Arts & Culture » Visual Art

Beyond Wall Art

Metal works stress medium's possibilities at Enso exhibition

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From the street, Boise artist-blacksmith Michael Cordell's house--hidden behind a dense row of imposingly tall, bushy trees--is practically invisible. Cordell has an obsession with fences and barriers: He said though it would take him years, he'd like to create a fence from hundreds of the one- to one-and-a-quarter-inch Schedule 40 steel pipes he was twisting into knotty stocks under an open propane forge into an untitled art piece.

"Untitled"--a grove of these melty stocks affixed to a black metal stand--is one of Cordell's metallic explorations and is part of Enso Artspace's upcoming exhibition, Metal, opening Friday, March 7. The group of unaffiliated metal artists with works in the exhibit include Cordell, Sue Latta, Dennis Proska and Susan Madasci. And as much as it's a display of the distinctive artistic voices, it's also a statement about the processes and possibilities of metal artworks.

In Cordell's workshop behind his Bench-neighborhood home, he discussed the breadth of Metal's contributing artists in terms of his impression of Boise's market for fine art. It's a market, he said, that's driven by the comparative preciousness of floor space to wall space. Paintings are light and can be hung with ease; sculpture and metalworks are heavy, three-dimensional and compete with furniture for square-footage.

"The art consumer here is more likely to live in a suburban home and put something on the wall," he said.

That may explain why many of the works that will be exhibited in Metal are, in contrast to assumptions about the medium, wall-friendly. Cordell's "Untitled" could stand neatly near a wall without cramping interior design plans, as could Sue Latta's "'Till I Break the Skin," a chemically treated steel frame with ragged interior edges holding a photograph of a defaced Marilyn Monroe poster. Latta's works eschew abstraction, and "'Till I Break the Skin" is a clear statement about Monroe as a cultural icon and how the public gaze has transformed her.

"All these ideas are added on to her now," Latta said. "I appreciate her. I feel somehow protective."

"Treasure," another of Latta's works that will be part of Metal, is similarly scarred and sheltering. Its menstrual-red lining is encased in a pastiche of found-steel panels haphazardly welded into a Franken-box, beneath which dangles a similarly velvet-lined keybox from a metal stand. The piece's vulva-centric imagery is no accident.

Latta described her artworks as "writing their own stories"--half-dreams that resolve into realities through the process of creation. In the case of "Treasure," the piece's velvet lining was a missing link between her vision and the final product.

Then, at a house party, a friend walked into Latta's workshop, saw "Treasure" and suggested lining its interior space with the velvet. Latta described herself as normally apathetic to suggestions from audiences of her works, but she knew a good idea when she heard it.

"Every piece was a problem to solve, and until I got to the red velvet, this problem was not solved," she said.

Metalworking is an ancient craft--the oldest copper tools are more than 10,000 years old. But despite advances in materials and our knowledge of how to work them, metal can still surprise. While Latta's works stress message and beg interpretation, Cordell's "pursue unintended form." "Sketch," a series of hammered and chemically treated copper rings mounted on a rack, capitalizes on Cordell's search for the random, the unexpected.

"That's why I'm calling it 'Sketch.' It's a series of trials," he said.

The piece has the unfinished quality of the most ancient examples of hammered copper. It recalls history but more specifically, it recalls metalworking as an emerging craft driven by gold and copper, tin, lead, mercury and iron. The weathered, haphazard appearance of the copper rings, which strongly resemble bracelets, evokes early craftsmen's delight in their medium.

Latta and Cordell work in a tangible and durable medium. And they work with fire and tools--the playthings of adults.

"Always with the tools," Latta said.

For artist-blacksmiths, creation is pleasure, and finished products have, said Cordell, "tactile sensuousness." The works demand to be touched.

"I'm going to put a sign by this: Please Pet the Sculpture," he said.