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'Dreams' and 'fantasies' 

Arts Center's shows elucidate enamels.

click to enlarge 21ST CENTURY ENAMELING: Mary Chuduk's "Veiled."
  • 21ST CENTURY ENAMELING: Mary Chuduk's "Veiled."

If you're going to make a painting, why make it with glass on copper? Why go through the complicated process of working with a medium that you must melt on a surface that you must form and electroplate, all while worrying about what color and tonality you'll end up with?

That's a question raised and answered in the enamel art exhibitions "Little Dreams in Glass & Metal, 1920 to Present" and "Glass Fantasies" at the Arkansas Arts Center.

Enamel artists are people who love to build and burn and mold and drip, risky means to an artistic end. The best enamel work is astounding and the middle ground requires a certain amount of genius to succeed as art. (The worst ends up as hotel decoration.)

"Little Dreams" is the first nationally traveling exhibition of enamel art in more than 50 years, the Enamel Arts Foundation claims. If you grew up in the middle of the last century around people who collected enamel objects, you'll feel transported by the show, which is heavy on the work from the 1950s. Many of the objects here display a wonderful post-Cubist and mid-century aesthetic — starbursts, lozenge shapes, crescents, circles. I nearly swooned with nostalgia over Virginia Dudley's 1955 "Plate," which appears to be an image of four idealized salamanders on an irregular four-sided form, and Barney Reid's "Moon Flags," Miro-like in its drawing.

Making successful enamel work on the wall, in the flat picture plane, is harder than in, say, jewelry, at least to this admittedly under-educated eye. Why make a picture on a heavy piece of metal to hang on the wall when a bit of canvas would do?

The best pieces in "Little Dreams" answer that: Because fired glass can hold the most saturated of hue. It can let light in to see what's underneath, or be opaque, or diffuse into tiny dots of color. For example: Edward Winter's "Vegetabilis," a 1940 Cubist still life, with its stylized leafy shadows created by the translucent enamel, and pieced works, like Jean Ames' "The Garden" (1956), fitted shapes that create an image with a not-quite-rectangular edge. One of the most beautiful works in the show is a more modern piece, Helen Elliott's "Journal 7," a 2007 work of enamel on steel, in which she fires color on and then removes it by what's called "stoning," a burnishing technique. The result is luminous, an abstract composition in a palette of ochres and white and black marks.

click to enlarge PAINTING WITH ENAMEL: Jean Ames' "The Garden."
  • PAINTING WITH ENAMEL: Jean Ames' "The Garden."

Also among the later, more sculptural works you'll find June Schwarcz's vessels of folded and stitched sheets of enameled copper; Mary Chuduk's "Veiled" (2009), in which she's created an image of a woman in hijab atop a convex form to which fine circlets of hair and pearls are attached; and Marianne Hunter's little figure in a kimono atop her husband's turned wood "Macassar Sunrise." "Garden Candlesticks," silver pieces with pale blue cloisonné sides and silver leaves by Linda Darty, are elegant.

There is stunning jewelry here, including "Pair of Scarab Ear Cuffs" by goldsmith John Paul Miller, which features his "granulation" technique of adding tiny spheres of gold to the surface. David C. Freda's "Study of Newborn White Crown Sparrows, Eggs and Adults" (2001) is just that, in necklace form, with a pendant of featherless fledglings emerging from cracked shells, egg beads and bird head clasps. (An interesting note: Freda's necklace was purchased by the Enamel Arts Foundation with funds from the Windgate Charitable Foundation in Siloam Springs.) In the rear of the gallery are books about enameling and a video about Miller, Schwarcz and enamel artist William Harper, who creates abstract jewelry using the cloisonné technique, drawing with gold.

Work by Little Rock's own Thom Hall accompanies "Glass Dreams" in the exhibition "Glass Fantasies," 40 narrative works. We do not think that it is just because we know and love Hall, who just won the Arkansas Arts Council's Governor's Individual Artist Award for 2017, that we think his work is very fine. His painterly images, in Limoges cloisonné techniques, are often witty, sometimes homoerotic and always beautifully crafted. His palette is daring.

"Boys with Blue Raft," silver cloisonné enamel on copper with copper foil, is a wonderful work in aquas and deep blues used to splashy effect around the gorgeous male figures, and apparently hearkens to a childhood vacation in Miami Beach. "Turbulence at the Beach" is a jewel, with white splotches of foam and a literal and figurative undercurrent of sexual tension. Hall, who no longer works in enamel because of the health risks, knew how to make water flow and froth in enamel.

Hilarious and wonderfully composed is his "Sylvia Moskowitz at the Rodeo," in which his alter ego (Moskowitz) vamps in the background while a cowboy rides a bucking horse in the foreground. With the exception of the pieces in the collection of the Arts Center, all of the work is in private hands, which meant that we had to take a photograph of almost everything in the show to keep enjoying it.

Both exhibitions run through December.

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