Tacoma's William Traver Gallery is on a roll. In its last two exhibits, Traver Gallery has taken a reprieve from showing artists that work primarily in glass and has instead presented works by artists who are using materials that are not traditionally associated with fine art. In March, New York artist Cordy Ryman showed works that were primarily constructed of utilitarian lumber.
The current pair of exhibits, Tom DeGroot's "Primal Logic" and Nancy Worden's "Fear Factor," feature artists who likewise use non-traditional materials. DeGroot uses a base of metal mesh or corrugated cardboard for his rich abstractions while jewelry maker Worden uses seemingly anything that comes to hand in order to construct her pieces.
Maker of thick, resinous slabs of wonderful color and depth, DeGroot leads a parallel existence as a bus driver for the Metro system in Seattle. Perhaps it is this grounding in the daily reality of urban life (as opposed to the halcyon and cerebral climes of the academy) that revealed metal mesh and cardboard to DeGroot as valid candidates for artistic expression. Starting with these basic materials, DeGroot proceeds to combine them with thick layers of resin.
Were it not for the media notes on the wall tags, one might be utterly mystified as to just what substances compose the beautiful rectangles that one is looking at.
The resin is thick, jewel-like and richly colored. Yet the basic geometric pattern established by the base material - the metal mesh and the cardboard - bubbles up to the surface from somewhere deep down and continues to exert its influence. DeGroot adds layers of colorful resin and then sands or grinds away at an area here and there to expose the layers underneath and to reveal fantastic patterns and color. Addition and subtraction are all carried out under the artist's watchful eye. The results of DeGroot's process are fantastic, abstract compositions of harmonious color and naturalistic patterns.
Geometric, yet very organic-like constellations of stars in the night or the terrain-influenced lay of city streets viewed form high above the surface quality of DeGroot's compositions fall somewhere between the glaze of ceramics and the crystalline transparency of glass.
In the piece entitled "Rubicon," rich reds and yellows predominate. The underlying grid, however, exerts its influence with a series of raised bumps that hint at that pattern somewhere down below. These have been carefully cut away to reveal their interior layers of color. In one area there is a cluster of yellow spots with white centers. Amidst these is a tiny green dot with a red center - a notable individual that is the result of a fortunate, almost accidental revelation of the underling layers that happened to exist in that location.
In the Traver show, Seattle jewelry maker Worden presents seven constructions meant to be worn around the neck and about the shoulders (the exception is "The Shackles of Fear" which is a pair of handcuffs). As in the work of DeGroot, traditional materials are discarded in favor of everyday objects that are pitched out of their original function and are juxtaposed in a new way that gives them a new purpose. As a consequence, the eye beholds the component objects as if for the first time. In this way the artist is able to compel others to see ordinary, humble objects as things of beauty and power. Perhaps it is in reference to this awareness of her role in opening the eyes of her viewers that has prompted Worden to fix glass eyes to so many of her works.
Worden uses ceramic knob-and-tube insulators, tire weights, the handle of an ice tray, an old oven thermometer, shaving brushes and bottle caps. There are also pennies - loads of pennies. Most of the pieces use copper prominently, a metal of great importance and power in many cultures.
Worden works her materials with obvious skill but also delights in letting the mark of her tools show, especially on her metals. In a piece entitled "Brigandine for Ishtar" she has stamped little spirals into the soft lead of a row of tire weights that hang along the back.
This is no dainty jewelry. This is powerful stuff, more like body armor than body decoration. This is the type of stuff that might be worn in what passes for the royal court in some post apocalyptic scavenger civilization. There are skeletal pieces like "Exosquellette #2" and pieces like "Literal Defense" that are akin to bits of armor from the age of chivalry.
Each piece is accompanied by a card in which Worden discusses the myriad wellsprings of her inspiration. With "Brigandine for Ishtar," for example, Worden's note card explains that a brigandine is a riveted metal undershirt worn by foot soldiers of Europe during the middle ages. The piece incorporates various metal parts most of which Worden found on the streets. The inspiration, she notes, were the news stories of American soldiers having to scrounge the dumps of Iraq in order to find metal to enhance their own insufficient armor. Ishtar, the Sumerian goddess of war, is also a reference to the American military involvement in Iraq. The piece thus incorporates a heavier meaning than do most products of the jewelry maker's craft.
"Primal Logic" and "Fear Factor" are two shows that illustrate how the keen sensitivity of the artist to his or her materials can conjure a magic of exquisite transformation. The "ordinary" becomes the "extraordinary" in the deft hands of these two makers of fine objects.