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Traditional crafts explore complex questions

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This diverse and ambitious new exhibition at the University of Winnipeg's Gallery 1C03 offers a view into the often unexpected world of 21st-century craft. Yes, there are traditional techniques here, from woodturning to rug-hooking, but they're often being used to explore complex questions of history, memory and identity.

Oh, and did we mention the full-frontal male nudity?

An inaugural joint project of the Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba craft councils, this juried show features 35 artists from across the Prairies. In the best works, masterly handling of method and material combines with visual innovation and expression to break down hard, fast lines between craft and art.

Many of these objects display astonishing technical achievement. Phoenix Rising by Leon Lacoursiere of Delmas, Sask., is an intricate, unbelievably delicate curved wood vessel that seems to defy the limits of its medium.

Some pieces are functional, like Winnipegger Keith Oliver's silk-smooth four-drawer cabinet, made from a seamless blending of five woods. Sisters, by Winnipeg's Kathryne Koop, consists of five flower-like vase forms that combine the elegance of 19th-century Arts & Crafts pottery with the animorphic energy of Disney characters.

Some works carry the weight of history. Hungarian-born, Winnipeg-based Tibor Bodi uses cast glass and forged steel to recall Cold War memories of Eastern Bloc citizens tuning in to forbidden radio broadcasts of The Voice of America.

Ceramicist Grace Nickel draws on nature, with evocative organic forms that reference the markings of floodwater lines on tree trunks along the Assiniboine and Red rivers. Other artists play around with contemporary technology and pop culture. Jordan Van Sewell's funky, funny ceramic tableau revs up a hot car, while Red Deer-based Matt Gould's suavely beautiful textile piece uses vintage wool and industrial felt to evoke the respondent of an Internet "erotic questionnaire."

Willow Top Golf Shoes, from Calgary's Mariko McCrae, is a witty but serious look at the shifting history of the decorative arts, combining 18th-century blue-and-white ceramics with a Nike swoosh to comment on notions of status, consumption and leisure.

In Vessel Deconstruction 4, Regina's Zane Wilcox creates a hybrid form, which could be an abstract sculpture, a functional container or even a modular architectural form. Intriguingly ambiguous, it might be ancient or modern, a rusted out bit of metal or an excavated fragment of pottery. In the end, this quiet, self-contained object is only its own enigmatic self.

This debut group show is a compressed sampling of the varied, vibrant state of craft work on the Prairies. Against a culture swamped by mass-produced, cheap, throwaway stuff, these works champion the handmade, the beautiful and the rare.

Art Review

Prairie Excellence

Gallery 1C03, University of Winnipeg, 515 Portage Ave.

Until May 28

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 5, 2011 D3

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