Wisdom Tooth Fool
Doll (Joanne), 1993.
Wisdom tooth, enamel
paint, sterling silver,
glass beads, silk,
3.5 in. tall.
Untitled Soap Chair,
1993. Soap, popsicle
sticks, Brillo rust,
ca. 3 x 2 x 2 in.
Collection: Bill and
Mixed media, 18 in.
No. 2, 1995. Cross-
stitch on cotton,
ca. 6 x 8 in.
ca. 20 x 12 x 4 in.
William Copley (Cply)
L'amour c'est q'on
fait, 1993. Acrylic on
linen, 52 x 64 in.
(detail). Stove with
pie beads pasted on
papier maché and wood,
196 square ft.
"a labor of love"
at the new museum
of contemporary art
by Alan Moore
"Send me--skillful workers in mosaic.--
From art proceeds this gift which conquers
nature.--the value of the work now as
always being increased by the minute labor
which has to be expended on the production
of the beautiful."
--Emperor Theodoric (by Cassiodorus),
6th c. A.D.*
This exhibition displays together over 100
artworks of disparate type, hailing from
various "artworlds," or spheres of
patronage, which are usually not seen
together. The common theme is, roughly,
meticulousness of execution. "Labor" bonds
fine art, high-end craft production,
"outsider" and prison art, and
nonfunctional furniture in an installation
that also provided viewers with cozy
corners of overstuffed chairs.
With 50 artists' work on show, a laundry
list is unavoidable. Among many remarkable
objects, I remark only a few: Larry Krone's
beaded-body dolls with heads made from
human wisdom teeth; Nole Giulini's dried
and red-thread-stitched banana-skin
slippers, at once fabulous and absurd. A
work by the sheepherder artist, Larry
Culkins--a soiled, flattened little girl's
dress on a metal armature which echoes the
solid geometry of minimalism. (The work was
hung over a bed, which might be seen as a
type of curatorial editorializing.)
Perched in the glass boxes Michael Harms
makes in prison are tiny chairs made from
soap shavings. (These "outsider" works are
oddly consonant with the early miniaturist
scenarios of Robert Graham and Michael
Hurson, two artists who would have fit in
well here.) The faces beneath the swatches
of human hair on the brown fabric figures
in Faith Ringgold's "international doll
collection" evince extraordinary
expressiveness with a minimum of stitches.
Elaine Reichek's samplers emulate 18th- and
19th-century girls' fancywork, playing
angst-ful doubt-ridden modern variations on
the homilies and poems expressing simple
faith found in the antiques. Two exemplars
of mad precision are included: "outsider"
A.G. Rizzoli, the late 19th-early 20th
century draftsman whose after-hours work
gave image to fantastic realms; and Kazumi
Tanaka, a cabinet-maker whose chef d'oeuvre
wardrobe includes a Borges-like drawer that
seems never to cease to open ever-smaller
versions of itself from within itself.
Ironic entries from the world of high-end
crafts included Richard Rule's humorously
glowering teapot Pyramidal Skull: Military
Intelligence, which curiously evoked for me
the Schneider Pavilion built by the French
Army at the 1889 World's Fair. The cartoon
interior of Diego Romero's bowl depicts
characters from the ancient ceramics of
Mimbres riding in an auto, speeding over
the ground deep within which lie the
Charles Le Dray's rivened small suit of
clothes might be lumped in with the mad
precisionists, since I'm told he makes
everything--even buttons and small clothes
hangers--by hand, but the work is too
reminiscent of the infantilist formalism of
the last two New York art seasons. The
scenario: murderous ventriloquist's dummy
vandalizes his rival's dress clothes.
Two refugees from the fine-art realm
include William Copley (Cply), whose scene
of a Paris cafe, with sexual transactions
occurring in the windows above, was
unaccountably included; and Robin Winters's
Testa Coronata, a series of some dozen
colored blown-glass hat-wearing heads,
blobby, formless portraits, which is
certainly a masterwork of art in that
The piece de resistance of the exhibition
is Liza Lou's incredible, full-scale,
glimmering Beaded Kitchen--indeed, ``Labor
of Love'' might have been designed just so
this stunning homage to the staging area of
the Western housewife's life could be shown
in New York.
The "issue" or question becomes, of course,
what are all these things doing together?
(Besides just being themselves, inviting
spectators to wonder and be amazed, and
literally to join in, in Lisa Bradley and
Larry Krone's back room "doll project"
where materials are made available for
visitors to craft their own figures, which
evince great variety and humor.) To
juxtapose these works from different
showrooms in one galleria bids to create a
"visual dialogue" between them, and to some
extent it happens, mainly between the
framed works on the wall. The couches
strewing the installation invited viewers
to sit down, relax and chat. They evoked
discourse, but in the realm of the patron.
I suppose at this moment I had hoped
there'd be some critical agenda to the show
as there is so often at the New Museum,
perhaps in regard to the exploding
"outsider art" phenom, but this was not the
case. The show cast its net too wide,
trying to encompass issues of craft and
fine art, race and gender, "outsider" and
folk, and warring traditions of medium and
form. It is foolish to generalize about
such a hodge-podge, but I'll rush in...
Part of the problem with "taking seriously"
exhibitions of craft work and "outsider"
art has to do with their embeddedness
within their own esthetics of
connoisseurship and display, which
emphasizes on the one hand facility of
technique, high finish and skill, the drama
of technical mastery and bravura
accomplishment; and on the other the raw
power of the strange, the fascination of
inscrutable content, and the dynamics of
Art which does not speak the dialect of
elite academic high art cannot be easily
written together with it, as this
exhibition would seem to intend, except on
the gronds of inadvertent resemblance like
Larry Culkins's evocation of minimal form.
(This is like what Susan Vogel, comparing
NYC post-minimal sculpture and African
artifacts in 1988, called a "spurious
resemblance" that valorizes the latter in
terms of the former.) To found taste on
this kind of quaintness is to cast many of
these labors of love into the realm of the
ethnographic, where, as expressions of
contemporary American culture, they do not
Others among these artists are quite
successful and entirely comfortable within
the realm of elite craft production; a work
like Rules's teapot is art because it has
transcended its starting point in function.
No one would ever use it; it "represents"
its function--much like Neolithic grave
goods do. Nor is the "Labor of Love" an
unfettered free esthetic investigation, as
a high avant-garde art, like theoretical
science, might be thought to be.
It is better to understand these works as
speciments of post-modern handmade culture
within a common field of artistic
production that does not appear in the form
of mass commodity. This is the field of
social context where ethnicity takes up its
positions vis-a-vis the mainstream. But
somehow to so approach understanding
artworks is like placing warm bodies on the
snow. It is not until they melt down into
it, and form an individual idiosyncratic
relationship to the ineluctable surround
that their particular qualities may be
understood. By this point of course these
bodies will have all turned blue.
* * * * *
Issues surrounding the exhibition were
engaged at a panel discussion in early
February, which featured a strong
performance by Atlanta's High Museum folk-
art curator Joanne Cubbs. She said that
folk art was "a fictional category," used
historically to demonize high art and deny
the complexity of self-taught art. Said
Cubbs, "We locate our fantasies in the
world of outsiders." To describe a painter
like Sam Doyle as "simple and pure" is to
refuse to recognize his embeddedness in the
history and culture of Sea Islands,
Georgia. Much of the appeal of this sort of
work lies in a kind of "class voyeurism";
the great popularity of the work of the ex-
slave, homeless 1930s artist Bill Traylor
provides a pointed example. This
fascination of the well-born with the low-
born, of the rich with the poor is part of
the dynamics of Western culture. It is also
built into an economic system where, in the
words of bell hooks, "capital has fallen in
love with difference."
Quilt-making artist Michael Cummings
agreed, stating that the art world was
about "establishing a class order through
English professor and poet Harryette
Mullen, in a dense and thoughtful talk--so
much so it'd be better read than heard--
suggested that the rise of the at-once
"heroic and abject outsider artist" might
signal a historic shift in taste away from
aristocratic bourgeois culture of the West.
Joanna Osburn-Bigfeather, an artist and
director of the American Indian Community
House Gallery/Museum in Manhattan, pointed
out that for the Native American artist
"it's hard to start thinking about issues
of craft and art because we have to deal
with identity." She described the market
pressure of consumer tastes operating on
Native Americans working in craft and fine
arts: "our artists have to be kept in the
(Organized by New Museum director Marcia
Tucker, "A Labor of Love" is on view Jan.
20-Apr. 14. It may seem like willful
ignorance to impugn this effort without
reading Marcia Tucker's catalogue with its
"critical and historical essay." But the
book was costly and they didn't give me
*in Cyril Mango, ed.,The Art of the
Byzantine Empire 312-1453: Sources and
Documents (1972), p. 50.
Alan Moore is a New York critic and art