In museums, conversations about craft tend to stick to the same old narrative — perfectly hewn chairs and impossibly intricate baskets are placed on pedestals. Museums have long supported the studio craft movement, which saw post-World War II artisans dedicating their lives to mastery over mediums such as wood, stone or silver. But only a tiny percentage of craft enthusiasts become masters at their trade. What about the thousands of people who engage in craft for other reasons?
“In the past, craft was looking for an entré into the art world,” says Nicholas Bell, the curator of American Craft and Decorative Art at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “Now, people from fields as distinct as computer science, fashion design or performance art are picking up the tools of craft and deciding it works for them. That, I think, is actually liberating for craft. It doesn’t matter where you’re coming from, but that you want to engage in craft and that it becomes part of your own success.” Jennifer Calvert, Development Officer at the Renwick Gallery, agrees that museums need to broaden their definition of craft. “Everybody’s looking for a way out of the old convention of craft, and I think our curator sees craft as a new way of living in the modern world, rather than a discipline,” says Calvert. “It’s more about interacting in a world where craft actually gives meaning. It gives meaning to your existence.”
Over the past two years, Bell has completely immersed himself in the craft world to mount the Renwick’s latest exhibition, 40 Under 40: Craft Futures. Celebrating the gallery’s 40th anniversary, the exhibition features post-9/11 works from artists under the age of 40. More than just a catchy naming convention, the age limit led Bell to focus on an entire up-and-coming group of artists who are changing the conversation surrounding craft. “Craft isn’t necessarily about making an object out of a certain material, or the way you make it. It is about valuing the actual making of things, regardless of how you do it,” explains Bell. “The emphasis for this generation is not necessarily on skill as it is for a big, overarching goal. That doesn’t mean there aren’t well crafted things in the show, but it’s not the unifying factor.”
What Bell refers to as an “overarching goal” is different for every artist. For Matthew Szösz, the goal is harnessing craft as a means of exploring process. Trained as a glass artist, Szösz pushes the medium beyond its conventional boundaries. He twists, inflates, pulls and rolls molten glass into experimental shapes that often collapse in the end. Yet the process of creating those shapes has to be seen to be believed. “What I also find great about this, is there is less focus on the actual object,” says Bell. “If you are Matthew Szösz, you can make glass that, at the end of the day, all you have is shards. But it’s about the process, without an unhealthy focus on the value of some sort of finished product.
For other artists featured in the exhibition, the goal of craft is to open conversations that challenge viewers with the most contemporary moral problems of our day. Joseph Foster Ellis’ piece, China Tree, is made of identical pots he bought at a Beijing market. “People see these pots and assume they’re mass-manufactured,” Bell notes. “But he’s accumulated these pots that are actually made in peoples’ homes. In America, there’s this presumption that things that are made in China are bad because they’re anonymous and don’t bring cultural value. But these pots represent a small sliver of economic entrepreneurship on the part of every day Chinese citizens who are trying to get by. It really startles you. It also allows us to have this conversation on what ‘Made in China’ means.”
Many pieces in the show push the idea that craft no longer stands alone — it can incorporate many mediums to drive home an important message. “Historically, the division between art and craft has been along more obvious external factors — the materials or techniques they use. But I think that, looking at things through a basic material lens really isn’t helpful anymore,” says Bell. “The dividing lines that separate a photographer from a sculptor are blurring. This generation in particular feels a certain sense of freedom to do what they want to. You see people mixing and mashing things up in a way that’s really refreshing.” In Knit for Defense, Cat Mazza infuses digital animation with knitting to explore the aesthetics of war. Using archival footage, Mazza transforms images of tanks into stitched patterns that are hypnotically obscured. This is not your grandmother’s idea of knitting.
What’s ultimately exciting about 40 Under 40 is that it presents a whole crop of artists who are using craft to respond to modern reality. “At the end of the day, when I looked at what these people had in common, it wasn’t materials or their process,” explains Bell. “It was a passion for making, and what I eventually called a philosophy for living differently in the modern world. There’s this belief, shared across the board, that there are better ways to do things. You can make things that have a positive benefit for our culture, whether it’s for the maker or the person receiving or buying the object.”
40 Under 40: Craft Futures is on display until February 3, 2013 at the Renwick Gallery in Washington D.C.
Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.