December 19th, 2007
That's not an LSD flashback—that's macramé!
A practice associated with crochet, little old ladies and summer camp is back. Craft -- yes, craft -- is getting renewed attention in the art world, and it can be seen in the increasingly detailed qualities of contemporary works, in the tactile attraction of current sculpture and in the use of materials associated with the domestic realm.
Of course, with the sheer variety and quantity of contemporary artworks being made, it's easy to spot any trend and make a case for it. So here's our case: SAIC Acting Dean, Lisa Wainwright has recently been known to declare "Craft is back!" at student orientations, an SAIC class called Extreme Craft, is returning for a second run in the Spring 2008 line-up, and the needlework of a sixty-something-old lady recently opened at a New York gallery, according to the New Yorker. Granted, the little old lady is Elaine Reichek, a conceptual artist not exactly known for "Home Sweet Home" samplers, but you get the picture.
Mindy Rose Schwartz, the artist who teaches Extreme Craft, has noticed the DIY ethic grow in recent years. But she also remembers a time when anything associated with craft was not taken as seriously. In the late 1990s she wanted to use macramé to make a 10-foot-long belt reminiscent of one that belonged to her sister when they were kids, so she went to a yarn store and asked people if they could teach her to macramé. They scoffed at her.
"I was like, 'Oh, man, the knitters are being mean to me,'" Schwartz recalled. Then she taught a sculpture class and realized many students didn't know what macramé was. Schwartz wondered if the practice would disappear. But something about this form—perhaps its ability to recapture her childhood—inspired her to "harness the hideousness and embarrassment" of it all. For example, in January 2008 she is working on a "macramé intervention" for a collaborative installation at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions.
"At first, craft felt edgier" Schwartz said of embracing it before it became pervasive. Now she wonders what is behind the resurgence. Is it political or fashionable or inexplicable? "What is it a sign of? I think it's a good question to ask," she said.
From the ceramic side of things, SAIC Graduate Division Chair and artist, Katherine Ross, offers this perspective: "People are starting to pay attention to how much stuff there is in our world and how it fills our spaces."
New technologies, materials and ways of working are emerging, thanks in part to engineering and nanotechnology. "There is so much development in material sciences that we can do so much more," Ross said, citing ceramic materials manipulated to be used like metal and glazes that change color with temperature. "Artists are looking at materials in a different way now and paying attention to it again."
Marc Mayer, general director at the Musee d'art contemporain in Montreal, Canada, sees an interest in handmade "hyperrealism" potentially linked to "the drive to reaffirm human agency in art given the social context of techno culture," he told f news in an email.
"It could also be an attempt to push new art closer to the center of popular culture, which would make this tendency line up historically with the 1980's neo expressionism, which had the same ambitions. It's clear that visual artists have come to expect and enjoy broad celebrity within our western societies, and I think that high craft may have something to do with such ambitions."
To those who argue that craft is cutesy, flimsy and not conceptual, Ross is emphatic: "It's extremely conceptual," she said. Currently, Ross is working around Soviet propaganda, recasting ceramic objects to continue the story and counterpose the original Soviet message of the time with the truth.
However, Mayer sees craft and contemporary art as "necessarily exclusive," especially for self-described dogmatic conceptualists.
"Art is either good or bad, interesting or boring. A dogmatic conceptualist is not going to find much to enjoy over the next several decades. Not that conceptualism is a thing of the past, but dogmatism is."
At a Taipei National University of the Arts conference in fall, Wainwright gave a speech addressing, in part, how the resurgence of craft in the art world is entirely different this time around.
"Having learned the lessons of postmodern theory and engaged in adiscourse around objects' 'context' as a determinant of meaning, artists and designers are taking up 'making' this time with critical thinking as a byproduct of the activity, rather than as an a priori objective," she said, according to notes from that speech. "Craft speaks to the wonder of producing rather than the anesthetizing habit of consuming."
She also addressed craft's ability to draw the artist outside of the art-world shell because of its place in daily life for people throughout the world. And as a leader of an art school, Wainwright said she is examining this "paradigm shift in the art world" to see how it might be played out in foundation-level courses currently known for their conceptual models, as well as how it might be applied in graduate courses, where skill-based training could supplement the curriculum.
"Art and design education is resuscitating craft as a means of exploring creative practice and invention. There is no longer a distinction between manual and mental skill, but how to best develop curricula and resources to accommodate such a proposal is still to be determined."
Katherine Pill contributed to this report.