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.
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.
It’s enough to make one look more carefully at surroundings. Olek simply brought her environment to Washington, installing a replica of her Brooklyn apartment in the galleries and covering everything from the bathtub to the bed with brightly colored crocheted yarn. Her installation will “go live” at points during the show, with performers wearing crocheted bodysuits. Olek also made her presence known in Washington days before the exhibition opened by “yarn-bombing” the Albert Einstein Memorial, covering the statue with a camouflage-pattern pink and purple jumpsuit.
Such unexpected uses of materials reverberate throughout the show, such as in Sabrina Gschwandtner’s quilts, made with vintage 16mm films from the Fashion Institute of Technology stitched together with her own reels, and Melanie Bilenker’s resin brooches and lockets, showing images of her daily life — pouring milk or stepping into shoes — carefully “drawn” with her own hair. Sebastian Martorana’s exquisitely carved marble sculpture of a pillow indented by a resting head creates a permanent memorial to a fleeting moment: The object captures the instant when the artist lifted his father-in-law from his deathbed.
While many works lean on such personal details, others reach into history, such as Cat Mazza’s “Knit for Defense,” which transforms combat footage from World War II to Afghanistan into digital knitted stitches. Artists also engage their surrounding communities. Gabriel Craig erected a jeweler’s bench on sidewalks around the country and offered free rings made with the help of passersby. Joseph Foster Ellis invited eight Chinese women who lived near his home in Beijing to help construct “China Tree,” an 18-foot-tall cone-shape chandelier of more than 1,000 porcelain pots, turning mass-produced elements into local handiwork.
The show’s diversity and range of narratives make it easy to indulge with childish delight in the invention of these objects and the stories told as they teeter between function and fantasy, and to be optimistic for what the future of craft holds.
O’Steen is a freelance writer.
through Feb. 3 at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Pennsylvania Avenue and 17th Street NW. 202-633-1000. americanart.si.edu.