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.
About 120 works from the Los Angeles-based Enamel Arts Foundation, organized by guest curators Harold Nelson and Bernard Jazzar, have been brought together for what is billed as the first comprehensive survey of its kind. The show cleaves in two.
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?
More compelling overall are the decorative objects -- bowls, boxes, vases and jewelry. Enamel's decorative capacities for unique embellishment, as in an elaborate pair of scarab ear cuffs by John Paul Miller (1918-2013), far outstrip the well-designed if routine Cubist pastiche in Jackson Woolley's "Plaque (Reclining Figure)." With sinuous, interlocking shapes, Woolley skillfully suggests a sensuous figure turning in space, but to little more than formally impressive ends.
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