Given the clangorous and harried season that we are verging on, the present exhibition of the Visual Arts Center of Richmond is entirely appropriate. “Table,” which opened this week and runs through Jan. 11, is designed to address a period when families and friends – however they are configured – gather together, often around a meal. It’s interesting how this calm and deceptively quiet exhibit follows the aurally noisy, philosophically complicated and artistically inventive “Bob Trotman: Business As Usual” that addressed our national pastime of getting and spending that is both deplored and encouraged (especially when retail outlets put out Christmas decorations when front porch jack o'lanterns are still getting carved).
“Table” concerns layers and levels of memory, fragility and stability in relationships and communities and the transience of what seems permanent. Caroline Wright, director of exhibition programming, set the artistic table in an unfussy, calm manner; despite the visual jumbles and potential shatterings, it's a real feast for the esthetic palate.
Ceramicist Jason Hackett is a Virginia Commonwealth University MFA graduate, a 2014 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts fellowship recipient, and former studio manager for Jun Kaneko (you may remember him from the VMFA). Hackett’s spin is on those commemorative plates that are collected by your grandma, or maybe you, and either hung in the hallway or displayed in a cabinet. But contrasting the iconic Monument Valley, Arizona, rock formations of “The Mittens” with actual mittens, is not the usual subject matter. His other take, with stacks of clay plates split in two creating a “Machine Ravine” where the table extension leaf would go, provides a metaphorical view of the differences that arise at such community gatherings.
Beth Lipman, from “the Bermuda Triangle of Wisconsin,” puts it plainly: Her work is about death. Or rather, mortality and the effort of art to preserve experience. But her choice of expression is glass and creating still-life pieces from vessels she makes – and destroys. “Whatnot I & II” are companion pieces at two corners, three shelves full of black glass objects, – bottles, vases, containers — that alarm me because of imagining them all crashing when an over-exuberant gallery goer brushes against them.
The connection between the urge to mend things to get more life out of them, and the patterns these repairs make, inspired Nava Lubelski, now living in Asheville, North Carolina, to create works that resemble abstract expressionism – a male-dominated medium – through “women’s work” of sewing. Her works are made through painstaking recreations of accidents, spills and tearing. Her approach brings to mind getting out the good table linens for company, and how that can go wrong with an overturned glass or a snag on a ring. Her designs take on the forms of micro-organisms pressed into a microscope's platen, or the outlines of fantastical countries in an atlas of mysterious lands.
But for me, Heather McCalla’s use of household furnishings turned into sculpture presents the most problematic pieces of the show. Not because of the work – which looks whimsical but requires a considerable understanding of material and how it disperses weight and stress — but of that potential for collapse.
“Slowly...But It’s Happening,” is a crazy pile of chairs, designed to look as though they are easing into the floor, causing the expectation that this top-heavy mound will tip over as it settles. You get "that sinking feeling" of imminent disaster which has tightened the stomach of many dinner hosts. You can walk around the piece to examine its many angles and the important throw of shadows. McCalla uses chairs as figures and as verses in physical poetry about the often difficult dynamics between families, extended and otherwise. McCalla, whose background is in furniture making and woodworking, is a Fountainhead Fellow at VCU's Department of Craft/Design Studies.
Jaydan Moore, another Fountainhead Fellow and present artist-in-residence at the Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina, says in a video interview accompanying the exhibit that he knew from the age of 5 that he wanted to be an artist – he just didn’t know what that meant. His interest is in how we layer objects with our own memories – the transformation of a serving plate into an heirloom. He’s showing us a chain of memories that he partly invents through communion with the old metals. Moore’s “Grease/Grace” uses a found table and replaces an extension leaf with fused, filigreed serving trays that cast their silhouettes upon the floor; it’s a cinematic effect, a frozen dissolve, showing the passage of time.
Collecting the raw materials for Jean Shin’s silverware trees and serving ware stumps resembles the scrap metal drives of past wars. But in her case, she’s making vivid, delicate, evocations of the domestic and the communal. That we are a fast food nation is somewhat at odds, too, with the “farm to table” movement and there is plenty in Shin’s work where we can see our own splintered reflection. The 20-minute video adjacent to the exhibition is well worth your time to get a little acquainted with these artists and learn about why they do this and how.
There’ll be another kind of community gathering this weekend as the Visual Arts Center’s 50th Annual Craft + Design Show unfolds at the Science Museum of Virginia, sponsored in part by this publication. The potential for leaving one behind while the other shops is benefited by the presence of 10 craft breweries and food provided by such delectable favorites as The Savory Grain and Alamo Barbecue.
Now that’s a full table.