Craft as a Verb

Craft as a Verb

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Anne Wilson's Wind-Up: Walking the Warp, Houston (2010). Six dancers wound thread through the steel frame in this performance-turned-installation. Photo: Rick Gardner, courtesy of the artist and Rhona Hoffman Gallery

Some artists view craft primarily as an activity, rather than an object. And they're taking it public.

What is craft? The usual answer describes craft as a noun: an object made from wood, clay, fiber, metal, glass, or paper. But in a radical reconsideration of the word, a number of curators and artists have recently focused on craft as a verb, an action, a performance.

In this view, the exhibition of craft becomes not the display of objects but the performance of what would otherwise happen in the studio. For Occupation (2010), potter Ehren Tool, a veteran of the First Gulf War, threw cup after porcelain cup in a weeklong residency at Portland, Oregon's Museum of Contemporary Craft, ultimately giving his fired cups to museum visitors. In the mid-2000s, Travis Meinolf wheeled his loom to the streets of San Francisco, weaving a simple white cotton cloth to begin his project, Social Fabric. He invited viewers to choose another color with which he demonstrated a twill weave, creating a colorful stripe and recording their participation. In the pages of this magazine ("Studio on the Street," Apr./May 2009), Gabriel Craig described taking his jewelers' bench out of the workshop and onto the streets to make silver rings that he then gave away.

What's driving this focus on process? Some say it's a rethinking of how we live our lives, after 9/11 and the political, economic, and environmental turmoil of the past decade. "Among the group of artists emerging now," says Namita Gupta Wiggers, Museum of Contemporary Craft curator and ACC trustee, "I'm seeing a desire to return to making at a really fundamental level." Artists are focused on "where materials come from, how they are manipulated, how to connect with people," she says.

Tool's Occupation was part of the exhibition "Gestures of Resistance," curated by Shannon Stratton and Judith Leemann. "Gestures" invited a handful of artists in turn to work in the gallery space; Mung Lar Lam, for example, performed Ironings, creating exquisite geometric relief sculptures with an iron, steam, and starch from monochromatic cotton yardage. Also in 2010, "Hand+Made: The Performative Impulse in Art and Craft," curated by Valerie Cassel Oliver at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, highlighted making over made with works such as Anne Wilson's performance weaving project Wind-Up: Walking the Warp, in which members of the Hope Stone Dance Company built a 40-yard-long weaving warp on a 17-by-7-foot frame. Those two projects in particular demonstrate that aesthetics aren't necessarily sacrificed when process is valued over product. Both are extraordinarily beautiful, if temporary, works.

Craft in performance is not without precedent. "Hand+Made" included video of performances from the 1990s by the B Team. Inspired by punk rock and the spectacular 1980s performances of the San Francisco-based performance art project Survival Research Laboratories, glass artists Zesty Meyers, Jeff Zimmerman, and Evan Snyderman juggled hot balls of glass, poured molten glass on steel umbrellas, dropped hot glass heads into tanks of water, and shot gobs of glowing glass at a target.

The B Team's performances were as much about showmanship as process. There is some­thing different going on in the new millennium. Artists and curators such as Leemann and Stratton want to de-emphasize the object in favor of a quieter and more thoughtful interaction with the viewer. For her ongoing installation performance, Common Sense, Sheila Pepe invites viewers to unravel her large-scale crocheted modernist "drawings" and use the yarn as raw material for making their own knit or crocheted items. And while Craig and Meinolf could be perceived as simply updating the open studio or demonstration at the summer craft fair, Meinolf wants something more: to engage the viewer in a conversation not only about weaving technique, but also about his yearning for "a society of objects produced in joy, guided by interest, and shared freely, based upon need."

As with Meinolf's utopian vision, there is a political slant in much of this work. It would be easy to suggest that, as was the case with the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the current focus on process over product is a reaction against the mass production of what had, until the Industrial Revolution, been handcrafted goods. The fact that artists like Tool and Meinolf frequently give away objects they create suggests a critique of materialism and capitalism. For her part, Lam is raising questions about the position of women, women's work, and labor in contemporary society.

But for curators Leemann and Stratton, something subtler is going on, with elements borrowed from the Slow Food movement. Asked about "resistance" in the title of their exhibition, they explained that what's being resisted is efficiency, that these artists' performances are attempts at escaping "a kind of scripted way of being in the world." Just as the Slow Food movement aims to draw attention to the ways food is produced, Leemann and Stratton are interested in "noticing" what Lam calls "the overlooked" - in her case, the "rudimentary textile actions" that take place on the way to making the finished product.

But if the dematerialization of the art object, to use critic Lucy Lippard's phrase, swept fine art 40-some years ago, it's new to craft. At the end of these performances, there may be no object at all, or none that endures in the institutionalized space of exhibition or the economic space of collecting. When Lam, for example, finishes an Ironings performance, she recycles the resulting sculptures for subsequent performances by un-ironing and re-ironing, though not before inscribing the date of the ironing on each piece of cloth to record the number of ironings it has been through. The object becomes a marking of time rather than space. Meinolf, too, embroidered dates along the edge of the cloth he produced during his Social Fabric project. It may not have been displayed the way a traditional weaving might, but as an object (the cloth folded like a book, along with the artist's field notes and a Polaroid of the artist in action), it was eventually acquired, as an object, by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Some maintain that the object is central to craft's identity. Glenn Adamson, who directs graduate studies at London's Victoria and Albert Museum (and writes a column for this magazine), says, "I think of craft as necessarily involving material engagement and normally as involving objects that ‘survive' the process. This is a way of distinguishing it from other sorts of skilled work (such as banking) and also more specifically, skilled material processes that don't leave behind a residue (such as sports or music)."

It's perhaps no accident that a number of process-focused artists and curators are coming out of graduate programs where ideas are as important as objects. They are aware of fine art movements, from conceptual art in the late 1960s to relational aesthetics as practiced by artists such as Rirkrit Tiravanija, whose art form includes making and sharing meals with museum visitors. Meinolf, in particular, was inspired while at California College of the Arts by instructor and conceptual artist Ben Kinmont's dish washings, in which the artist washes dishes at a collector's home, leaving only a signed sponge as evidence of the action. Kinmont's actions address the question of just what art is: If art, as Kinmont seemed to suggest, is what an artist does, it's not hard to see how Meinolf and others have come to view craft primarily as the verb that it is.

Lisa Radon is an artist and writer for publications including art ltd., Textile, and Surface Design Journal. She's written essays for exhibitions and projects at the lumber room, YU Contemporary, Half/Dozen, and the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art.