The Curse Of Craft

October 1st, 2008 § 0 comments

Trying to pick openings of interest from the vast number taking place every month is a hard task. For my reviews I want to find something unique, but with little knowledge of galleries my base for judging that is faulty. I want to find something I know about, perhaps the medium, a few of the artists, the genre, as part of my advantage seems to rest in my knowledge as a maker. Overall, as far as it has gone, my goal has been to choose shows dealing with issues that are concerned with topics or events outside of the “art world”, thus dragging art by its reluctant collar into a larger context. After Nature was loosely tied in subject to the environment and our current relations with it, my second proposals were political and, I could say, eventful–the latter being the one I fought for.

The reopening of MAD in Columbus Circle has been discussed outside of the art context because of its location, and new york seems to love architectural openings and evolutions. Though I spend a decent amount of time in the area, I read about the building long before I noticed it. A white pillar of clever design, it now stands out in the circle, perhaps because its white exterior contrasts sharply with the deep black of Trump’s phallus. It was almost an afterthought to write about the opening of the new building and museum, but the more I thought about it the more appropriate it seemed. I have, dare I say, a personal investment in the discourse surrounding art and craft, and certainly a good working knowledge of those possible distinctions. Though the six material studies grads (including myself) tried our best to remain outside the shadow of “craft” and its reputation, it is none-the-less a subject I have considered to almost annoying lengths.

The opening was like any other free museum day in the city, crowds gathered, rain or shine, waiting to be admitted in groups into overcrowded galleries. The conversations outside did not concern the museum itself, as I would have liked, they focused instead on the election, the economy, and dear Sarah Palin. The new space is, well, new–white, pristine, like any other museum. It is the work that gives the space a completely different vibe from the white newness of the New Museum. Or was it the shear number of objects packed together? It felt more like a thrift shop or clearance sale than a design venue or an art museum, but this was not entirely a bad thing. Heels treading on artworks, and people who were unable to navigate around sculptures (and other people), seemed more problematic. Despite obvious display and curatorial issues, there was a refreshing number of objects to look at, and the fact that they did range from bad, worse, to better, made the experience a little more interesting than the standardized products of the “high” art world. It is worth a visit, and worth a free visit.

Now that I have at last “seen” craft, I find myself in a difficult position. I don’t want to “skewer” the show like Roberta Smith, that seems too predicable, nor can I believe I am considering siding with the older vanguard of the Studio Craft Movement. I am also a little disgusted by the “material” emphasis in the newest pieces made by artists working in the “craft” tradition. While the older artists feel like a group of makers driven by a desire to experiment and expand the processes of art making, reaching toward “traditional materials” as their inspiration, the new show entitled Second Lives, felt like gimmick after gimmick. While there might well have been more emphasis in the older works on the material rather than on concept, the new artists seem disconnected from both their material and their concept, and the two together often don’t make sense. Looking at faces made from phone books, paintings from shoe heels, or figures made from puzzle pieces, I wondered why each material belonged to each piece, and in most cases drew a blank. It was startling to find that I liked the pieces I would label as “craft” much better, they felt honest and retained a kind of integrity.

Stilling down to write my review, I am wondering if I can argue that the Studio Craft Movement was at least partially (or largely) responsible for the “anything goes” material privilege that I enjoy today as a maker, and if I can also use their initial interest to show how this liberation has been misplaced, or misinterpreted, by artists working in a craft based tradition. Is claming craft, as it is resurfacing in importance and prominence in the art world, simply an advantageous move for a group of artists who happen to be working with one of the five media? I always assumed the argument revolved around fighting for the underdog, be it an underdog I did not care much about fighting for, but now I wonder if it is simply another trick, a last gimmick in an industry of clichés. I may not “like” the art produced by the older movement, but now at least I respect them as makers.

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