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The Hand Workshop offers a ferocious collection of baubles, bangles and barbs.

No Small Parts

In the 1960s, artist Claes Oldenburg secured his place in art history by selecting small-to-midsize mass-produced effects of American culture and redrafting them into colossal sculptures made from unexpected materials. By doing so, he required viewers to encounter the form beyond its use. In "Zierat," the Hand Workshop's latest exhibition, co-curators Paula Owen and Barbel Helmet reverse this act by selecting for consideration large sculptural concepts and stratagems of form and material that have been shrunken to a size sufficiently light enough to be affixed to a lapel or slipped over an appendage.

The work that makes up their extensive touring exhibition is, for the most part, extraordinary jewelry made by artists from Germany, Holland and the United States. (Richmond artist Nancy K.Thompson is represented with three elegant brooches.) The curators have judiciously selected artists who manipulate every conceivable medium, from epoxy resin to fur to soap to hornet nests, on behalf of both costumery and commentary. Indeed, it is one of the most material-rich exhibitions in recent memory. It is almost wickedly agile, with much of the works' intelligence encoded by the artists in their eccentric media. A foil of the attractive presentation at the Hand Workshop is that a clear sense of the materials employed by each artist is not readily apparent to the visitor. One will not necessarily grasp the full potency of some of these remarkable works without first consulting the numbered handout and exhibition catalog. It's a little like novice bird-watching. All are cautioned to remain alert and keep their guidebooks handy.

Most of the tiny sensual items of "Zierat" have a fully inclusive aesthetic keenness. Most among them could undergo Oldenburg's miracle air pump to become significant sculptures in their own right, confidently taking on a full gallery wall or central spot on the floor.

The two curators translate their title, "Zierat," as the German word for ornament. It's a dynamic and exotic name for an aspect of art that some might challenge as its commodification — a Zorroesque association may be drawn for us commercially weaned, but nonetheless pedantic, Americans. Owen and Helmet share the belief that ornamentation is a fully viable role for art; a personal method of relating more intimately to the manifestations of form and message that occasionally confound or threaten the art viewer. If there are issues of folly or vanity to be addressed in this arrangement, no one will be quicker to get them on the table than the "Zierat" artists. Whether it is Robert Ebendorf's scary little sacrificial squirrel and bird amulets; Katja Korsawe's tender exposé of private parts; Marijke Schurink's video documentary of a young woman abiding a suffocating veil of her own burning essence (wearing a choker of a different sort); or Ulla Pantel's confectionery meltdown, the artists take the opportunity to deconstruct the precious and the vain, while holding onto the visual fascination of these qualities.

Modern art has assumed a somewhat exclusive position regarding scale. It's inclined to invoke and respect size, permitting it the huge power that will sanction a standardized item as an intellectual experience — an aggravated ornament of the psyche, so to speak. Size accompanies awe, and awe gives humans pause, undermining or overwhelming them. However, when the process is reversed, it exposes a different condition, one that suffers an almost macho prejudice. When anything is miniaturized, no matter how unsettling or forceful it might be outside of its size, it must fight for its right to exist under the same terms. Indeed, the word precious fills the ambient space like an immoderate floral atomizer. The viewer begins to select rather than react, for one thing, and hasty assimilation is easily art's greatest adversary. "Zierat" rises above that consumptive condition by offering a ferocious collection of baubles, bangles and

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