LONDON — If contemporary art and design should ever strike you as a privilege for millionaires, think twice. Those who crowded the two-day selling show organized last week by the American artist Jill Barnes-Dacey in a West London private home were neither millionaires nor art market gurus. Nor was there any need for them to be - at £525, or $1,000, apiece, the most magnificent objects which sold on Friday and Saturday remained within the financial reach of most. It was not so much a question of who could afford them as of who had heard of the exhibition and got in first.
The traditional art vocabulary has no word that aptly characterizes Barnes-Dacey's objects. Created within the last 12 months, the vessels made to be looked at, as much as to be used for household purposes, share one structural feature. A glass shell is covered outside with cutout images glued to the surface and these are then varnished. What sounds like a simple operation is both a technical and artistic tour de force. Adjusting the flat images to a curving surface, pressing them delicately without causing a tear or without making them slide ever so slightly requires considerable deftness. Varnishing is even more delicate. The surface of the image is left to dry for 24 hours and then rubbed. The process takes 24 successive varnishings, in other words 24 days for each piece.
Barnes-Dacey refers to her work as "the art of découpage" and even gives classes to those who wish to study it in the 16th-century palazzo in Rome where she and her husband, the German art dealer Stefan Lennert, have their living and working quarters.
No teaching, however, can ever be sufficient to instill by itself the artistic vision that allows her to create a world of poetic fantasy out of cutouts put together.
The idea of collage transferred to three-dimensional art is made doubly complex by the fact that each piece has an inside and an outside on which the visual compositions must correlate without being repetitive.
Some have a paradoxical visual logic that gives them a Surrealist twist. A large hemispherical bowl displays in the center the mesmerizing mask of a Medusa carved by the Belgian Symbolist Fernand Khnopff in 1897, framed by the jambs of a marble mantelpiece from a 15th-century monument, in turn flanked on all four sides by floating views of half a dome from San Vitale in Ravenna. On the outside, four square panels alternately enclosing armorial shields and architectural close-ups seem poised on an inner shell coated with Chinese red and gold brocade. The panels impinge on a central roundel with another Medusa mask painted in San Vitale in 1780. This is a vision of world monuments run amuck, with mysterious faces flashing a petrifying message.
As intriguing as any Salvador Dali, its rich color scheme and wild composition caused the £525 bowl to be among the first objects to be snapped up on Friday. It could have sold several times over.
The same hemispherical volume was used by Barnes-Dacey to conceive an utterly different piece. Using art reproductions from a book on Lalique jewelry, she created a composition of seething, glittering Baroque motifs which retain a sense of order thanks to the powerful cross with arms of equal length that carves up the space. On the outside another cross with spindly arms runs over a pale green space filled with white geese in flight. Ethereal lightness there contrasts with the mineral richness of the inside. That too carried a red dot by Saturday, signaling it was no longer available.
While using familiar images on basic shapes, the artist has a feel for movement and rhythm that makes the objects swirl. On a cylindrical beaker that reproduces the proportions of a Chinese brush pot, broad vertical bands made up from the reproductions of precious stone bracelets by Van Cleef & Arpels run from top to bottom in alternation with narrow cloud-like motifs in turn flanked by slender red filets. Underneath, the shimmer of white blossoms on pale olive gray ground creates a trompe l'œil effect of precious things wafted through space.
The artist switches at will from the Surreal to the Baroque to avant-garde effects. On a large beaker with flaring sides, sinuous bands of marbled endpapers used for doublures in book binding sway from top to bottom. They cut across the thin white lines undulating over the sepia ground of another marbled paper. The harmonious abstractionist piece would not be out of place in a house filled with New York School paintings.