"Interlacings: The Craft of Contemporary Art," Sept. 11-Nov. 21, 1998, at the Whitney Museum of American Art at Champion, One Champion Plaza, Stamford, Conn. 06921
The presence of craft techniques, or handiwork, in contemporary art is pervasive enough to render it invisible. In an exhibition at the Champion branch of the Whitney Museum, curator Berta Sichel brings into sharp focus how craft and its poetic uses inform the work of seven international artists. Her well-chosen selection suggests that, at the crossroads of conceptual methodology and traditional artisanship, artists have quietly been developing a middle way that allows for both the head and the heart.
In a series of large "drawings," Spanish-born Elena del Rivero creates missives out of repetitive needlework and tiny brushstrokes on fabric and paper. Rows of flowing threads sewn into paper constitute the text of Letter from the Bride, an evocation of restrictive order and heightened sensuality.
In Letter to the Mother (c. 1919-1996) del Rivero has taken her grandmother's embroidered bridal linen sheet and inscribed it with Braille-like squares of abstract needlework. These become the words written on the body of female experience. Answering back to traditional social forms, del Rivero puts into high relief the notion of craft as women's work, and (as she conjectures) minimalism as a distant male "echo" of repetitive domestic labor.
Craft as endless handiwork reveals its potential for commonplace mysteries in Sonia Labouriau's sculpture. With four sequential sign language-like gestures, she sculpts small, rust-red birds from traditional urucum pigment. These birds resemble the small clay folk whistles produced in the area of Brazil where the artist lives. After they are formed, she places them in shallow bowls of water until they dissolve. In this small entropic ritual they "migrate" back to their original material state.
In what can be seen in this context as an ambitious reworking of the basket maker's craft, American artist Sylvia Benitez has gathered a variety of woody vines and woven them into two five foot balls, Peter and Paul (1998). Instead of the pattered, open forms of basketry, Benitez has created nearly solid, intertwined masses, held together by a self-generated tension. In their writhing construction, they seem to embody the term "complex,"as psychologists use it, to describe a cut off, labyrinthine psychic formation.
Teresa Serrano, from Mexico, uses textiles known as petos -- protective sisal horse blankets used in bullfights -- made to her specifications. Hung from a metal support high on a wall, an embroidered peto called The River (1996) has been formed into a fourteen foot long blue and white striped, soft, phallic "sock", symbolic, according to the artist, of a terminally polluted river. A second piece, The Mountain (1995), is a hollow red hood, intended to represent a mountain.
French artist Michèle Blondel creates self-portraits out of blown glass objects placed across the floor. The portraits contain no faces, but rather mermaid tails, shells, shoes and broken hearts in seaweed green, and twisted unicorn horns and body parts in pinkish brown. Garnet sconces hold tiny dried fish. Through these delicate, sexy objects the artist bestows upon her characters (and herself) a kind of fairy tale glamour. In the fragile, religiously symbolical medium of colored class, Blondel conceives of a feminist retelling of seductive myths of loss and a new found self.
Josiah McElheny (from the U.S.) also works in glass, but with a strongly conceptual slant. For him, history is a narrative told in handblown glassware. Glass from the Last Supper According to Josiah McElheny and According to Various Medieval and Renaissance Painters displays a morphology of functional glass forms, such as wine glasses, accompanied by text. With a Borgesian touch, McElheny's elaborate spiral patterning caught in glass dishes fictively mirrors the metaphysical task of Renaissance glassblowers seeking to explore the infinite through the laws of optics.
In another context, American artist Roxy Paine's relation to craft might have gone underappreciated. Paine has handmade dozens of polymer mushrooms with a mold taken from a real mushroom, painted them to look natural, then arranged them in typical growth patterns. In Psilocybe Cubensis Tray (1997), the meticulous recreation of trays of hallucinogenic mushrooms reminds us of the obsessive crafters of fishing flies and duck decoys who mimic nature in order to seduce it. The seduction here is mental, confusing reality and simulacra, with art's perennial strategy of fooling the eye taking on a psychedelic twist.
JOHN MENDELSOHN is a New York artist who occasionally writes on art.