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'Shattering the Glass Wall'
by Lisa Radon

A new generation of artists-and curators-is blurring traditional distinctions between Art and Craft.

It might be overstating the case only slightly to say that the last time a large glass caused this kind of a stir in a cultural institution might have been the unveiling of The Large Glass by Marcel Duchamp. In 2008, artist Melissa Dyne\'s \"Glass\" was an installation of a large sheet of industrially manufactured window glass laid horizontally on a white pedestal accompanied by two large-scale photos of the facility in which the glass was manufactured. Reflections played across the large glass\'s curved surface, its heavy corners bent downward. The institution, the press, and visitors speculated whether at some point during the exhibition the glass would give in to gravity and shatter under its own weight.

In any other arts institution, Melissa Dyne\'s installation would have been a smart take on the performative qualities of the material, with perhaps a nod to Dan Graham or Larry Bell, as well as a comment on notions of authorship and the artist\'s hand versus fabrication as employed by Donald Judd, Andy Warhol, or Jeff Koons. But \"Glass\" wasn\'t in just any arts institution; it was in the Museum of Contemporary Craft in Portland, Oregon. And Melissa Dyne is not a craft artist who was questioning her medium, but a visual artist whose previous project had been a camera obscura. So while observers pondered the fate of the glass, they also questioned just what a work like this was doing in a museum of craft.

That this exhibition with this artist should happen in a craft museum delineated a horizon line for the radical curatorial strategies practiced by Museum of Contemporary Craft (MoCC) curator Namita Gupta Wiggers. Observes Mariah Nielson, interim curator at the San Francisco Museum of Craft and Design (SFMC+D), \"I tend to look at the Museum of Contemporary Craft as an example of cutting edge exhibitions as well as exhibitions which are engaging and invite participation.\"

Perhaps the first inkling of Wiggers\' readiness to curate with one foot each in the worlds of art and craft was her inclusion of the venerable Louise Bourgeois and Anne Wilson in the 2006 \"New Embroidery, Not Your Grandma\'s Doily.\" Recent exhibitions at MoCC have included video work by craft-based artists, large-scale installation/environment, sound installations, and performance. And where will you find the first West Coast solo show of work by dynamic contemporary Chinese artist Ai Weiwei this summer? \"Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn (Ceramic Works, 5000 BCE - 2010 CE),\" featuring the artist\'s interventions with, imitations of, and actions employing, centuries old ceramic vessels, opens at the Museum of Contemporary Craft on July 15.

How did \"Glass\" happen? Wiggers says, \"Melissa and I had a long conversation about \"Contrasts: A Glass Primer\" guest-curated by Vicki Halper for the Museum of Glass, and the way this educational exhibition ended with a long piece of Pyrex to be used for an industrial project. A glass conference was in town, and I didn\'t want to show glass the way it\'s always been shown. I asked \"What\'s interesting about glass? Can we look at the tension between function and non-function, between art and design?\'\"

Does she have qualms about the blurring between art and craft that she is engaging in? \"No,\" Wiggers replies. \"It\'s all about what questions you ask. Curatorial practice is about questions. I\'m looking at what is happening in the culture, identifying certain tendencies, and then putting the lens of craft on it to understand it in a different way.\" For example, she cites the large architectural textile installations by Do-Ho Suh, like his celadon-hued fabric Seoul Home/L.A. Home, as something that might read in new ways under the lens of craft.

In the two years since \"Glass,\" the overlap between work shown in an art museum and a museum of craft continues to expand. Wiggers points to the Bellevue Arts Museum\'s Director of Curatorial Affairs / Artistic Director, Stefano Catalani, as a curator who is adventurously blending work by art and craft artists as in his 2009 exhibition \"UberPortrait.\" The show included a Nick Cave \"soundsuit,\" a wearable textile sculpture, Brian O\'Doherty\'s documentary \"The Death of Patrick Ireland,\" as well as craft-based work by Darrel Morris (whose embroidery can be likened to drawing in thread). In creating the exhibition, Catalani took the monumentalizing, commemorative, and interrogative aspects of the portrait\'s gaze as a starting point. But he adds, \"There are so many artists and craftsmen who are going back to traditional craft media, who have an association with tradition,\" that their inclusion in the exhibition creates another layer of cultural discourse.

Associated with San Francisco\'s Mission School, artist Clare Rojas currently has an exhibition, \"We They, We They,\" at the Museum of Craft and Folk Art in San Francisco made possible by the expansive vision of \"folk\" conjured by curator Natasha Boas. The upcoming collaborative exhibition of work by Ingalena Klenell and Beth Lipman, \"Glimmering Gone,\" at Tacoma\'s Museum of Glass finds the craft-based artists installing a three-part exhibition including a large scale (14\' x 30\' x 25\') \"landscape made of sculpted clear glass components that hang from the ceiling and rise up from the floor,\" according to Klenell, an immersive installation that one might find in a contemporary fine arts institution.

At SFMC+D, Mariah Nielson\'s current exhibition, \"FourSite: 4 Materials | 4 Artists | 4 Sites,\" also invites four artists trained in traditional craft or employing craft materials to take on the art-based strategy of installation. Each has created sited works of scale within the museum, working to install while the galleries are open to the public. From Tanya Aguiniga\'s copious lengths of white fabric that appear to be dipped in indigo, which plunge and swoop like waves, to Paul Hayes\' flurry of lengths of white paper suspended from the ceiling which either swarm or school (depending on your preferred natural metaphor), this is an exhibition that pushes the boundaries of craft or the crafted object. \"It is a new kind of exhibition for us with the artists coming to the museum to work directly in the galleries while the galleries are open to the public,\" says Nielson. \"An important part of the process for us is the revealing of the craft process. We want the visitor to be able to witness that firsthand.\"

Meanwhile, a very different performing of craft is happening at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, with the exhibition \"Hand+Made: The Performative Impulse in Art and Craft,\" curated by Valerie Cassel Oliver. \"Hand+Made\" includes works like videos from the \'90s, \"glass happenings\" by Boston\'s B Team, public performances by artists like Pro Bono Jeweler Gabriel Craig, and perhaps the exhibition\'s piece de resistance, Anne Wilson\'s Wind-Up: Walking the Warp performed with dancers of the Hope Stone Dance Company building a 40-yard-long weaving warp on a 17-by-17 feet frame. Cassel Oliver notes that \"Hand+Made\" began with the idea of addressing a \"generational divide\" with regard to perceptions of craft by looking at craft-based artists whose work is exhibited in a fine-arts context.

Back at the Museum of Contemporary Craft in Portland, \"Gestures of Resistance,\" co-curated by Judith Leeman and Shannon Stratton, finds artists in extended residencies daily performing conceptually-based and politically-charged craft in the museum\'s galleries and out in the world. The show concludes with Theaster Gates enveloping all of the previous artists\' work in porcelain slip.

Of course, not all overlap in art and craft is curatorially driven. Ably suited to speak to this is John Zarobell, Assistant Curator of Collections, Exhibitions, and Commissions at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, who recently curated \"New Work: Ranjani Shettar.\" This first West Coast show of the Bangalore-based artist, with works in wrought iron and muslin over a steel armature, showcases the artist\'s interests in traditional craft practices and media, one example of a larger phenomenon.

\"When you think contemporary artists have used every medium, Shettar is the only one who\'s using tamarind kernel powder paste to affix fabric to a steel armature. And the black muslin she used was dyed in a black dye she made herself from a centuries old recipe,\" Zarobell says. \"She\'s very much a fine artist, but she\'s really interested in traditional craft practices in India. It\'s almost a moral position that we don\'t have to go with everything modern just because it\'s modern.\"

Zarobell sees the tendency to engage traditional craft practices as a widespread contemporary phenomenon while acknowledging that it is not unprecedented, citing Rosemarie Trockel\'s mid-\'80s \"knitting pictures.\" Zarobell also points to Travis Meinolf, who calls himself an \"action-weaver\" and has shown internationally doing \"woven situational art\" works. He cites fiber-based works by Kathryn Spence and Lauren DiCioccio\'s use of embroidery in conceptual works that include organza \"plastic\" shopping bags meticulously embroidered with the ubiquitous red \"Thank You,\" message.

He might also have noted Seattle-based ceramic artist Jeffry Mitchell, one of five finalists for the 2008 Contemporary Northwest Art Awards. And one of the more celebrated artists of the 2010 Whitney Biennial was Portland-based Jessica Jackson Hutchins whom artnet.com\'s Ben Davis called a \"new star.\" New York Magazine\'s Jerry Saltz called Hutchins\' two abject ceramic vessels on a sofa encased in newspaper clippings concerning the Obama candidacy, \"one of the best pieces here [at the Biennial].\"

\"It\'s a huge trend, artists starting to do a lot more hand-made work,\" Zarobell says. \"Artists have reached this crisis. The way sculpture, installation and so on is made now, there is often no handwork by the artist at all. The more spectacular the art gets, the less important the hand. I am seeing a trend in the opposite direction. Artists are getting burned out on the international exhibition extravaganza. And a lot of people want to take a moral or political approach to art making which leads to the handmade and traditional practices.\"

This comes, paradoxically, at a time of flux, when a number of institutions that had blended art and craft have deliberately moved away from the word \"craft.\" In 2002, New York\'s American Craft Museum became the Museum of Art and Design, while California College of Arts and Crafts is now the California College of Art. On the other hand, from an academic standpoint, institutions like the Oregon College of Art and Craft continue to expand, while the Pacific Northwest College of Art has added an MFA in Applied Craft and Design in partnership with OCAC. And as Zarobell puts it, it comes at a time of \"increased valorization of things like knitting circles,\" or an interest in DIY craft among non-artists that shows no sign of waning.

One wonders whether the reciprocal recontextualizing of craft and art will continue to blur distinctions to the point where, decades from now, exhibitions at contemporary museums of art and craft might be indistinguishable, or whether these boundary-crossing forays might simply nourish both art and craft practice while enriching the discourse around exhibitions in a variety of institutions. Or, alternately, will the proposition of including art in a craft venue shatter the very purpose of such institutions under its own weight? If Dyne\'s \"Glass\" can be taken as an oracular bellwether, it is interesting to note that over the months it was exhibited, the large glass bent, but it did not break.

This article was written for and published in art ltd. magazine \"art

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