Craft is Not Dead

What defines the art of craft? What is the difference between art and craft? 40 Under 40: Craft Futures at Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery blurred the lines for me, while at the same time helping me to appreciate craft in a new light. There is something about the word “craft” that connotes antiquated techniques that don’t necessarily relate to our contemporary world. This exhibition breathes new life into the art of craft and highlights the contemporary relevance of craftsmanship.

Installation view, 40 Under 40: Craft Futures, Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery, July 20, 2012 – February 3, 2013.

In celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the Renwick Gallery, the exhibition features the work of 40 artists born since 1972 – the year the Smithsonian Art Museum established its contemporary craft and decorative arts program. All of the works were created since September 11, 2011, drawing particular attention to the state of contemporary craft and the way it relates to our society. Although we often associate craft with functionality or pure aesthetics, the pieces in this exhibition have more profound stories to tell in much the same way as contemporary art.  The show explores issues of technology, technique, relevance, and even the current economic climate as it relates to craft. Christy Oates fuses traditional woodworking techniques with CAD software technology to make furniture, while Joshua DeMonte creates jewelry using digital fabrication, both examples of how new technologies are changing the nature of craft. Several artists highlight the importance of sustainability exemplified by Jeff Garner’s sustainable clothing designs and Uhuru’s furniture made from reclaimed materials.

Sebastian Martorana, "Impressions," 2008. Marble. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Patricia A. Young in honor of the 40th Anniversary of the Renwick Gallery and the 30th Anniversary of the James Renwick Alliance.

I was immediately struck by a work in the first room by professional stone carver and sculptor Sebastian Martorana. Impressions is a beautifully realistic pillow sculpted from a slab of a marble that originally served as a door stoop in my hometown of Baltimore, Maryland. This especially resonated for me as marble steps are an icon of Baltimore’s landscape where several generations of my family have lived. Martorana sculpted the creases in the fabric as elegantly as those in the drapery of an ancient roman sculpture, a skill that defined sculptors of that time.

The artists in the exhibition work with materials as varied as glass, paper, metal, fibers, wood, and yarn. Sabrina Gschwandtner is another artist who brings a traditional craft – quilting – into a new light. In a statement about feminism and labor, she weaves quilts from 16mm feminist documentary film reels that were deaccessioned from the Fashion Institute of Technology.

Sabrina Gschwandtner, “Hula Hoop,” 2010. 16mm film and polyamide thread. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Chris Rifkin in honor of the 40th anniversary of the Renwick Gallery. Photo by Sabrina Gschwandtner.

In addition to the compelling works of art on view, the exhibition’s educational features were engaging and pertinent to a 21st century audience. Each wall label had a QR code linking to supplemental information online and a touchscreen monitor at the end of the exhibition featured videos submitted by each artist. I got to know each artist as they revealed themselves through YouTube videos.  Stacey Lee Weber gives us a tour of her studio where she creates sculptures out of pennies; Melanie Bilenker demonstrates the process of embroidering with her own hair; Matt Moulthrop explains how he is the third generation in his family to have work in the permanent collection at the Gallery; Bohyun Yoon makes music on camera with tubes of glass blown in his studio. Although craft and decorative arts can seem archaic, the Renwick Gallery proves this to be untrue in both the exhibition’s diverse selection of work and attentive educational elements.

This show left me feeling inspired and intrigued by both the hard skills and craftsmanship of the artists, but also the creativity and ideas explored through their crafts. The young artists featured in the exhibition prove the continued vitality of craft as it constantly adapts to respond to the contemporary landscape and tackle significant big-picture issues. If 40 Under 40 is any indication, I’d say the future of craft is looking bright.

40 Under 40: Craft Futures is on view at the Renwick Gallery through February 3, 2013