Crafting Social Commentary

This work by Olek demonstrates the artists’ trademark use of crochet over found objects.

Today, craft art is much more than cross-stitching. The Renwick Gallery’s “40 Under 40: Craft Futures” showcases works by 40 young artists that push expectations of traditional forms. Many of the pieces celebrate utilitarian craft while also making social commentary — a dichotomy curators tried to explore by limiting the collection to pieces made after the world-changing events of Sept. 11, 2001. Here are four of our favorites.

“Untitled” by Matt Moulthrop
Moulthrop’s shiny, bowl-like marbled wood sculpture doesn’t stand out at first among the crazier crafts on display; it doesn’t even have a name. But the quiet design belies the rich history of a family tradition: woodturning, the technique that produces baseball bats and chair legs. Moulthrop is a third-generation woodturner, following in the footsteps of his father, Philip, who inherited his skills from his father, Ed. “Everybody thought he was nuts,” Moulthrop says of his grandfather’s early forays into the craft. Moulthrop believes woodturning is just the next progression in modern folk art, a step beyond ceramics and glass-blowing. “Untitled” turns red maple, a common wood, into a one-of-a-kind piece. “It’s about finding beauty from the ordinary,” says Moulthrop, who joins his father and grandfather as Smithsonian-featured artists. (M.C.)

“Ornamental Hands: Figure One” by Jennifer Crupi
While studying classical paintings, New Jersey metalworker Jennifer Crupi noticed a curious pattern among depictions of people. “No matter what the scene, they still have beautiful hands,” Crupi says. “There could be someone being stabbed … but they’re flailing out their hands in this elegant way.” The gentle gestures inspired “Ornamental Hands: Figure One,” a spiderlike metal contraption intended to force the wearer’s hand into a similar pose. Like a cast or a splint, the sterling silver piece prohibits the elongated fingers from making a fist. For years, Crupi has sculpted metal prostheses to explore how we speak with our bodies. Her work calls into question how we define jewelry: Rather than to simply embellish, its purpose could also be to literally hold our limbs to a more beautiful standard. (L.T.)

“Momentos of a Doomed Construct” by Stephanie Liner
To North Carolina native Stephanie Liner, musings on gender and mass consumption take the form of a large, embroidered egg. This work shows the mixed feelings that Liner — who learned to sew as a child and apprenticed as an upholsterer — has about furniture: She reveres it as a product of labor, but it also represents the domestic sphere in which women were traditionally restricted. On most days, there’s a lifesize mannequin inside the egg, wearing a dress made of the same fabric as the piece. During special events, however, a live model sits quietly inside. “You can use your body language and your eye contact, but you can’t speak,” Liner instructs her performance artists, making a comment on our culture’s repression of women. (L.T.)

“Knitting Is for Pus****” by Olek
One man’s trash is another’s treasure. And for artist Olek, discarded furniture is fodder for one of the most out-there installations the Renwick has ever seen. In “Knitting Is for Pus****,” Olek (born Agata Oleksiak) exhibits her talent for extreme crocheting. Forget stitching a sweater: The Polish immigrant covered an entire room — including a television, sink and stuffed dog — in colorful yarn. The inspiration for the work, Olek says, comes from her life in New York, where she collected items left on the sidewalks. The objects were “very old; they had their own life already, so some [people] just throw them away,” Olek says. “I decided to give them new life and new meaning.” She started crocheting over the contents of her apartment in 2005 and didn’t put the needles down until last year, when she realized that her home craft project could become an exhibition. (M.C.)

Written by Express’ Michele Corriston and Lindsey Turner

Renwick Gallery, 1661 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; through Feb. 3, free; 202-633-7970. (Farragut West)

Also on Express

The Running Mate