Enamels have not been a major Western art form for centuries. But in the Middle Ages and even into the early Renaissance, fusing a vitreous colored glaze to a metal surface under intense heat was a durable method for decorative embellishment of cups, boxes or jewelry at just a fraction of the expense of inlaying precious or semiprecious stones on important royal or liturgical objects; craftsmen burnished the skill to a high sheen.
Lesser episodes dot history, but those days are pretty much over. Which is not to say that enameling has ended as a popular craft or that technical skills have withered.
“Little Dreams in Glass and Metal: Enameling in America, 1920 to the Present” at the Craft & Folk Art Museum shows how elaborate things can get. A 6-foot-tall, 4-foot-wide etched and embossed panel in abstract golden hues by Fred Uhl Ball (1945-85) is a deluxe decorative extravaganza.
On the less impressive side are enamels that seem to aspire to the condition of Modern easel paintings, encompassing subject matter both abstract and figurative. Religious icons are often encountered, perhaps as nostalgia for the glory days. Formally derivative, they tend to leave a viewer wondering: Why not paint?
The show offers no reason to think a major resurgence in enameling is in the offing. But, together with its extensive catalog -- the first history of its kind -- it does present an admirably thorough overview of the field during the past century.
Craft & Folk Art Museum, 5814 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 937-4230, through May 8. Closed Monday. www.cafam.org