Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Glimpses of Decoration and Life: Ric Blackerby and Mary Boerens Sinner at Art Access

Insectual: Ric Blackerby sculpts ornaments from tiny lives
There is a common misconception about the relation of craft to art, best exemplified by an appraisal that is heard only too often. Looking at a particular artisan’s work, someone will say it ‘transcends craft and rises to the level of art.’ This idea, that there is a continuum of how well hand work is executed, with ever-higher levels of craft eventually crossing a categorical boundary to become art, was not accurate to begin with. In the last century, moreover, artists have seemed determined to demolish it from both directions. Much recent art has deliberately employed mundane levels of skill, in order to prove that any human activity can qualify as art making. On the other hand, the universal deployment of machine manufacture has raised the cachet of hand-crafted examples, so that the finest levels of craftsmanship are routinely engaged in producing consumer goods that no one would mistake for art. It might be helpful to examine the dividing line, if that’s what it is, between craft and art, to see how they differ, but also just what each one takes from the other.

An opportunity to do just that is available this month at Art Access. Ric Blackerby has filled the front gallery with a remarkable assortment of works in different media. All have in common (in both senses) the subject of insects, celebrating their variety and beauty. According to his statement, he began long ago by trying to capture their fascination in jewelry, a natural choice given the frequent use of ‘jewel-like’ as an expression of appreciation for a certain kind of dazzling, intricate, often metallic-looking variety of beetle. Yet here is a good example of how art is ‘other’ than craft, not ‘better.’ Jewelry that looks like an insect reminds us not just of the insect it seeks to resemble, but of the metaphorical connection between the two things: intricate construction, cerebral puzzles of tiny parts, optical dazzle of iridescent surfaces, and luminous colors. But there is something more. Just as ornaments remain somehow aloof, complementing our appearance without blending with it, so insects inhabit our world without becoming a comfortable part of it. Both are alien, answering to their own rules, and seeing them in art argues that they have more in common with each other than either has with us.


But there are many kinds of insects and they produce many different reactions in us. Blackerby eventually extended his exploration of their shapes and colors to other media. The best way to get a sense of art being something beyond artistry may be to consider the entire gallery as one work: a kind of meditation on the theme of insect aesthetics. One elaborate display, atypical of gallery shows, relates some history of Blackerby’s work, including a demonstration of lost wax casting processes and photos of his studio in operation. Elsewhere throughout the room are Mobiles of butterflies, moths, and other highly energetic insects that mimic the optics of the original creatures in motion. Elsewhere, details too small to be seen by the eye alone are transformed in giant recreations, many times life size, that may focus on protective and aggressive features (Ant, Large Stag Beetle), mobility (Racing Scarab, Grasshopper on a Bike), and sheer strangeness (Cicada, Praying Mantis). Dragonflies and Nymphs are celebrated for their beauty, and metaphors appear frequently, like the sensuously posed, distinctively non-segmented body of Butterfly Woman. There can’t be too many ways of looking at an insect that Ric Blackerby hasn’t worked into durable materials, and the chance to compare ones own image of a thing with that crafted by another is one of the reasons we have art.

Glimpses of Decorated Life: Paintings and Collages by Mary Boerens Sinner

When an artist presents two very different technical approaches in a single show, it’s usually worth taking time to ponder why. Mary Boerens Sinner’s highly detailed collages display domestic scenes, primarily interiors but with an occasional exterior that mostly brings the feeling of indoors just outside the house. They’re constructed from photos, apparently taken from contemporary magazines, of post WWII lifestyles, and are initially challenging to square with her paintings hanging nearby. The collages, if they include figures, show them as small parts imbedded in the much larger context. In the paintings, the figures are large, dominating the panel, and identified more by the clothes they affect and their activities than by their sometimes sketchy surroundings.

The one thing they do have in common is a thick layer of clear, glossy varnish, which could have originated in a need to unify the mixed media she variously employs, but came to assume its own visual function. Especially in the collages, it serves like a glass window that separates us from the scenes we witness, as if from afar. It also reflects our faces, putting us in the picture as it reminds us we remain outside observers. For the most part, though, in the two techniques she approaches the re-presentation of appearances in completely disparate ways . . . and approach is the right verb, as neither attempts to arrive, but content themselves with gestures that stop short of verisimilitude. Each also has its own mysteriousness and its own allure. In the collages we peer into scenes of glamour, made of expensive, high-finish materials picked out with mirrors and glitter that explicitly underscore their appeal. The message seems to be that these are enviable lives. It’s particularly interesting to contemplate the way exteriors become part of interiors, as so often happens in child’s play: this lawn is our living room, and under that tree is where we sleep.

By contrast, the painted figures display behavior we might sooner expect to meet on the streets, rather than indoors as we see them: if not deranged individuals that in another context we would identify as hoarders, at least persons who dramatize their quotidian existence, living with an interior glamour that objectivity calls into question. Eating breakfast, taking tea, and vacuuming the rug are mundane activities at odds with the dress coat draped over her shoulders, her red gloves, the hat that we’d expect to see outdoors but not here. Children play like this, but these are not children. But for such odd idiosyncrasies, these might be the painted autobiography of the artist. What makes these strange narratives so much less easy to summarize and locate in the world of sources is precisely that they refuse, like the collages, to lie down and let themselves be treated that way. They insist on their autonomy, not copies of life but visions of life beholding itself.

Ric Blackerby’s metal sculptures and jewelry are on exhibit at Art Access Gallery, and Mary Boerens Sinners paintings and collages in Access II Gallery through April 13.

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