Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Craft Is Dead . . . Long Live Art

There is a great (and by "great", I mean fantastic!) exhibit at the Renwick Gallery in DC on display until February 3, 2013. Titled, 40 under 40: Craft Futures, it features forty artists under forty years old and has been assembled as an anniversary show in celebration of the museum's fortieth year of operation. Though it was conceived as the Smithsonian American Art Museum's home its "craft and decorative arts" program, I've always wondered how or why certain pieces are deemed "craft" and assigned to the Renwick Gallery, and how other pieces are deemed fine art. Certainly, a Sam Maloof chair, or an Edward Moulthroup turned vase are classical craft pieces, but why are iconic Renwick pieces like Wendell Castle's Ghost Clock or Larry Fuente's Game Fish so deemed? Likewise, why is an artist like Alexander Calder, who worked in metal and wood, and made many works of jewelry, deemed a fine artist. Or why is an artist like Martin Puryear, who uses boat building and furniture making techniques in his wood sculptures, never seen along side pieces by someone like Matthias Pliessnig , who uses similar techniques to create furniture? Is Roy Lichtenstein's Brush Stroke Chair fine art and Judy Kensley McKie's Monkey Settee craft? The truth is, there is no way to define fine art or fine craft that is exclusive of the other and trying to do so only sets up a false dichotomy that has no useful purpose. In the end, art is art and we should evaluate it based on our reaction to it, not by the materials used, the market value, or the history of the artist.

So I was elated to see the current exhibit at the Renwick -- one that I hope everyone should see (and by "everyone", I mean everyone) because the curator, Nicolas Bell, has totally ignored the dichotomy, selecting work based on quality and ignoring, all together, any definition of "craft" other than one that embraces work that is well made.

For example, Shawn Smith's pixelated sculpture of a camp fire, made with small cubes of plywood, titled Between 1 and 0, is much more conceptual than it is aesthetic, and in no way would one normally expect to find it in a show of "craft". 
Between 1 and 0
plywood, acrylic paint, ink
Shawn Smith
Smithsonian American Art Museum collection
Gift of the Washington Design Center; Museum purchase through the Richard T. Evans fund
(photo: Teresa Rafidi)

And Dave Cole's piece, Evolution of the Knitting Needle Through Modern Warfare, is also conceptual, though it does have a tangential association with craft in that he has sculpted a crafting tool, knitting needles, in it. The sculpture is a hypothetical historical look at what knitting needles would have looked like if they had been issued by the US military since the Civil War. It is an amusing and thoughtful piece that you can best see it on his website here.

As an interesting twist on craft versus art, Stephanie Liner's work is a craftcentric conceptual piece that is, in part, about the furniture industry in the south eastern US as well as the fashion industry. For the exhibit, she has a giant egg shaped upholstered furniture/dress on display that a woman can "wear." It also has a window in which viewers can voyeuristically look in (the images on her website give a better understanding of the sculpture).
  Mementos of a Doomed Construct (closeup)
upholstery, plywood, fabric, sequins, yarn, embroidery, adhesive, cardboard
Stephanie Liner
Courtesy of the artist
(photo courtesy of John Michael Kolher Art Center)
And then there is Melanie Bilenker's amazing drawings with hair, like Dresser Drawer. Yes it is technically a brooch, and yes, she is technically a jewelry maker, but her work is so much more than jewelry -- it is contemporary art that just happens to be wearable. Its functionality seems to be more of an afterthought or coincidence. By wearing it, the owner becomes a walking art exhibit. Incidentally, the piece is much smaller in person than the image below would imply. To make this "drawing," Melanie would have to have the manual dexterity of neonatal heart surgeon.
Dresser Drawer
2" x 2" x 1/2"
hair, paper, wood, gold, crystal, brass
Melanie Bilenker
 Smithsonian American Art Museum collection
(photo: courtesy of Sienna Gallery)

In contrast to other conceptual artists in the exhibit, Laurel Roth uses a traditional "craft" technique (crocheting) for conceptual purposes. With her Biodiversity Reclamation Suits she has created costumes to disguise common urban pigeons as extinct birds, thereby reclaiming them.
Biodiversity Reclamation Suit: Carolina Parakeet
suit: cotton, silk, bamboo, wool, acrylic blends; mannaquin: hand-carved basswood, acrylic paint, gouache, glass eyes, metal legs, walnut stand
8" x 9" x 13"
Laurel Roth
Courtesy of the artist and Frey Norris Gallery
(photo: Andy Diaz Hope)

 Biodiversity Reclamation Suit: Carolina Parakeet (closeup)
The quality of her "craft" in sculpting and crocheting is exquisite, but the loving/bittersweet humor in the concept of the work is what makes it really special. (Note: The Renwick is hoping to purchase at least one of these birds for their permanent collection through micro donations of $10 or more from the general public. They are really great pieces so, hopefully, they will reach their target. You can learn more at this link.)
Biodiversity Reclamation Suit: Passenger Pigeon
suit: cotton, silk, bamboo, wool, acrylic blends; mannaquin: hand-carved basswood, acrylic paint, gouache, glass eyes, metal legs, walnut stand
8" x 9" x 17"
Laurel Roth
Courtesy of the artist, Frey Norris Gallery, and Schroeder Romero and Shredder Gallery
(photo: Andy Diaz Hope)
 Biodiversity Reclamation Suit: Passenger Pigeon (closeup)
And in Food #6, Pistols, you can see the beauty of her unadorned wood sculpture -- in this case a jaw bone of a fairly small cow that references a pair of dueling pistols. Is it craft because it is made of wood? No, it is in a "craft" show because it is made so darn well!
Food #6, Pistols
pistols: walnut, gold leaf, Swarovski crystals, bronze
case: velvet, walnut
20" x 15" x 3.75"
Laurel Roth
Courtesy of the artist, Frey Norris Gallery
(photo: Andy Diaz Hope)
Thankfully, the curator also included works in the show that are classically seen as "craft," thereby further helping to tear down the false dichotomy of art and craft. Matt Moulthrop's untitled wood turning is an example of this,
red maple
Matt Moulthrop
Smithsonian American Art Museum collection
Gift of Dan Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser

 as is Jamin Uticone's black ash woven basket.
Urban Pack Basket
black ash, vegetable-tanned hide, brass fittings
Jamin Uticone
Smithsonian American Art Museum collection
Gift of Martha G. Ware and Steven R. Cole 
Both of these artists apprenticed for long periods to learn their chosen fields (Matt for nine years and Jamine for six) but, regardless of the functionality, or lack there of, of their products, their work is remarkable as much for its devotion and vision as it is for its artistry.

Likewise, there are a number of participants in the exhibit that straddle the line between traditional craft and fine art. Including Jeffrey Clancy, whose Tea For One at first appears to be just a funny looking gun but in reality is an art teapot. Technically, it is functional but its function isn't the point, rather, its high level of craft helps the artist make a statement. It is beautify, humorous, and poignant all at once.
Tea For One
silver and mahogany
6" x 10" x 4"
Jeffrey Clancy
Smithsonian American Art Museum collection
purchase made possible by the Charles and Margret Craver Withers Bequest
Andy Paiko's exquisite Spinning Wheel also falls in this category. It is a beautiful and delicate sculptural object that is perfect on its own, without being associated with any function, but it is also a fully functional object that can be used to spin yarn. The combination of the seemingly contradictory elements make the viewer see the object in a new way. 
Spinning Wheel
blown glass, cocobolo, steel, brass, leather
Andy Paiko
Smithsonian American Art Museum collection
Gift of Peg and Bob Van Andel 
(photo: Andy Paiko)
 Spinning Wheel (closeup)
A video of the piece in action can be seen here. 

There is also work that leans more to function but that is designed to such a high level that it is equally fine art, such as Christy Oates' ingenious Crane Chair that, when it isn't being used as a chair, folds up and functions as a wall hanging (see more images here to understand how it works).
 Crane Chair
laser cut and engraved plywood, maple veneer, bungee cord
acrylic paint, wood dyes
Christy Oates
Smithsonian American Art Museum collection
Gift of Leon and Miriam Ellsworth 
(photo; Christy Oates)
Along the same lines is her Mosquito Lamp (more images here).
Mosquito Lamp
laser cut and engraved plywood, maple veneer, bungee cord
acrylic paint, wood dyes
Christy Oates
Smithsonian American Art Museum collection
Gift of Myra and Stephen Kurzbard 
(photo: Christy Oates) 
There were also two representatives of the new movement of ecologically conscience good design. Daniel Michalik's 3/1 Chair is one such object because it uses reclaimed cork (there by recycling an already renewable resource) and formaldehyde free FSC-certified plywood with low-VOC paints.
 3/1 Chair
recycled cork
FSC-certified plywood, low-VOC paint
Daniel Michalik
Smithsonian American Art Museum collection
Gift of Phyllis and Sidney Bresler in memory of Charles S. Bresler and in 
honor of Fleur Bresler
photo by Daniel Michalik  
Also represented in this group is the Cyclone Lounger by Uhuru, the design team of Jason Horvath and Bill Hilgendorf, because is uses reclaimed boards from the Coney Island Boardwalk. In making the piece they did a nice job in referencing the roller coaster of the amusement park from which it came.
Cyclone Lounger
reclaimed Coney Island Boardwalk (ipe), laser cut powder-coated steal base
 Smithsonian American Art Museum collection
Gift of Bill Hilgendorf and Jason Horvath in memory of Cynthia Bricker Hilgendorf; Gift of Fern Bleckner in celebration of Etta B. Brown's ninety-fifth birthday; and  
Gift of Shirley Jacobs
(photo: Uhuru Design)

Christy Oates' E-Waste Project piece is also ecologically conscience but more in a conceptual way than in actual materials used. In creating the piece, a highly detailed work of marquetry, she photographed the process and made a companion stop action video that highlights the issue of e-waste. I had commented on the video many months ago after stumbling across it somewhere and was blown away by the brilliance of the concept, execution, and the shear fortitude in assembling the thousands of small pieces of veneer.
E-Waste Project
12 various wood veneers
Christy Oates
Courtesy of the artist
(photo: Christy Oates)
 E-Waste Project (closeup)
An interesting aspect of the piece, especially in this show, is how she takes a traditional "craft" technique like marquetry and creates it with computers, robots, and lasers. Yes, it is still a "craft," but the techniques used to make it are no more craft than an iPhone. You can view the video below to get a better understanding of the piece. Although interesting and beautiful on its own, I don't think it really makes sense as a stand alone piece without the video.

Additionally, an interesting aspect of the show are the videos that the Smithsonian American  Art Museum asked the participating artists to create videos as a way to introduce themselves to the public and, perhaps also, provide some information about their process. With forty artists, there is a lot to look at but it is well worth viewing, especially if you want to learn more about specific artists. You can see all of them here, but if you just want to look at a few, I highly recommend the videos of Christy Oates, Olek, Gabriel Craig, Shawn Smith, and Melanie Bilenker. If you look at the videos you'll notice many great artists working in many different media. I've restricted my review to works made with wood because I have to draw the line, otherwise I would be spending all my time writing. For example, what would stop me from saying how I absolutely love Vivian Beer's work, and then how do I stop from talking about Olek, or Cristina Cordova, and then it is all down hill from there.

And finally, I just want to emphasize again what a great show this is, not just in terms of the quality of individual pieces, but in the overall selection of the work. The curator, Nicolas Bell, showed a lot of courage and vision in ignoring convention.Yes, each piece in the show is great, but the sum of the works says more than the individual pieces. As a group they make a commanding statement. To me, it says that finally, we can forget about fine craft and fine art definitions and just talk about the quality of the art. Craft is dead . . . long live art.

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