Return of the Craft

"The Garden Show"

The Paseos Shopping and Entertainment center is a semiabandoned structure on Coral Way, two blocks east of Coral Gables. On the third level (next to Bally's Total Fitness) is Miami ArtWorks, a hybrid studio space, art school, gallery, and museum shop. Paintings of different sizes and styles, ceramics, metal statues, montages, and even jewelry fill the two-floor site, all hung or placed in a jumbled manner. Housing a cross between art and merchandise, the place is like a mall within a mall.

For many critics the distinction between art and decoration is a distinction between high and low art. The dichotomy goes back centuries; up to the end of the Middle Ages in Europe, art served some purpose beyond the so-called pure enjoyment of beauty. Then came Charles Batteux and the dawn of Romanticism. Batteux's 1746 book, The Fine Arts Reduced to a Single Principle,was the first modern attempt to give a systematic theory to art and aesthetic judgment. For Batteux the foundation of good taste lies in nature's beauty. It follows that the arts, if addressed to taste, must imitate nature. This marks the dawn of the Romantic movement. Under the guiding hand of philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, the fine arts (painting, printmaking, sculpture, and architecture) became primarily focused on the creation of beauty. They were distanced from the functional drive of decorative arts and crafts such as pottery, weaving, metalworking, and furniture making, all of which have utility as an end. In practice this Romantic cry for "imitation of nature" began to separate the fine arts from the crafts. Ceramics, glassware, basketry, jewelry, metalwork, furniture, textiles, and clothing were commonly associated with decorative arts, and were considered lower in aesthetic qualities.

It seems as though Miami ArtWorks could be trying to heal the rift by fusing the two forms of art. Its director, Ellie Schneiderman, is a ceramist and a veteran of the local art scene who founded South Florida Art Center (known now as the ArtCenter/South Florida) in Miami Beach. The idea behind Miami ArtWorks, she explains, "is to support and further the interchange between artists and the public, while providing an environment of growth and contacts among artists themselves." In this community of equals, Schneiderman advocates a kind of verbal ethics. No leases or contracts are necessary: A word is enough. The curatorial criteria are set up through a series of juried theme-exhibitions, which are open to the public and target a support group of about 350 members. In a private viewing, Schneiderman shows off work of different artists participating in the current exhibit, The Garden Show.

Veronica Fascie's big, monochromatic canvases explore tree-branch manipulations. They look like magnified dendrite scattered within ochre, blue, and green-colored spaces. Fascie, who's from Argentina, has improved from her earlier work, visibly progressing to a more mature style. Marina Lubow explores the garden theme with a more typically Surrealist language. She exhibits tormented Bosch-like fantastic motifs inside Daliesque landscapes. Lubow also tries out Surrealist ceramics, and here one senses more potential. She can make her ceramics in situ (Miami ArtWorks provides a kiln, which is convenient).

Then there are the quasi-conceptual spartan sculptures of Joe Parker. His ceramic dwarfs appear anachronistic in the juxtaposition of classical figures donning modern weaponry. Inside his studio his smaller pieces are more moving. His work is personal and disturbing. Michael Tames is a montage artist whose work is reminiscent of Joseph Cornell. (Cornell, an American artist, is one of the originators of the form of sculpture called assemblage, in which unlikely objects are joined together in an unorthodox unity.) Tames's craft has matured as well, having advanced from the obvious to the more complex in his later furniture pieces. Linda Schaefer works in two mediums, but her ceramics depicting the female body have more focus than her paintings. Perhaps Schneiderman has nurtured an environment for growth.

In Schneiderman's studio the issue comes up regarding the derivativeness of the space and its obvious commercial use. "Art has always been derivative," she responds, stressing the words with an air of conviction. "This is not about the new, but about growth and interactions," she declares. In her view the space reflects the tradition of artists who work and live on what they make. She thinks the mall is a perfect venue to join the artist and the public. She justifies her point by going back to the late Seventies, when Miami had fewer galleries and viewing opportunities, and art had to be shown in street fairs. She thinks her type of environment provides a quality of immediacy not offered by the more bureaucratic and business-oriented structure of galleries and museums.

Yet there are gaps. For instance the lack of conceptual art in the space. "No conceptual artist has come to me. If I saw it, I'd jury it," Schneiderman says. But the question of why no conceptual artist has applied for studio space at Miami ArtWorks remains. "We've been here only a year.... Perhaps they need more time to feel comfortable.... Although appearances may be important, this is not a gallery; it's a showroom," comments Schneiderman. It may be that Schneiderman responds to a style less focused on curating. And indeed Miami ArtWorks is not a gallery per se. One could argue, though, that an environment too dependent on the public's taste could also undermine creativity.

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