March 2020 Harlan Butt Review
SARAH PERKINS: MASTER METALSMITH
Metal Museum, Memphis, TN
October 6, 2019 - March 8, 2020
My initial plan was to look over Sarah Perkins' Master Metalsmith exhibition at the Metal Museum in Memphis as a whole and then go back and discuss a few of my favorite pieces. But after walking into the first-floor gallery I knew that would be difficult. Upon entering the upstairs gallery, I was sure it would be impossible. In fact, the notion of singling out a couple of pieces seemed untenable, even inappropriate. The beauty, brilliance, the overwhelming creativity and diversity of over 100 objects was hard to take in.
The evidence of superlative technical skill and the delight in physical interaction with material was impressive enough. But the attention to detail, nuance and subtlety of form, color and pattern was hard to comprehend, even for someone familiar with the processes used in the making. Many artists can impress with a few works, but to sustain the level of accomplishment displayed in this exhibit renews my faith in the human spirit.
The idea of choosing a couple of favorite examples seemed absurd since each vessel held features upon which to marvel, such as subtle variations of color, intensity, pattern and texture. Each form, like people in a room, displayed distinct personalities and physical traits. Each was an individual and it seemed disrespectful to isolate a few.
There were pieces that showed evidence of works in a series, where a shape or repeated pattern or color range was reused but always in some unique way so that the progression seemed less like repetition than artistic evolution. Some work seemed to delight in detail while others were couched in a humble simplicity, playing with how to express individuality with as little fuss as possible.
Some vessels had the humility of a Japanese tea bowl while others displayed the exquisite lusciousness of a Klimt painting. Attention to balance seemed evident in every piece, even when the physical balance was pushed towards its limits. Enamel and metal, two distinct materials with different characteristics of their own, were coaxed into balance skillfully and sensitively. In some works, the only visible metal was an irregular edge. In others metal was limited to the metallic sheen through the transparent glass, as in some of the bowls and cups. In other pieces the folds in the metal base or delicate cloisonné lines or dots created by the tips of silver wire poking through the enamel surface complimented the colored glass. In yet other vessels textured metal vied assertively for attention with the enamel through the addition of repoussé or engraved silver lids.
Some of Sarah's vessels seemed to reflect the patterns of fabric from India, Africa or Mexico. Others appeared to be influenced by nature; branches, bubbles, ice crystals or cactus spines. The expertise in forming metal was evident because nowhere was there a heavy handed or awkward shape, even when they were irregular or asymmetrical. Despite using hammers with force to create them the forms ranged from playful to formal, but always purposeful. Some vessels were puffy, fat shapes balanced on tiny feet like a large but accomplished dancer. Others were perfectly symmetrical egg-shapes where dynamic surface treatments complimented and relaxed the formality of form. Whether the surface of a piece is matte, displays the sparkly semi-gloss of sugar coat or the rarer reflective glassy surface of unaltered fired enamel, each finish appears completely intentional and appropriate for the form.
Some of the pieces in this show literally or symbolically alluded to the sharing of food or drink, particularly the teapots, pitchers, cups and open bowls. Most of the pieces, and the ones upon which I have focused, are vessels but that covers an array of formats. Some appear to be vases, although it is hard to image them holding flowers, other than perhaps a single stem. Some are gourd-like, some are pots, some enclosed containers. Some imply domestic use although they do so more metaphorically than domestically practically.
There is artwork that impresses us merely with its virtuosity of construction or its deep conceptual intelligence or its rash subversive nature. And there is room for all of that. But Sarah Perkins' enameled objects makes comparisons to other work seem self-serving and presumptuous. This work stands on its own as it reflects joy and light, even in a world that often seems shrouded in darkness, which echoes with humility even in its exuberant richness. One could live with any of these pieces for a lifetime and always be enriched by its loveliness and affirmation. This exhibition was an honor to behold. Sarah Perkins is a national treasure.
Harlan W. Butt
University of North Texas
PS: There is an exquisite catalog of this exhibition which includes beautifully photographed images of Sarah's work and an excellent essay by Bernard Jazzar and Harold Nelson. I attempted to avoid repeating their inciteful narrative.