Assembly lines: Bill balances control and chaos

Every year when the Charlottesville/Albemarle High School Art Show goes up, I'm wowed all over again by Randy Bill’s students at St. Anne’s-Belfield School. Her pupils’ work expresses a mature understanding of materials and technique, but also exudes joy and adventure— sure signs of a good teacher. Their consistent success has made me curious about Bill’s own artwork.

This year I didn’t have to look far to find the tree from which the apples fell. While the high school show enlivens the McGuffey Art Center’s upstairs hall gallery, Bill’s own exhibition, “Spinoff,” is on view downstairs. Combining found manufactured objects with handcrafted earthenware elements, Bill’s pedestal- and wall-mounted sculptures reveal an aesthetic thread running between teacher and students

Bill writes in an accompanying statement that she enjoys discovering the connection between cast-off, mass-produced machine parts and one-of-a-kind handmade clay components, which she fuses to form seamless and balanced wholes, in which the shift from one material to the next does not disrupt the overall rhythm of the abstract compositions. She has a predilection for the haphazard way machine parts corrode and rust; she incorporates the resulting patterns and colors into her work and often glazes her ceramic elements to mimic steel or the turquoise of oxidized copper.

Her pedestal pieces tend to ascend like well-orchestrated towers, whereas most of her wall pieces have a downward flow infused with the energy of controlled chaos. In three related pieces, “From Here to There,” “Straight Pin,” and “Fall”— which could stand alone but work particularly well in concert— Bill has created vine-like sconces out of gunmetal-glazed earthenware cables, each looping slightly differently. Through the openings of these graceful brackets, Bill hangs tangled cascades of found material: yards of crumpled copper resembling iridescent ribbon, un-spooled brown paper bearing hundreds of silver straight pins, and an unrolled and rusty yellow tape measure, respectively. Bill punctuates each piece by letting the salvaged material pool randomly on the floor.

Playfulness runs throughout the work, but her sense of humor shines clearest in “Family Dinner,” also her most referential piece. Three well-burnt candles, covered in disorderly drips, stud the curving arms of a silver candelabra, whose base features a dark grenade sitting atop a disc brush bristling with metal spines.

Bill’s forte is creating coherent assemblages from mixed elements and energizing these balanced compositions with a dash of chaos— not unlike her approach to teaching.

Randy Bill’s sculpture exhibition, “Spinoff,” is on view through May 1 at the McGuffey Art Center, 201 Second St. NW. 295-7973.