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Functionality 

If your avant-garde contemporary art gets too ethereal and if the investment in paying attention to its seemingly marginal focus isn’t yielding satisfactory dividends, Pewabic Pottery and Sybaris Gallery have remarkably complementary exhibitions that do. The Vase at Pewabic (10125 E. Jefferson, Detroit — 313-822-0954) and Nick Cave: Mixed Media Sculpture at Sybaris (202 E. Third St., Royal Oak — 248-544-3388) require the same mental investment as a trip to Nordstrom (except you can’t touch) and each offers a blue-chip return.

What could be more fundamental than the vase, the archetypal artistic creation? Of infinite variety and of finite use: to adorn and succor our lives with flowers in a vessel that holds water (and was used incidentally to gather the blood of the sacrificed in ancient times). Each work in the Pewabic exhibition explores this functional object in a limited number of ways, but each with its own perfection achieved by hands with an uncommon, uncelebrated mastery of their art.

Some vases are for large bouquets — such as the spring mix to celebrate the rebirth of nature — thus having heavy bases and large-mouthed openings. Others for as few as one flower have small openings and are light of body. The design possibilities are endless and the 53 vases a joy to behold.

Interestingly, the frequent occurrence of floral and vegetative patterns on the vases themselves characterizes much of the work. Thus while conservative in pattern and design (accomplishment within the genre demands this loyalty to traditional forms), the vegetative motif ensures a classic elegance that more flamboyant vases don’t have. In one display area, the vases all have a leaf-green matte glaze and simple shapes. Cheryl Hanley’s Green Crystal Vase is an exquisite bud vase with a rare, glistening, crystal-iridescent glaze. Jim Connell’s Green Carved Vase, with a uniform gouged fluting, is a wonderfully understated work. Linda Huey’s Tree Relief (pictured) has an exaggerated and vibrant vegetative design, but in a subtle, terra-cotta low-fire glaze.

The conservative, elegant vegetal-designed vase has a counterpart in designs that explore other natural or quirky themes and motifs. John and Susanne Stephenson use the vase as a vehicle for a painterly formal expressionism, and Chris Simoncelli’s modernist-shaped vase is graced with a geometrical abstract glazing. Sam Sloan’s four interlocking, candy-striped Pop Bottles are at once whimsical and smart. Exploring natural forms, Gail McCurdy’s untitled white porcelain vase, Laura Scrofani’s interlocking violet-glazed Palm-Palm and William Shinn’s green, waving sea-plant form are startlingly beautiful.

Unlike the vase, Nick Cave’s mixed-media sculptures are functional only in the erotic imagination. If the vase is the holder of the actual flower, Cave’s primarily fantastic fruits and phalluses are the symbolic opposite.

On the gallery wall, nine multicolored, sequined dildos hang slightly above our heads. Secured by black-rubber bungee cords, they’re hilarious sentries for the long table of Party Favors composed of a variety of recycled, antique objects — oil cans, utility lights, rusted plumbing pipe, brass lamp parts, mechanical devices — each with its own sequined testicular and phallic-shaped sexual forms. Adorned like fashion accessories, they mediate the fashion and sexual imagination, and declare Cave’s brilliant wit, humor and power of design.

In large, bell-shaped vitrines, bowls of dazzling fruit — bananas, apples (some partially eaten), plums, limes — have a similar though less direct effect. In the Sybaris Gallery offices, a host of Hair Brushes continue to illustrate Cave’s transformative poetic imagination. Made of 4-inch-wide recycled paintbrushes whose bristles have been replaced with variously colored, long human hair, they shift from whimsical cartoon shapes (the erotics of street-kid fashion) to tantalizing pleasure accessories.

Glen Mannisto writes about visual art for Metro Times. E-mail him at letters@metrotimes.com

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