This summer’s crowded exhibition schedule includes a major exhibit that hopes to put California enameling on the map.
Perhaps the best way to understand and appreciate enameled work is by seeing it in person. Online images can’t adequately capture the play of light on and through glass, and only hint at texture and subtle surface forms.
But comprehensive and ambitious exhibitions of enameled works are rare. This summer, for the first time in memory, there are several excellent opportunities to explore this medium in its many forms and technical variations, from large scale wall work to small format jewelry, from boundary-pushing contemporary work to historical treasures.
In the Boston area, there are two traveling exhibitions, The Enamelist Society Biennial International Juried Exhibitions, and Little Dreams in Glass and Metal. Because of the difficulty and expense of shipping art work across borders, The Enamelist Society exhibitions have tended to focus primarily on U.S. enamelists. The exhibition includes a student juried component, in which work is more experimental, and arguably more exciting, than the work featured in the main exhibition.
Little Dreams is a historical retrospective of American enameling from 1920 to the present, featuring the collection of the Enamel Arts Foundation. It will be a major contribution to the study of enameling, accompanied by an excellent catalogue of the works in the show and historical and critical assessments of those works. The Center for Enamel Art, in partnership with the Enamel Arts Foundation, will be sponsoring programs when this exhibition comes to California next year.
On the west coast, the Center for Enamel Art is co-sponsoring its first exhibition, California Now: Clay, Glass, and Enamel. This juried exhibition is a throwback to mid-twentieth century America, when enameling was exhibited alongside ceramics, but it also breaks new ground by categorizing enamel as both a glass and a glaze.
Because the enamel entry pool was somewhat small, and because there was a concerted effort statewide to encourage enameling students to apply, the majority of enamel work in California Now was produced by current and former students and faculty from California College of the Arts, Academy of Art University, and the Richmond Art Center enamel program, all located in northern California. All of these academic programs actively promote the medium.
But while the exhibition is meant to showcase California artists, it is hard to know whether these artists and their work do in fact represent a specifically Californian viewpoint, as each category in the exhibition only had one juror. There is no unanimity of style, message, form, or technique across categories that would suggest tendencies or trends. More than likely, the selections in each category represent the viewpoint of the juror. Enamel artists were chosen by Deb Lozier, an accomplished enamelist and educator, who has exhibited widely herself.
Lozier notes that she was drawn to work that used the medium in new ways, but was also seduced by beauty:
“The thread linking my selections together was work demonstrating a contemporary perspective, embracing curiosity and experimentation or using color and depth on inspired forms. I appreciated artists that had more to say than ‘enamel is beautiful,’ yet some of my favorite pieces lured me in simply because they were—capturing the true essence of the glass with its alluring depth and transformative grace. When I responded to a series of work, I often indulged and chose more than one piece to allow the conceptual and personal perspectives to resonate as completely as the aesthetics of the enamel.”
So what can we draw from the works in the show, singly and as a group? The curious thing about showing enameled objects with those made from clay or glass is that the identity of the medium is often obscured. Enameled metal can resemble glazed clay if the metal is hidden or combined with other materials (Victoria Montgomery’s A Vast Pulpy Mass, Orly Ruaimi’s RECycled , Evelyn Markasky’s Scars Make Your Body More Interesting), and sometimes enamels look like ceramics if their surfaces are altered to make them more matte or opaque (Nick Dong’s Meaning Outside Meaning, Gail Reid’s Untitled vessel).
This in itself is an important revelation. Often, the art of enameling takes a back seat to the technique, but in this show, with the lines between media blurred, the focus can’t help but be on the art itself.
And yet the characteristics that make enamel unique and distinct are also on display in this exhibition, often to excellent effect. These include vibrant transparencies over fold-formed copper (pieces by Chris Finch and Ed Lay) as well as Curtis Arima’s hollow-formed piece, Shifting Tides.
Best-in-show in the enamel category was awarded to the one prominent wall piece in the entire show, Nick Dong’s Meaning Outside Meaning.
This expansive work consists of 28 copper pieces, each enameled in subtle opaque colors with fired graphite drawings of scenes from Dong’s personal experiences. Dong considers himself a conceptual artist who uses enamel as a canvas for his drawings, and though he doesn’t consider himself an enamelist, he is quite adept with the medium. For Dong, as for several of the other young artists who have enamels in California Now, enamel is only one of the media he uses for artistic expression. It will be interesting to watch how these artists embrace enameling and where they take the medium in the future.
Even though California Now might not be representative of a full range of California enameling, the show does give a tantalizing sense of the possibilities for this medium as a true art form. And it brings to light the work of several young, relatively unknown artists whose work refutes our old notions of what enameling is, and what it is capable of.
California Now: Juried Exhibition of Clay, Glass & Enamel Art
Richmond Art Center
2540 Barrett Avenue
Richmond, California 94804
June 14 – Sunday, August 23, 2015
All images used with permission of California Now artists.