Saturday, January 19, 2013

No Tatting or Whittling: The Renwick's 40th Anniversary Show

Exterior of the Renwick Gallery, Washington, D.C. Photo by Ron Blunt,
courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum.
40 Under 40: Craft Futures is the dramatic show with which the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum is celebrating the fortieth year of its founding. This big exhibition throws elbows, breaks the china, and rattles its chains to demonstrate that things ain't what they used to be in the world of crafts. The Renwick is the Smithsonian's branch for American craft and decorative arts and its Fleur and Charles Bresler Curator, Nicholas R. Bell uses this occasion to assert that this museum is alive to the here and now, not only a repository for historical objects. 

All the work presented has been produced since September 11, 2001. The press release suggests that, "This new work reflects the changed world that exists today...and what it means to live in a state of persistent conflict and unease." The opening text for the show declares that, "Now, more than at any point in the last thirty years, craft is about making a better world. A recharged philosophy for living differently...unites these artists living in the turbulent early years of the twenty-first century." 

From the beginning, I was confused by emphasis on two themes not necessarily related.First is the obvious, "Here are is the generation of young Turks, the future of craft." The other is, "Here's how 9/11 has upset the world of youth producing craft." The show is big, eclectic, and full of energetic, imaginative, and challenging work. The umbrella of post-9/11 anxiety seems awfully small to cover much of it. Better, I think, are questions raised by wall text, which add up to, "What do we mean by craft?" Very few pieces didn't have me thinking, "What's this doing in a craft show at all?" After 40 Under 40, I'll be asking from an expanded idea of craft the next time.

Stephanie Liner, Momentos of a Doomed Construct, 2011.
Upholstery, plywood, fabric, sequins, yarn, embroidery, adhesive,

cardboard. Photo by John Kohler Art Center. Courtesy of the 
Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Stephanie Liner's Momentos of a Doomed Construct  is very evidently not a work that's all about the satisfaction of making furniture nor the achievement of fine craftsmanship. Nevertheless, this globe—or Cinderella's four-windowed pumpkin—is a piece of excellent workmanship. Queen Anne chintz in two colors decorates the interior and exterior, secured with perfectly applied welt and ribbon trim and, inside, with yarn stitching that highlights details of the printed designs. There are four windows and a small door, through which the beautiful maiden may enter and exit.

Isn't she lovely, like a cameo picture? One can look at her from four different angles. She cannot, however, alter her position because the skirt of her dress is part of the interior upholstery, making her literally a part of the furnishing. This piece drips feminine references: Cinderella in her pumpkin, pin cushions—the round sort, and the ones that are dolls whose cushioned skirts take the pricking pins and needles. Yet here the woman sits, objectified, to be gazed at, unable to free herself from her decorative status.

The Momentos works well for being coherent in idea, yet having many points of entrance and of allusion. Its contemporary statement about women is lodged in fairy tale visuals--yet we know that this piece of furniture was in fact hand crafted. Our fantasy about that involves men, who traditionally frame and upholster furnishings, as well as the settings in which women appear. Is this craft? Craft plus, I think: the materials and workmanship are lavishly highlighted, but to the end of a socio-political message. It's a political statement that derives its power from artful understanding and masterful use of craft. 

Sabrina Gschwandtner, HulaHoop, 2010, Smithsonian American Museum of
Art. 16 mm film, polyamide thread.Gift of Chris Rifkin in honor 
of the 40th anniversary of the Renwck Gallery.Photo by Sabrina Gsanwandtner.
Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Is this quilt craft? If it isn't, what is? Does it matter that it's made of 16 mm. film deaccessioned from fashion collections, each frame depicting a garment, a posing model, or another image from the clothing industry? Sabrina Gsanwandtner has presented a handsome traditional quilt, hand stitched, and on the same scale as an Amish quilt—but the "fabric" only refers to fabric. Is this craft, or a work of art and social commentary that uses the forms of craft? Or is it craft as decoration, amplified by witty use of new materials?

Gsandwandtner is among the majority of artists in 40 Under 40 whose resume and exhibition history do not mark her definitively as a craftsperson. She is an art polymath, who turns to the medium that best conveys the thoughts she's thinking and the associations or feelings she wants to communicate. For her, as for many here, the vocabularies, histories, and connotations of crafts are tools in the well-stocked chests of artists who do not produce traditional bodies of work and who show in a variety of settings.

Joey Foster Ellis, China Tree, 2011. Porcelain sauce pots, string,
 LED lights. Courtesy of the artist, photo by Joey Foster Elllis.
Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Similar to Gsandwandtner in his range of enterprise is Joey Foster Ellis, whose China Tree takes craft into performance, or staging at least. Among his other activities, he is a ceramicist who handcrafts production wares. Here he has suspended clusters of Chinese sauce pitchers—plain white, handled vessels larger than an espresso cup but smaller than a standard creamer. These are held together by bags of plastic net and hung as the photograph shows, with lighting, to form an enormous decorative piece, a large focal point the components of which are, ultimately, indifferent. Were this a Chihuly glass sculpture, almost ubiquitous in museums these days, we would marvel over the craft. Here we enjoy the effect and wonder not at all about its craftsmanship: It is a tree of light. Here, the making (of the pots) is secondary to the greater conception. Craft is the means to this end, which, unlike Gsandwandtner's quilt, does not really even represent craft.

Two show-stopping cut-out paper  sculptures by Mia Pearlman have some points of similarity with Ellis's tree of porcelain and light. They are extraordinarily beautiful, and not really subject to interpretation beyond the aesthetic pleasure they give. Their air of spontaneous artfulness is completely engaging, and one marvels at the artist's control over her material. Her paper works are among the most ephemeral work in the show: I doubt that one would purchase such a piece, install it at home, keep it dusted, and expect it not to sag and fade within a year. So though we have seen cut paper for generations, especially as silhouettes, this is something new and the opposite of commemorative (though others are doing similar work as art, not presenting it as craft). Pearlman, like Ellis, works in several media. She is a sculptor above all, fascinated with this set of cloud or atmospheric shapes, which she studies in steel as well as in paper.
Mia Pearlman, ONE, 2012. Paper, india ink, tacks, paper clips. Dimensions vary.
Courtesy of the artist and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Jewelry is an area that has always combined art and craft. The jeweler works within a broad and deep world of significance: the materials, the type of piece (ring, bangle, cufflink), and its drama. Jennifer Crupi's Ornamental Hands, certainly refers to this history of the jeweler's craft  and the cultural significance of adornment. She mixes it, though, with awareness of nineteenth century medical posture aids to produce a silver bracelet that splints the fingers into fixed positions.This photograph of the piece on a model's hand does not correspond to its display in the show, where it is mounted in a box that also contains pictures of feminine hands from Renaissance paintings, the hands all held in the beautiful gesture this ornament forces the wearer into. Straighten up, ladies, and bless us all. 
Jennifer Crupi, Ornamental Hands, Figure One, 2010.
Sterling silver, acrylic, ink jet print on vellum.
15 x 8.5 x 5.5." Courtesy of the artist and the 

Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Several artists in the show are dedicated craftspersons in the deep, traditional sense of knowing and exploring their materials. Matthew Szosz is one of these, a studio glass artist dedicated to finding out what more his material can do. In 40 Under 40 he presents two wonderful sculptures formed by inflation: He blows air into "pillows" of glass, fuses them and stops them up. They rest on their starchy points, seductively plump, reminding me not only of pillows, but of the sweet and prickly nature of fruits, stuffed savories, and sex.

Matthew Szosz, Untitled (inflatable) #43, 2010. Fused and inflated window glass.10 x 20 x 20." Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of
Elmerina and Paul Parkmanin honor of the fiftieth anniversary
 of American Studio Glass.
Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum. 
Stacey Lee Webber, The Craftsman Series:
2011. Pennies. Each, 58 x 10 x 6."
Courtesy of the artist and the Smithsonian
American Art Museum.
Stacey Lee Weber is a metalsmith who, like Szosz, works within the traditions that include both deep knowledge of and exploration with her materials. The two shovels she shows are tall and sturdy looking. It's a surprise to discover that they are fashioned entirely of pennies that she has cut to
purpose. At the base of their installation lie the hollowed out frames of pennies, each lightened by the removal of an interior square—absent its Abraham Lincoln. The shovels would be gathering empty pennies—were it possible to lift such heavy implements. Webber's shovels are workmanly in every possible sense. They are so well made, so solid, that it's possible to neglect the fact that they are composed of thousands of tiny pieces. I emphasize the "man" in "workmanly" too. This piece feels like a paean to those who would wield the shovels, perhaps grown so heavy with the tradition of hard manual work for low pay. There's a unity of message and medium here that I found compelling. It seemed not only well thought out, but deeply felt.

The wall texts in 40 Under 40 make it clear why the show presents the work it does. Whether the work submitted led to the show, or whether Mr. Bell's theories prompted the selection of just this work I do not know. In a statement titled "Understanding the next generation," the note tells us, "The persistent questioning of authority, the celebration of relativism and hybridity, the use of relativism, the prevalence of sampling and the embrace of digital culture are all evidence of postmodernism's influence on this generation." In this show, this is true. But how representative of this generation the show is seems to me open to question.

As the viewer travels admiringly and questioningly through the galleries, the wall notes suggest further thoughts: the crafted object has traditionally been the repository of values, but now some artists ask us to value the process over the object; crafts now employ synthetic and recycled materials, the latter especially in a quest for a more sustainable world. Perhaps most startling is the claim that war is a thread common in the work of all forty artists. "While many in craft employ hand making as a political, even polemical tool against current military policies, the most compelling objects are those objects are offering a more nuanced perspective"— or no perspective on war or politics whatsoever? I wondered if the writer had been to the show. This is an idea that seems entirely imposed on the show.

All in all, I think that 40 Under 40 may be an eccentric show, driven by one person's taste and vision, but ultimately all shows are or should be. I'd like it not to be broadcast as the wave of the future or even what a generation is doing. Some young people have these new concepts, but we have no idea what we're missing, either traditional or avant garde and there are too many hints that the curator's authority is open to question. Moreover, many of the artists in this show do not show regularly in craft settings. Does that mean that artists are pushing the boundaries of craft in the ways generalized, or are curators?

Sebastian Martorana, Impressions, 2008. Marble. 8 x 24 x 18."
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Patricia A. Young in honor of the
fortieth Anniversary of the Renwick Gallery and the thirtieth Anniversary of the
James Renwick Alliance. Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
I'll admit that my favorite work is another one deeply connected to the past, one that  exemplifies master craftsmanship and direct expression of complex emotion. Sebastian Martorana is a stonecutter and stone sculptor whose carved marble pillow is deceptively like one made of down and covered in smoothest cotton. This work is disconcerting for an airiness that comes from the grace of the carving and also from the perfect selection of stone. Not only is the marble light in color, but as one looks into the central declivity, the impression of the head no longer there, its topography has an air of time long since gone about it—time so past it is counted in strata, or the rings on trees.

Marble is the medium in which heroes and great events are commemorated, and it is the stone that fills cemeteries with grave markers and statuary to honor the dead. Martorana's pillow is an understated memorial for his father-in-law, whose head he lifted in death from such a pillow, who is present in the impression he made. The mixture of tenderness, durability, rigor and warmth in this piece touches me for representing qualities attributable to both the mourned and his mourner.

40 Under 40: Craft Futures strikes me as a very young show. Of course it is meant to feature the work of a new generation, but that's not the only thing that "young" can mean. Most of the work is admirable and smart. I could have used more like Martorana's and Webber's that is also wise.

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