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MFA's craft show lacks a coherent concept

Michael Lucero's "She Devil," a cute, toddler-size demon, kneels on her pedestal with an alert, mischievous expression on her wide-eyed face. Her head, shoulders, and back - including little wings and a pointy curl of a tail - are covered in a veneer of intricately patterned orange and blue yarn, while her ceramic legs and arms are colorfully splattered with drippy glazes.

This sweetly satanic figure personifies what is most exciting about "Shy Boy, She Devil, and Isis: The Art of Conceptual Craft," an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts. It embodies a desire to invigorate traditional craftsmanship with irreverent, nontraditional imagination. ("Shy Boy" and "Isis" are the names of works by other artists in the show.)

Unfortunately, far too many of the 120 objects in the exhibit are not so thrilling. Indeed, if you didn't know better, you might think that the MFA's contemporary-art galleries, stocked as they are with kitschy decorative objects and furniture, had been cannibalized by the gift shop.

This is cause for concern, because the exhibition represents a major commitment by the MFA to study, preserve, display, and interpret contemporary craft as a distinct field of cultural endeavor.

Organized by Gerald W.R. Ward, the MFA's curator of decorative arts and sculpture for the Art of the Americas, the show is drawn entirely from the contemporary-craft collection of Ronald C. and Anita L. Wornick. The Wornicks have promised to give the MFA 250 works from their collection, including all those on view in this exhibition. (Ronald Wornick owns the Wornick Co., which is the world's largest supplier of military rations.)

A few works here represent historically important developments in craft. Made in 2001, Peter Voulkos's "Isis," a massive, bottle-shaped form made of thick, ragged slabs of earth-tone clay, recalls the Expressionist revolt that he started in the 1950s against dainty, genteel traditions in ceramics. A colorfully striped glass bowl resembling a giant jellyfish exemplifies Dale Chihuly's influential discoveries in the possibilities of hand-blown glass.

But the overall selection is far too random to give a coherent sense of the recent history of contemporary craft. As the show's catalog indicates, the Wornicks' collection focuses on what they think of as "Conceptual Craft." Judging by the works in this show, that basically means pieces that seem to blur the line between traditional craft and conventional sorts of fine art - sculpture, mainly. Nothing in the exhibition, which includes objects made of wood, clay, glass, fabric, and metal, is as radical or innovative as the term would suggest, and many pieces are decorative in the worst sense of the word.

A flower carved into a prism-shaped block of glass by Christopher Ries would be more appropriate for the Steuben Glass showroom than for an art museum's contemporary galleries. Donald Fortescue's discus-shaped sculpture of laminated birch plywood, 4 feet across, is an exercise in mild-mannered minimalism that would look very much at home in a corporate hotel lobby.

Ron Fleming's wooden bowl turned from a box-elder burl, with its rim beautifully carved into wavy, reed-like forms, is an impressive feat of woodworking and lovely to behold; so is Ben Trupperbäumer's wooden platter with Art Nouveau-style tendrils sculpted in relief. But like too many other objects in the show, reverence for fine materials and super-refined technique prevail over more imaginative possibilities.

One of the few pieces that might qualify as Conceptual craft is a side table by Gord Peteran made by gluing together dozens of random, seemingly leftover scraps of wood. Titled "A Table Made of Wood," it could be used as a table, but it's also a Cubist sculpture.

A large number of the show's objects represent the human figure in cartoonish, surrealistic, and Expressionistic styles. Many pieces tend toward a kind of comically grotesque illustration. "Yellow Head," by Hank Murta Adams, is a bigger-than-life, primitivistic head of a man made of dark, mustardy-yellow cast glass with wildly curly hair made of copper wire. Sergei Isupov's ceramic sculpture "Passions Rise" has dreamlike, erotically charged images of men and women drawn on a sculpture of a man and a dog-headed man who are joined like Siamese twins.

Some of the more impressive figurative works include a giant, roughly glazed ceramic figure of a seated man kicking an archaically styled jar by Viola Frey, bulbous children in traditional Japanese garb made of stoneware by Akio Takamori, and an enormous head of a bearded man composed from innumerable small, organically shaped bits of clay by Jean-Pierre Larocque. Ruthlessly edited, this could be a terrific show. But too many other figurative works are irredeemably cliched. Gib Singleton's 9-foot-tall Expressionist bronze sculpture of a skinny elongated Eve, David Bennett's figure of a dancing man made of blue glass with lines of bronze emphasizing his muscles, and Latchezar Boyadjiev's semi-geometric female torso cast in red glass are all laughably portentous, heavy-handed exercises in outmoded modern styles.

The show's international roster includes well-known craftspeople such as furniture-maker Wendell Castle and ceramicist Betty Woodman, but you will look in vain if you are hoping to find the most imaginative and original artists working today in the overlap of art and craft. One could create a fabulous exhibition out of works just by missing ceramicists: Ken Price, Ron Nagle, Kathy Butterly, and Nicole Cherubini, to name only four. Among the missing glass artists is Josiah McElheny, who combines expert craftsmanship and complex Conceptual ideas in his ambitious sculptures.

The bigger question raised by this show is about the value of craft today. If the MFA is going to make a case for the importance of contemporary craft, it needs a curator who has the taste and insight to sort the good from the bad and mediocre, the significant from the insignificant. The craft curator should be able to define what craft is, connect it to the broader culture, and make us believe that it really matters. The present exhibition is not a reassuring step in the right direction.

Shy Boy, She Devil, and Isis: The Art of Conceptual Craft, Selections From the Ronald C. and Anita L. Wornick Collection, At: Museum of Fine Arts, through Jan. 6. 617-267-9300, mfa.org.

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Shy Boy, She Devil, and Isis: The Art of Conceptual Craft, Selections From the Ronald C. and Anita L. Wornick Collection

At: Museum of Fine Arts, through Jan. 6. 617-267-9300, mfa.org.

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