The Sara Bedrick Gallery at the Dorsky Museum at SUNY-New Paltz will be home until December 11 to a survey of the past decade of work (plus some earlier pieces) by the head of the Metals Program at SUNY-New Paltz, internationally renowned metalsmith Myra Mimlitsch-Gray. Curated by author Akiko Busch, “In/Animate” explores a variety of artistic processes using iron, copper, brass, silver and enameled steel.
Having earned her BFA at the Philadelphia College of Art (now known as the University of the Arts) and her MFA from the Cranbrook Academy of Art, Mimlitsch-Gray had been teaching at Purdue University prior to taking up a post at SUNY-New Paltz in 1993. The New Paltz Metals Program already had a reputation as one of the best of its kind in the US, and it was far from the first time that she had visited the campus: “I was connected to both a student and a faculty member,” she says, attending colloquia of top Metals programs from “seven or eight schools that got together in this way.” Having already established a strong reputation in the field, she was offered the position vacated by the retirement of Fred Woell, and “shared responsibility co-directing the program” for about 20 years with Jamie Bennett, up until he retired in 2014.
Art programs that specialize in metals are often thought of as primarily training grounds for jewelers, but there’s a lot more to the SUNY-New Paltz than gold- and silversmithing. “I teach everything from Basic Metal to Graduate Thesis,” Mimlitsch-Gray says, grounding students in metalworking techniques without imposing her own preferred areas of artistic inquiry, aesthetic or media. “I want them to discover their own approach to this vocabulary of objects…The way issues of identity can be explored and expressed through objects is important.”
Though she made a lot of jewelry early in her career, her interest quickly turned to the deconstruction of familiar housewares. “My work exists as homage and critique as it engages traditional objects, their purpose and presence in contemporary society,” she writes in her Artist’s Statement in the exhibition catalogue. “Exploring craft’s social function and identity continues to motivate my investigation of new forms. I locate the pieces I make in the domestic sphere: mantel, sideboard, table. Their implied purposes drive the content of my work.”
In the first decade of the 2000s, Mimlitsch-Gray did a residency at the Kohler Company’s Arts/Industry program, producing a large body of artworks based on common housewares that clearly convey her sense of visual wit. There’s a series of cast-iron skillets warped into strange shapes to fit a bratwurst or two, or twisted like one of Dalí’s melting watches. Another line features corn pone pans and platters decorated with impressions of corncobs; titles like Mitosis and Monsanto add tongue-in-cheek layers of meaning that transcend the objects’ original utilitarian nature. Silver objects from this period, such as candlesticks, appear to be melting into a puddle; or she uses negative space by putting the imprint of a vanished sugarbowl into a block of metal. “Nothing in the domestic landscape remains static,” comments curator Busch in the catalogue.
Mimlitsch-Gray’s more recent work has trended away from the specifically historical and more into the abstract. “She is working to translate her formal references to craft and function into a new vocabulary free from the theory that has taken over the dialogue around making in recent years,” the Dorsky’s curator of exhibitions and programs, Daniel Belasco, writes in the catalogue. Though still inspired by housewares, the intended functions of many of the newer objects are dubious and vague. Amorphously shaped vessels are punctured, sliced, split, peeled back to reveal contrasting materials underneath. The artist has also been exploring the potentialities of enameled metalware, the contrast between the “nostalgia” of old-fashioned steel spatterware objects with the clinical, detached, “laboratory” feel of a high-gloss vitreous finish. “The surface and firing process can sometimes be a mystery,” says Mimlitsch-Gray about the challenge of teaching herself these new techniques.
“In/Animate: Recent Work by Myra Mimlitsch-Gray” and the other new Dorsky Museum shows can be viewed from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays (except for college holidays and intersessions) on the SUNY-New Paltz campus. Admission is by voluntary donation. The opening reception this Saturday, September 10 from 5 to 7 p.m. is open to the general public. In addition, a special public program consisting of a gallery talk and tour of the SUNY-New Paltz Metal Program facility, led by Mimlitsch-Gray and Busch, will be held on Saturday, October 22 from 2 to 5 p.m.
For more information about the Dorsky Museum and its programs, visit www.newpaltz.edu/museum or call (845) 257-3844.