Art Review: Comical, sublime contained within unique vessels

'Red Tripod' by Sarah Perkins.

Fredric Koeppel

"Red Tripod" by Sarah Perkins.

If you're feeling a bit of a letdown between Christmas and New Year's, drive down to the National Ornamental Metal Museum for a bright pick-me-up in the form of Sarah Perkins' "Tributary" exhibition. It's a compact show, and the 13 objects are small, but the sensory effects are bountiful.

Perkins, a professor of art at Missouri State University, works primarily in copper, silver and enamel, with touches here and there of semi-precious materials like coral or blue chalcedony, and in this exhibition, to be displayed through Feb. 19, she explores the notion of "container" as decorative artifact, vessel and icon. The intent is serious, yet the execution is often whimsical; the principal results are both beautiful and comical.

'Butterfly Container'

"Butterfly Container"

 'Silver Lines Container'

"Silver Lines Container"

Part of the comic effect -- and this aspect is a nuance -- derives from the forms these little vessels take, mainly curvilinear to the point of verging on bulbous. The fact that the shapes resolve themselves into three small, rounded "feet" at the bottom -- they seem to perch lightly inside their vitrines -- combined with their self-assured rounded forms lends some of them the air of gaudy prehistoric "Venus" statuettes, those anonymous fertility symbols our distant ancestors seemed to delight in. Like those figures, Perkins' containers partake of the sacred and the profane.

Take "Red Tripod," a tidy little object that sits enigmatically on its almost-invisible three feet. The effect is self-contained -- oops, pun unintended -- almost self-satisfied. The color is vivid, like lipstick in a fashion magazine. Unusually, for this collection of vessels, the opening, under its lid, is, in proportion, fairly wide. The openings in most of the other containers are miniscule; there's not much that they could contain except, paradoxically, themselves and the air they enclose.

A piece of surpassing and mysterious beauty is "Silver Lines Container," whose contrast between midnight blue and gleaming silver and the pale blue stripes on the body convey an air of luxury and elegance, while the eggplant-shaped vessel itself has a sense of gravitation and inevitability.

The only object in the exhibition that is not symmetrical is "Butterfly Container," which leans a bit to one side. It's also one of the most elaborately decorated and airy pieces in the exhibition, an appropriate approach to an object that embodies the lightness and delicacy of a butterfly.

Also at the Metal Museum are two larger and equally fascinating shows. "Fresh: Exhibition in Print" is a juried exhibition of work by 30 artists (out of 433 entrants) that pushes concepts of craftsmanship and creativity up to and past the avant garde. As one artist says in the catalog: "My goal is to work into the material in order to alienate it."

The other is "Weighed in the Balance: Akan Gold Weights," an intriguing and delightful collection of the small gold weights used by the Akan people of Ghana for business and ritual transactions. Many of the pieces depict stylized animals and everyday objects in whimsical fashion. Both of these exhibitions will be displayed through March 4.

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Sarah Perkins, 'Tributaries'

At the National Ornamental Metal Museum, 374 Metal Museum Drive, through Feb. 19. Call (901) 774-6380, or visit metalmuseum.org.

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