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Jill Barnes-Dacey's rare gift for expanding Decoupage

by Souren Melikian

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.

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An almost unfailing jeweler's feel for color harmonics gives Barnes-Dacey's art a highly distinctive imprint. Is this design carried to superlative decorative effect or Art with a capital A? In the contemporary scene, such distinctions are meaningless. It is the vision that matters. The American artist's aesthetic innovation has a wider scope than, say, Dan Flavin's fluorescent tubes, and her creative intervention is as extensive as Andy Warhol's silk screen processing of photographic shots. The difference separating her from these celebrities is that she applies her artistic ideas to the world of objects that has barely caught the attention of recognized contemporary artists. Accordingly, she works on a small scale.

How this different form of contemporary art will evolve is anyone's guess. Barnes-Dacey's trajectory so far has been unconventional, almost since the day she was born in 1953. Not even a prescient observer could have predicted that the daughter of an American writer from Black Rock, Connecticut, who was sent to an English finishing school at age 15, would dash off to Rome the moment she had a chance and spend the next seven years in the Italian capital. Having graduated there from a design school in 1971, her first foray into art life was organizing that same year an exhibition of contemporary Italian art in Kuwait - a bold idea in those days when no one thought of associating the Gulf with art.

Back in New York in 1973, Barnes-Dacey had a one-year stint at Phillips, at that time a high-profile auction house, and left for London where she obtained a degree from the New Academy for Art Studies. Marriage followed and with it, four children. The couple's world collapsed when Lennert's business was wiped out following the fearful 1990-1991 art market slump.

They moved to Italy, for which Barnes-Dacey retained a lingering yearning, then to Beaulieu-sur-Mer in France, where she began to do collages, and as the market recovered, back to London. But in 2006, the peripatetic couple settled in Italy, looking for a gentler pace of life and a more harmonious setting.

In Rome, Barnes-Dacey says, the sight of beautiful architecture inspired her to return to art. Keen to use her experience with collage on objects, she traveled to Fredensborg, an hour's drive from Copenhagen, to meet the Danish artist Dorthe Dencker, who practices découpage on objects in a traditional, quasi-Victorian style, and learn the technique. Thus it was that in April 2007, the Connecticut woman, who now holds dual American and Italian citizenship, came to make her first objects.

A show held in November 2007 in their palazzo proved to be a success that exceeded her hopes. Last week in London, the phenomenon repeated itself. More than half the 55 bowls, dishes, beakers, boxes and other implements were sold by the time the couple flew back home.

The buyers were as diverse as the objects. The £525 Medusa bowl was picked up by a Dutch real estate developer who was so keen that he took the object without allowing it to be wrapped up. A £375 beaker with architectural cutouts went to an English judge, and a £275 vase with an orchid pattern to a barrister. Of the three buyers, he alone is a collector of contemporary art. Most buyers were simply attracted to the pieces.

Barnes-Dacey's experience is symptomatic of a double reality that is rarely discussed in the media. There is a vast potential public ready to acquire present-time art. There are also many artists wending their way outside the politically correct categories recognized by the galleries and auction houses running the international show. When the two meet by happenstance, sparks fly in the air.