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Getting It Right

boxes
Boxed Set: Jeffery Ketcham's maple and ebony boxes illustrate the artist's obsession with fine wood and detail.

ArtHaus featured artists tread a fine line between expression and obsession

By Christa Palmer

Michaelangelo lay on his back for years to paint the walls and ceilings of the Sistine Chapel, and Diego Rivera slept and ate on scaffolds for days to paint murals. Andy Goldsworthy stood at the North Pole for hours to freeze ice to ice to create one of his ephemeral environmental sculptures. The passion to create, its sheer determination and patience, can lapse into a perfectionist's madness--or an artist's mark of ingenuity.

Bearing some similarity to these extreme feats of devotion and drive to perfectionism are a handful of artists in ArtHaus' current exhibit, Beneath the Surface, a group show focusing on technical excellence in a variety of media. As enticing as the elegant, L-shaped space of ArtHaus itself, the two- and three-dimensional artworks by Adam Kurtzman, Jeffrey Ketcham, Chris Schiavo and Serena Bocchino demonstrate the lengths to which artists will go in order to produce work that satisfies them.

"There are only a few artists who truly take their medium to a level of genius and perfection," James Bacchi of ArtHaus says with an easy smile as he motions over to "Sean," a 48-inch-tall papier-mâché puppet wearing red briefs and white socks, with skin so smooth and shiny it surely seems to be metallic.

"My first encounter with Adam Kurtzman's work was a portrait mask of Tina Turner back in '87," Bacchi continues. "The energy this piece exuded was overwhelming. The surface of the mask was even more amazing. Convinced that no one was looking, I touched it. When I realized it was papier-mâché, I knew the hands of a genius created this work."

Kurtzman's papier-mâché technique takes painstaking care. To begin, he models the figure in plasticine and then drapes one layer of paper at a time over the clay form, working with various papers, all of which he impregnates with a special cellulose-based binder. Each layer of paper must dry for three to five hours before the next application, and the sculptures average ten layers.

"Kurtzman has been known to patiently blow dry each layer before adding the next layer," Bacchi remarks. "The illusions he creates with surfaces and finishes are just extraordinary. Take a look at this fish sculpture."

And with that, art dealer Annette Schutz gracefully places the papier-mâché fish atop her head and, turning her head ever so slightly from side to side, models it for us. "The scales on this "Fish Hat" are made from a hole puncher," Schutz says. "Imagine the time it took to apply each punched-out circle in creating this scalelike surface."

Turning from Kurtzman's work to the corner of the room, Bacchi points to Jeffrey Ketcham's three-panel wood screen, which incorporates more than 30 inlaid wood blocks. "It's been 10 years since I have been physically shaken by the work of a relatively new artist," Bacchi remarks. "Back in 1987, Adam Kurtzman's papier-mâché portraiture gave me a jolt. This year, Jeffrey Ketcham's carved wood boxes and screens did it again."

Ketcham's maple and ebony carved boxes and screens explore the artist's obsession with fine wood and detail. Debuting in "Beneath the Surface" is a new screen by Ketcham that consists of several hand-carved blocks of ebony, which are inlaid in a six-inch-high, three-panel screen. According to Bacchi, it is "truly an awesome piece of work" and would have taken a few years to complete.

As Bacchi places one of Ketcham's art boxes on the table for a closer look, Schutz pulls out a portfolio from under the couch. She proceeds to show a series of vivid photos titled "Backyard Series" by Chris Schiavo.

Schutz explains that Schiavo spent days physically painting her parents' back yard with vegetable paints, creating shadows, hanging oranges from trees, hand-painting plant and tree leaves or arranging colorful painted hoses along a garden path, truly mixing suburbia with the surreal. "Chris Schiavo pushes and stretches her medium," Schutz says. "Her work has no boundaries. When first viewing her work you may catch her humor, but with closer examination you see masterful perfection. It's just extraordinary."

Schutz continues: "Take a look here at Serena Bocchino's work, to use that word again. Her work is also truly extraordinary."

To illustrate her point, Schutz holds up one of Bocchino's paintings to a lamp, as Bacchi slowly dims the light to better display the artist's dazzling effects with oil and graphite on vellum. "You can feel the passion and hear the music in her jazz-inspired paintings," Schutz says, a little breathlessly. "Her obsession and love for painting is what puts her in a league comprised of a chosen few."


Beneath the Surface runs through April 19 at ArtHaus, 1053 Bush St., Suite 2; Tue.­Sat. 10am­6pm, by appointment; 415/922-8219.

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From the January 1997 issue of the Metropolitan

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