Shapely steel

What could be more antithetical to a consumer culture obsessed with commercial value, instant gratification and disposable everything than artwork culled from patient attention, corruption-resistant materials and centuries-old technique? Ornamental, a show of metal wall sculpture by artist Amy Haskins at the P.F. Galleries in Clawson, offers an antidote to the bland and forgettable.

“In the sea of manufactured commodities and desires, I want to make what is beautiful, thoughtful and useful,” the artist says. Haskins merges brilliant colors and delicately wrought, handcrafted shapes with the tough utility of powder-coated steel. A balance of baroque and minimalist sensibilities creates a unique sense of harmony. The resulting work is amazing — fluid and kinetic with a kind of romantic modernity.

A New York state native, Haskins received her master’s from Cranbrook in 2001. Although she started out as a literature major, she fell in love with metalsmithing after taking an undergraduate class. Meaning and usefulness are paramount to the artist, who was trained as a goldsmith and has forged hundreds of engagement rings in the past. “There’s the permanence of working in these materials … that’s the way I deal with objects in my own life. I prefer handmade items … that sort of intimacy.” In addition to wall sculpture, the gallery is also showing a collection of her belt buckles that function as both art and accessory.

Her latest artwork draws inspiration from literature as well as architecture, music and visual art. “So often when I’m looking at artwork I don’t have the emotional response that I do with literature or music,” she says. She wants to make work that makes you feel the way those art forms do.

Haskins takes cues from architecture in many pieces — the untitled black grid featuring intricate scrollwork; a green grid work, reminiscent of a lattice festooned with limber vines and tiny rosebuds; and a tiny-yet-perfect triptych, with its graceful looping scrolls and dark red flowers. The architectural influence becomes especially apparent in a white domed piece positioned near the gallery entrance that resembles a skeletal model for an ornate skylight or cathedral dome. She says her fascination with the ornamental was informed in part by the essay “Ornament and Crime” by early 20th century architect Adolf Loos.

Most of her pieces blend organic, floral elements with a geometric underpinning. One piece presents a starburst of lush, glossy blossoms — painted a striking robin’s egg blue — that seem to spring from their circular backdrop. The appearance of softness that Haskins has achieved with the metal is remarkable, particularly in the case of an ovoid figure featuring an arrangement of matte black blossoms with layers of petals so gently curved they might be silk.

Certain works in the collection resonate most for their gorgeous simplicity, like “Free One,” a brilliant red scroll set off with a single leaf and flower. The effect is like a musical flourish. There is an overall sense of mystery and grace in Haskins’ work, residing in the lacy, scalloped shapes that vibrate against their backdrops, vivid color schemes of smoldering blacks and bright reds, oranges and greens.

About her artistic process, Haskins says, “It’s really labor-intensive work, but I can’t seem to make myself stop.” She begins with a rough drawing and templates, and then cuts and forges metals. Afterward, each piece has to be soldered, welded and powder-coated; the latter is a finishing process of the automotive industry.

Haskins is a petite-framed woman who defies gender stereotypes about metalworking, a profession that seems too hardcore for a woman of her size. “People say, ‘Oh my God! You made this? You can weld?’” In the polite-yet-weary manner of someone who’s been asked too many times, the artist explains the insular world of metalworking is in fact predominately female. “It actually works to my advantage when I go to steel distributors and welding shops.” She says they make her prove her competence first, but she develops good relationships with a lot of the workers, who start out surprised and end up impressed. Haskins admits occasionally causing a stir by showing up at her exhibit openings in high heels, in postfeminist fashion.


Ornamental runs through March 12, at P.F. Galleries in Clawson.

Christina Kallery is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]