A crafty day at the MCA

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Smith1.jpg'"I wish I'd thought of it first," says Frieda, one of the women who works in the cafe on top of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver.

She's talking about the work of Allison Smith, who makes replicas of, for example, an improvised WWI gas mask.

Smith's work is on view on the floor just below us and people are in the gallery with her making stuff as we speak. Frieda explains to me that Smith takes stuff that is involved with war and killing and puts it back into the everyday world through crafts.

Smith's show is made up of four easy to explain elements: a series of page-size collages that contain pictures of old household things, mostly Victorian, pasted to beige, hand-made paper; a 6-foot reproduction of an old-fashioned candleholder that bounces light from a giant electric candle; a half-finished braided rug; and display cases filled with the replicas of war items. 

The last one deserves a little more explanation. Smith takes cell-phone photos or downloads images of artifacts from museums. She then reproduces them with felt and other things you'd find in hobby stores.  The old items that interest her are ones that look hand made. Finally she tags them and documents where she found them. 

For the entire duration of her show, people have been braiding strips of fabric together to complete the big circular rug that lies in one of the largest gallery rooms of the museum.

Today, that room is filled with a crowd --mostly women-- carding sheep shearings into fiber, then spinning those into wool yarn that is then being woven on looms into a shawl. Teams of women are going from sheep to shawl in a friendly competition accompanied by nearly continuous lectures on fiber art and craft.

When the room hushes to hear Sara Goldenberg-White talk about the garments and installation art she makes from copper thread, aluminum foil and cloth, the whirring of the spinning wheels is the loudest thing in the room. That sound and sitting on a braided rug like my grandmother used to make gives me a down-home feeling than I usually don't experience in elite museums of art. And I am in one, not in a living history museum.

The next lecturer is a very smart woman - an art historian who is no stranger to elite museums of art. She talks about the craft revolution of the 60s and 70s, which she explained was the first real revival of craft since the Arts & Craft Movement, which Wikipedia dates from 1860-1910. 

Most people have brushed up against something from the Arts & Craft Movement: Frank Lloyd Wright, Art Nouveau, Lalique glass, Rene Mackintosh Celtic jewelry. I live in a craftsman house built in 1906 and have uncovered wall paper reminiscent of the style of that time inspired by  the Omega Workshops of the Bloomsbury Group, or William Morris, a writer and textile maker important to this movement. Morris was a socialist and his mission was to produce better-designed objects for everyday consumption by average people. Like my house - small, simple but still functional and nice looking 100 years later.
I don't personally know anyone who was working around that time but I have visited the home of Vanessa Bell, who was Virginia Wolfe's sister and a Bloomsbury painter. Tables, walls, bedspreads, bed, curtains, all are painted or printed. I don't think Ms. Bell expected any of her or her boyfriend, Duncan Grant's homespun work to be shown in an art museum and they aren't.  They are in a historical home run by the National Trust. Bell's and Grant's paintings can be seen in art museums.

To be shown in an art museum is, however, what artists wanted who worked in the 60s-70s craft revolution. People who worked in clay, glass and metal in this period were working to show that any material could be used to make art. They were taking up the mantel of the Dada artists who used found objects and questioned what qualified something as art. In the 60s, craft artists had a dog in the fight, along with conceptual, performance and other ethereal artists challenging what was art.

And what came out of the challenge, the questioning and deconstructing, is what we now call Post-Modern, the stuff after the modern stuff (Modern: imagine Picasso, Henry Moore) which followed the Arts & Craft movement.

And post-Post-Modern is what will be next.

At the moment, in the Museum of Contemporary Art, I'm experiencing Post Modernism. The lecturer, before she started discussing craft revolutions, sat on the braided rug and told me that the craft/art disparity had gone (almost) away like racial or gender discrimination. She's obviously right because craft is nearly filling this floor of the museum. 

 As I sit on the braided rug surrounded by novice rug braiders at work finishing the centerpiece of the gallery, I'm certain that this rug wouldn't win the Blue Ribbon at the state fair.

Sure, technical quality or craftsmanship was another of the things that went out when the art/craft/conceptual walls were torn down in the art world. We, post-modernists get it - It's not the craft but the concept that's important. If Post Modernism has a slogan, it's 'Anything Goes."

The art historian continues to speak about how people engaged in craft in the 60s and 70s to do 'an honest days work' because they were finding their day jobs unfulfilling. Making crafts were for 'self valorization.' And like religion they offer 'community' like a craft co-op, where people got together to sell things, which she followed with a list that included  'macramé'.  And this, she didn't mention, has lead to craft fairs.

A woman sitting on the floor sewing together the coils of the braided rug talks to me about how much she is looking forward to getting into knitting because it is so good at filling time. My sister says the same thing about her stitch-by-numbers copies of famous paintings.
But Frieda upstairs sees more in the stitchery that Allison Smith does. When Smith is making replicas of gas masks and candles, and even rugs, Frieda sees her work as a concept that she wishes she come up with first.

Frieda wouldn't say that about an exhibit of Anazasi corn grinders at the Mesa Verde museum. They differ because Smith has looked at the past and produced an object - useless to us - made of materials we can imagine. We can't touch them because they are in a display case, so we have to imagine. My imagination brain cells have a harder time making out what the original gas mask really smelled and felt like. I wonder if it was a hood of burlap, and if there were different grades of burlap. But those cells know colored felt from grade show.

I don't hear anyone looking into the glass cases saying 'oh, yea, my grandfather had one of those.' I do hear it said about the collages of antiques hanging on the nearby wall. And I hear the spinning wheels. And we're all thinking how post modernly accepting we are to have all this art and/or craft in one place while someone is talking about knitters as 'craft revolutionaries' looking for honest work.

Meanwhile, on the first floor of this museum is a show of work by Dario Robleto, a man who makes ceramics out of human bones and paper out of soldiers' letters home. No crowd of people is downstairs making ceramic wine jugs with Dario Robleto.

And then I understand what post-Post Modernism needs to be. Future art needs to give us more tools to differentiate quality and importance. Anything may go, but anything is also free to fail.  Oil paint on canvas is just as likely to fail as rug braiding. Any kind of music is good; it's just a matter of taste. No it's not. Some music is much better than other music. Fresh ground beef from a well raised cow is better than a frozen fast food patty. But those statements are so unPost Modern of me.  Maybe there is a bad piece of beef from a well-raised cow and I grind it poorly, and it is even worse than McDonalds.

While you're busy thinking, postModernly, about all the possible ways the patty is better than the fresh beef, I'm going to slip in another unPost Modern comment and start your deconstructing wheels spinning again to find me wrong. The giant replica of the candle & candleholder is poorly crafted, awkward looking and only partially effective at wowing its audience as its diminutive cousin would have done centuries ago. It doesn't belong in an elite museum of art.  The braided rug, as communal as I felt sitting there with curators, artists and knitters, mocks the other people who were in the room, who make fine and very fine functional objects.

Yet, I fall back into the Post Modern world where I live and realize I'm eager to attend the event where we see antique examples of curation, and hear the anthropological lecture on the lives of curators in the 21st Century. They aren't actually making art, so I'll be curious to hear what they do for self valorization.  And I wish there were more people, today, who could do what they really feel is valuable work.


Allison Smith's Piece Work is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver from February 4, 2011 through May 29, 2011.

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This page contains a single entry by terry published on March 26, 2011 2:49 PM.

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