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Goes the polymer clay



In the mid-1700s, the Duke of Portland acquired an example of Roman cameo glass, formerly belonging to the Barberini family. This extraordinary work of art, which came to be known as the Portland Vase (now in the British Museum) inspired English artists for a century. Josiah Wedgwood copied it in Jasperware, and John Northwood, who copied it in glass, spearheaded the revival of cameo glass in Victorian England.

And thanks to Northwood, and his peers, thousands of beautiful works of art in cameo glass were created, most of which remain to delight us today. All because a rich nobleman on the grand tour bought an ancient glass vase.

Of such accidents is the history of art often created.

The current show at the Business of Art Center, POP! Panorama of Polymer, celebrates not a work of art, but a medium for the creation of art: polymerized clay. If that sounds fancy, it isn't; we're talking Sculpey here, folks.

And most of us have had some experience with Sculpey. You can shape it like any clay, bake it in a regular oven and make all kinds of kitschy craft items. It's fun for kids, and for your friends who make teensy little craft thingies to give to long-suffering relatives at Christmas, but it's surely not anything that a Real Artist would use ... or is it?

If that's what you think, then you're in for a real surprise, and a visual treat. I don't know what Josiah Wedgwood thought when first he saw the Portland Vase; but I know what I thought when I walked into the BAC's gallery and saw Kathleen Dustin's work arrayed on a vitrine before me. I literally could not believe my eyes. I couldn't believe that these dazzling, luminous and mysterious sculptures were made of clay.

Dustin makes objects that she calls purses. You could certainly use them as purses, just as you could use the Portland Vase to drink beer. They're smooth, ovoid forms that incorporate, in a very small space, a carefully controlled, yet bewildering and riotous, sea of imagery. Imagine a single work of art which seems to combine the techniques of egg tempera, of millefiori glass, of Japanese lacquerware, of transferware and of metalworking, and you'll get the idea. And imagine that the entire piece, including its silver ornament, is polymerized clay, and you'll realize just how versatile this new medium is.

The show is remarkable -- wildly uneven with some works that are simply breathtaking.

Dustin's work is gorgeous, and works by Nan Roche, Sarah Shriver, Donna Kato and Jody Bishel are almost as stunning. Roche makes light, intricate necklaces (no, not beads on a string; woven clay forms), technically masterful and light enough to wear comfortably. Donna Kato (who literally wrote the book The Art of Polymer Clay) makes playful and beautiful wearable art that would make a supermodel look like a goddess, and would proportionately improve anyone's looks. Jody Bishel makes elaborately ornamented vessels, which look like nothing you've ever seen, as if they came from some unimaginably sophisticated alien culture. And Sarah Shriver makes beautifully detailed medallion brooches and necklaces that you almost need a magnifying glass to fully appreciate.

These are wonderful works of art. We owe their creation to the fusion of technique, creative genius and new materials. Polymerized clay no longer consists simply of Sculpey in a dozen basic colors. There are opaque clays in every shade, as well as translucent, and even transparent (!), clays.

Moreover, there's even a clay-like material which consists of fine grains of a specially treated silver in a poly-clay matrix. You can shape it just as you would clay, then fire it in a kiln, and you're left with a solid silver form, the clay having burnt off.

Because of this versatile and plastic medium, artists are able to achieve effects of layered, translucent colors that were formerly the province of recondite and difficult techniques such as plique-a-jour enameling. Since poly clay can be fired at low temperatures (set your oven to 270F), and remains flexible after firing, it's a joy to work.

I suspect that, as work such as Dustin's and Kato's is exposed to a wider audience, it'll have the same effect upon artists of our time as did the appearance of the Portland Vase a couple of centuries ago. First, amazed fascination, and then, questions: How did they do that? Can I do that? And where can I get some of that stuff?

Meanwhile, don't miss this show. Many of the pieces are for sale, and for prices that even I can afford.

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