loss and what might be rebuilt from it.

Her room-sized installation “Unravel” centers on the process of un-doing and re-creating. The artist has long been drawn to the aura she senses in old textiles, feeling they somehow retain a trace of the people who wore them. She seeks out knitted pieces in thrift stores and sets about meditatively unraveling and unknotting them, then knitting them anew.

Components of this installation include a child’s security blanket and a shawl whose fringe border, she discovered during the unknotting process, simply resisted being undone. Another piece was (un)made from a child’s sweater. The reverse of a work-in-progress, part of the installation is a piece in the midst of being undone, resting on an old wooden chair. Brucker says that one source of inspiration for this installation was the current economic crisis, and being mindful of the need to create something positive when things come undone.

In the adjacent room, hanging from the ceiling, is the U.S.-based artist Amanda Ransom’s “Champ d’une Lunette,” a luminous burst of colorful flowers made from glass beads. Although similar to the beadwork of north Bohemia, this is a traditional French-Canadian craft the artist learned from her grandmother and mother. Ransom also makes experimental films, and the glass bouquet in Califia is part of her video Haiku, which expresses a feminine and personal view of the world.

Terry Lenihan, also from California, is showing three small figurative sculptures from her “Little Ladies” series. Each figure, headless without hands, is frozen in the midst of movement, like a postmodern cornhusk doll. Each one is created from a wire armature overlaid with brown tissue paper from sewing patterns, lacquered into position.

The sewing patterns bring to mind a dying language in which every thrifty homemaker was once conversant. The ability to “read” a pattern (something normally bought in a store that sells notions) involves an awareness of taking bias into account, of finding the right tension level.

There is an irresistible contrast between the fragility of the tissue paper and the hard exterior, between the “little woman” who must be handled with kid gloves and the tough broad with a hardened shell. Yet all of their feet are made of concrete blocks, recalling feet of clay that expose vulnerability and imperfection.

In another part of the gallery, Jane Brucker is presenting a second thread of her work: installation pieces that incorporate cast metal elements. “Thief” grew out of the feeling of exposure she had after her backpack was stolen‑placing her very identity in jeopardy. The wallet was eventually recovered, still containing some of her already-canceled credit cards. So she turned the situation into art by casting the credit cards in bronze, the plastic disintegrating and yielding fragile objects whose patina makes them look as if they were buried for centuries. They are placed on a pedestal together with her deconstructed leather wallet.

A related piece is “Seed Money,” a scattering of tiny metal pieces cast from lemon seeds and her grandmother’s old change purse. Inspired by the quest to buy her own house, this piece references the mentality of diligently saving up for something‑common practice in her grandmother’s time, and a stark contrast to the instant gratification that living on credit enables.

The Depression-era frugality that her grandparents embodied is an idea that recurs in “Lost (Detail),” a small selection from a larger series of around 250 metal castings ranging from loose buttons to a bit of string wrapped around a scrap of wood. Such items were salvaged from an ethos of thrift, of repairing not replacing, that existed before the rise of throwaway society; they were then saved a second time by the artist after her grandparents’ deaths. There are also exceptionally tiny and delicate pieces created from her grandmother’s lace tatting, using the lost-wax process. Brucker lovingly coated each loop of thread with wax, sacrificing the original artifact in the process. Ultimately, these works are about the small losses that are a rehearsal for the final loss that comes with death.

There is a trend in contemporary art, especially among feminist artists, to take up the crafts of their mothers and grandmothers, to honor the amazing women of the past and thereby create a dialogue across generations. Earlier generations in this show are represented by a framed baptismal gown made by Rose Šubrtová, a highly skilled seamstress born to Bohemian immigrant parents in the United States‑and gallery director Benish’s grandmother.

“Hand-Werk” pays homage to the slow art of the past and present, offering a long-simmered feast for the mind and soul.

MIMI FRONCZAK ROGERS is an arts writer based in Prague. This article appeared in The Prague Post, May 6, 2009.