Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Art & Craft Salvaged

The line separating art and craft is blurry in the best of times but every now and then someone comes along who moves so seamlessly between the two worlds one wonders why bother with demarcations in the first place.

Bill Russell is widely known and highly regarded throughout the nation for his vinegar painted furniture, most of it reclaimed and salvaged pieces he strips, paints in intricate vibrant patterns of color and varnishes to a glass-like sheen. They are dazzling tours de force of imagination and execution. No wonder he is known as the Vermeer of Vinegar. (Such is Russell's reputation, he is sought out as much for what he can teach as what he produces, having published a book on his techniques and offering ongoing workshops.)

The "other" Bill Russell was trained as a fine artist and his latest work on view at his studio in Philadelphia represents a distinct departure from the exquisite details and palette of his furniture. Russell is showing four Shields, each measuring roughly 14" wide by 60" tall. Their surfaces are "crudely" carved and the colors used are greatly muted earth tones.

The immediate impression the shields make is that they are primitive in origin, perhaps some African or Oceanic artifact. Indeed, Russell drew inspiration from the shields of the Asmat people of Papua New Guinea. However, he is hardly another sophisticate masquerading as an outsider. On the contrary, he shares something fundamental with the artists who influenced him. The Asmat shields are made from lateral roots harvested from mangrove trees in the swamps. Russell's shields are executed on reclaimed wood, white pine beams in this instance, harvested from local salvage yards. Their pre-salvage use partially explains the shields' dimensions but at the same time clearly suggested their new identities.

The designs are far more crude than the precise or trompe l'oeil ones in Russell's furniture yet they have an underlying order and rhythm to them. Though forced to use techniques diametrically opposed to those required by the furniture, Russell's shields possess a presence that invites close scrutiny and a delectation in surfaces and color...just like the furniture displayed in the rest of his studio.