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The Bradford Gallery's newest exhibit gives an ancient Peruvian craft a contemporary spin.

Essence Over Appearance

One of the central concepts of ancient Peruvian culture is that of transformation. This worldview, and that of most pre-Columbian Americans, is based on the idea that nothing is static. The universe has the potential to change, to move from one plane of existence to another; life and death are not separate but part of a natural cycling schema.

Flux can be seen clearly in the ancient arts of the Inca that carry over to the modern day. Recurrent themes of animal/human composites and shamans who could morph from the human to the animal to the supernatural realm appear frequently on Andean ceramics, textiles and sculpture.

Dating back 6,000 years, one particularly longstanding tradition is that of gourd carving. Long before ceramics were created, the Inca and their antecedents hollowed out gourds for utility purposes and carved the outer hard shell with intricate interlocking designs.

That ancient tradition has found its way to Richmond in the current exhibition at the Bradford Gallery at VCU. Organized locally by Howard Risatti, department of crafts, and Javier Tapia, department of painting and printmaking, (with curatorial assistance from Paula Grundy) and supported by the Embassy of Peru, "Del Mate al Grabado" ("From Gourd to Print") is an absorbing synthesis of an ancient craft with a contemporary spin.

Several master gourd craftspeople from villages around Lima were approached by Frances Wu, owner of Wu Gallery, one of the primary contemporary art galleries in South America, to try their hand at engraving on a flat metal plate rather than the rounded surface of a gourd. The transferal, the first for these artists, of spherical composition to a linear one made for intriguing results.

Consisting of 25 prints on paper and 12 carved gourds, the show beautifully demonstrates that despite the medium and allocated space, these artists retained indigenous compositions, technique and motifs. All the works reveal meticulously interlaced birds and plants set against abstract organic designs. Almost all have divided the space between sky, jungle and village below. Despite the various spheres, the humans, plants and animals alike writhe and twist in a larger world order where individualism and portraiture is de-emphasized and collective activity takes precedence.

In Delia Porna and Circo Nunez's print "Construccion II," tiny ladders, hammers, saws and other tools float among tightly engraved swirls in the sky. Below, dozens of men and women toil away like ants, building houses and transporting supplies. Every inch of space is filled with design — a common element of Andean engravings and traditional Peruvian textiles, ceramics and carved stele. The convergence of the symbolic hovering over the "real" finds a link with ancient practices of stressing essence over appearance.

Likewise, Pedro Osores's "Selva Grande," a large carved gourd, is a virtuoso performance in carving, painting, compositional organization, and intricacy. Divided into four sections, the entire surface is covered with carefully modeled monkeys, birds, snakes and trees that coil among a sea of minute swirls. Given the tough skin of a gourd, which requires a burin to incise and resect it, these works divulge mind-boggling patience, skill, and expression on the part of their maker.

Lacking Western perspective and formulaic spatial organization, these Peruvian works seem to stress larger concepts of vitality, energy and symbolic clarity. Like their Incan precursors, the artists continue to portray transformation — this time one of traditional practices into modern results.

"Del Mate al Grabado" Prints and Carved Gourds by Master Peruvian Craftsmen; Folk Art from the Wu Ediciones Collection is showing at the Bradford Gallery in VCU's Fine Arts Building, 1000 W. Broad St through Dec. 16. 828-1477

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