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Larry Krone Wisdom Tooth Fool Doll (Joanne), 1993. Wisdom tooth, enamel paint, sterling silver, glass beads, silk, 3.5 in. tall.

Michael Harms
Untitled Soap Chair,
1993. Soap, popsicle 
sticks, Brillo rust, 
ca. 3 x 2 x 2 in.

Faith Ringgold
International Doll 
Collection: Bill and 
Happi, 1978-79. 
Mixed media, 18 in. 

Richard Rule
Sampler Self-Portrait 
No. 2, 1995. Cross-
stitch on cotton, 
ca. 6 x 8 in.

Charles LeDray
Untitled, 1995. 
Mixed media, 
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.

Liza Lou
Kitchen, 1991-94 
(detail). Stove with 
pie beads pasted on 
papier maché and wood, 
196 square ft. 

Liza Lou
Kitchen, 1991-94

outside in 

"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 

ancient pots.

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 

art objects."

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