"40 Under 40" Probes the Future

"40 Under 40" Probes the Future

The Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C.

The Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C.

This past week saw the opening of the “40 under 40: Craft Futures” at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, an exhibition that may be remembered as among the most ambitious and audacious in recent memory. Staged to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Renwick Gallery, “40 under 40” examines the field with a broad lens, examining contemporary craft through the work of 40 artists born since the gallery’s inception. Nicholas R. Bell, the Fleur and Charles Bresler curator of American craft and decorative art, has faced head-on the challenge of mounting such an exhibition.

Certainly the conservative path would have been to celebrate the last 40 years. Since 1972, curators, scholars, and supporters of the Renwick have made an indelible imprint on the world of American craft. It would have been simpler to choose 40 figures who have already helped to define the field. Looking forward, rather than backward, through the work of the next generation amounts to an admirable risk on the part of the Smithsonian, which is more often perceived as the “nation’s attic” than the “nation’s alternative loft space.” With craft evolving quickly and the ground shifting beneath our feet, looking forward becomes even more imperative.

Bell's approach to the exhibition and the remarkable essays by Bell, Julia Bryan-Wilson, Bernard L. Herman, and Michael J. Prokopow in the handsome exhibition catalogue represent a frank look at the current moment in American material culture, identifying tensions, trends, and opportunities. Rather than predict the future, the assembled artists give us a window into the present moment, their youth and talent providing a taste of what is to come.

But for all of the heady portent hovering over the book and the show, there was a light and festive feeling to the Renwick Gallery before and during the opening reception Thursday evening. The majority of the artists met with representatives of the press and, perhaps more telling, mingled easily with each other, aided by today’s gradual dissolving of the walls between mediums.

Many of the featured works include a performative aspect that underlies much contemporary craft practice and often must be communicated to a museum audience through now-ubiquitous video monitors – with frequently disappointing results. At the opening, however, visitors were fortunate to see many pieces “performed.” Andy Paiko’s Spinning Wheel (2007) was in operation for much for much of the event, its glass spires and pinnacles remarkably, and silently, actually spinning yarn – a visual mash-up of preindustrial nostalgia and futuristic fantasy. In Stephanie Liner’s Mementos of a Doomed Construct (2012), a large upholstered orb contains a young model, her dress merging with the fabric interior. Openings in the orb entice visitors to peer inside, where their invasive gaze feels all the more voyeuristic as the model stares dismissively back. Then there was the room installation by Olek, with every visible surface masked by crocheted yarn, including a number of volunteers wrapped head to toe.

Bell concedes that the 40 artists selected for the exhibition represent only a segment of those contemporary figures currently wrestling with the themes explored in the exhibition, avoiding the charge that he’s trying to anoint the crème of the next generation of makers. Yet, for better or worse, the Smithsonian’s backing adds a measure of gravitas to the exhibition’s endeavor, enhanced by the Renwick’s goal to acquire work by each of the included artists. By collecting the work of these artists, Bell and the Renwick Gallery hope to ensure a continued conversation begun by the exhibition. It is a dialogue that must rely on a broad look at the makers that both define and are shaped by our current moment to be successful. It is a challenge that must be taken up by the field as a whole, a task stimulated by the forward-looking artists and others responsible for the unique perspective afforded by “40 under 40.”

Perry A. Price is the American Craft Council's director of education.