Craft is no longer a dirty word in the art world. Historically lauded for manual skill over artistic vision, craft has played the role of stepchild to fine art, perpetually placed in a lower category than the contemporary creations featured in top museums and galleries. But, a younger generation of artists is redefining the field. That’s the subtext of “40 under 40: Craft Futures,” the new exhibition at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
The exhibit celebrates craft’s reblooming and also the museum’s 40-year milestone. Each of the 40 artists chosen by curator Nicholas R. Bell was born after 1972, when the museum opened in its home down the street from the White House. The charmingly stodgy Renwick is known for its displays of traditional 19th- and 20th-century crafts and furniture, but the museum is taking this opportunity to look toward the future, showing, for example, one-name artist Olek’s room filled with objects encased in crocheted yarn and Joshua DeMonte’s architecturally inspired, digitally formed wearable sculpture.
(Courtesy Stacey Lee Webber) - Stacey Lee Webber, The Craftsman Series: Shovels, 2011, pennies.
(Andy Paiko/Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum) - Andy Paiko, Spinning Wheel, 2007, blown glass, cocobolo wood, steel, brass, leather, Smithsonian American Art Museum.
An eager optimism forms the heart of the exhibition, where “craft is about making a better world,” as the introductory text reads, and American traditions find new breath. The Renwick seeks to categorize this new generation of craft-based artists by running threads through possible common experiences, including the ubiquitous growth of the Internet and globalization, as well as the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the effect of continual warfare on the American identity. The show remarks on craft’s rise following industrialism and the separation of consumers from the objects they consume, which eventually fueled the DIY movement and Web sites like Etsy. But such attempts by the Renwick to frame this group of artists on such broad terms often feels forced.
The exhibition, in reality, can’t speak for a generation or for craft’s future. The works instead revel more in new materials, new technologies, new histories, new experiences and, in one case, enlightenment.
Illumination comes from Nick Dong’s “Enlightenment Room” installation, a sealed chamber filled with the aroma of incense and covered with convex white tiles on the walls and mirrors on the floor and ceiling. One at a time, visitors are invited to enter the space and sit on a cushioned seat, activating a series of sonorous Tibetan chants while more than 600 LED bulbs fill the room with bright light. The program ends immediately when the occupant stands, as if an enlightened moment has come and gone, contingent on the patience of the visitor.
So how is this craft? Dong’s room challenges the viewer to forget about traditional categories and revel in the handcrafted: The 10,000 porcelain tiles in the room were made and signed by the artist’s own hands. Other works’ handicraft renew the everyday, such as Stacey Lee Webber’s pair of shovels made from soldered-together square cuttings of pennies and Sergey Jivetin’s necklace made of egg shells that collect in delicate clusters.