Painter Carrie Ann Baade acquired the skill of making finely detailed oil paintings from the Old Masters — by attending art school in Florence for a year and absorbing the paintings of Renaissance legends. But when she speaks to her students at Florida State University about the importance of craft or technical accomplishment to contemporary art, she uses a decidedly untraditional term.
“Kung fu.” As in, you’d better work on your painting kung fu if you really want to kick ass.
Baade defines the term as “time plus energy,” borrowing that traditional description of the martial art to pinpoint what makes a painting good. On the heels of late 20th century conceptualism (when a work of art was sometimes little more than an idea), the kung fu metaphor is an effective way to get her students to consider how much effort they’re putting into making art. Her own paintings — elaborate and fantastical narrative scenes with human figures and animals — evince an exacting work ethic.
“We can’t all be Picasso doodling on a napkin,” she says.
Several examples of Baade’s kung fu are on view through Saturday at Mindy Solomon Gallery in Detailed Information, a show devoted to remarkably intricate painting and ceramic sculpture. In addition to Tallahassee-based Baade, the exhibit includes about a half-dozen artists, from Korean sculptor Wookjae Maeng, whose porcelain stag and rhino heads with golden eyes are some of the most startling objects in the show, to Austin-based painter Marc Burckhardt, whose symbolic images, like Baade’s, point back to the Renaissance.
The way the exhibit is organized at the gallery leaves something to be desired — key sculptures are positioned against walls and windows, making it impossible to walk around them; small paintings feel lost on expansive walls; and too many of Maeng’s animal heads are included, giving the sculptures an unfortunate air of mass-produced tchotchkes. But all the art is good, even if the display is so-so.
With the exhibit’s emphasis on detail, it’s no surprise that much of it takes diminutive form. Kate MacDowell hand-shapes her psychologically disturbing animal sculptures from porcelain clay. Glass vitrines at the gallery enclose seven of her tiny mice, each of which sprouts a human ear from its back like the famed Vacanti lab mouse. They’re fun, but better still are a pair of ceramic minks in the process of shedding their skins; MacDowell renders them ghoulishly in white as half fur-covered creatures, half muscle and sinew-covered anatomical models. Christopher Torrez’s small porcelain islands could fit onto the palm of a large hand. The intricate folds of sculpted coral that cover them also suggest crevasses of female flesh.
Larger pieces in the show, however — like an hourglass-shaped globe by Kurt Weiser, covered with paintings of continents morphing into animals — make the biggest impressions.
One is Baade’s painting “The Butterfly Lovers.” Like all of her work, it’s based on a literary source: in this case, a Chinese fairytale about unattainable love that ends when the two lovers are transformed into butterflies and, thus, united.
Two are by John Byrd, a ceramic sculptor who lives in Tampa. His “Palatka Boiler Blossom” is an explosive train wreck rendered in softly glazed porcelain. The concept and composition of the piece riffs on vintage postcards of train junctions like Palatka, the small Florida city on the St. Johns River where locomotives and steamboats converged in the 1880s. Instead of an idyllic advertisement, the sculpture conjures a bit of disaster porn: the train, shattered by its boiler’s eruption, and a plume of ceramic smoke. Both sit upon a porcelain base inscribed with the piece’s title, and the smoke plume appears to have been broken off and glued back together inexpertly, giving the sculpture the feel of a grim but beloved figurine.
During a studio visit last week, Byrd linked his interest in merging the precious and the macabre to a childhood gift — a clear plastic magnet with a scorpion embedded inside given to him by a neighbor returning from vacation in the Southwest. Thirty years later, Byrd merges high and low impulses in his work, carefully crafting objects out of porcelain that look (purposefully) like enlarged trinkets, light fixtures or other common objects, sometimes broken and reassembled to reveal seams and other artistic gaffes. Rarely using color glazes on the porcelain, he adds color in the form of taxidermy animal heads encased in plastic or underbody lights that emit a glow beneath the sculptures. His other piece in the exhibit comprises a pair of muzzled dog heads mounted on posts atop turntable-like bases and tied together with chains bearing the cursive script “I have a belly full of venom,” all of it crafted from porcelain.
In his studio at USF, where he teaches, Byrd uncovers a work in progress — a small porcelain mountain that he’ll spend the next few months texturizing, firing and glazing in preparation for a two-person show at Solomon’s gallery in the fall. (When it’s finished, the base will be topped with a taxidermy albino deer head embedded in plastic.) It still surprises Byrd, who first became interested in ceramics as a functional potter, how much effort each sculpture inspires him to put into it.
“I was never that person,” he says, “A certain quality of the work has taken over.”