Art Review: “40 Under 40: Craft Futures” at the Renwick Gallery

Crafts go cutting-edge in this broad display of contemporary talent.

By: Sophie Gilbert

The star of “40 Under 40: Craft Futures,” the Renwick Gallery’s bold new exploration of the contemporary craft movement, is undoubtedly the 34-year-old Polish-born crochet artist Olek. The same morning the exhibition opened to media, Olek executed one of her trademark headline-grabbing displays of street art when she covered DC’s Albert Einstein Memorial in pink and purple crocheted fabric. The work was taken down almost immediately, but it was a nice way of drawing attention to “Knitting Is for Pus****,” the studio apartment Olek crafted in vibrant colors, which is currently on display at the back of the Renwick exhibit.

Between the yarn-bombing, the profanities, the guerilla street art, and the lack of any silver-haired women quietly working on their needlepoint, it’s fair to surmise these are not your mother’s (and definitely not your grandmother’s) crafters. To celebrate its 40th anniversary, the Renwick decided to take a broad look at the state of the craft movement, showcasing 40 artists born since 1972, the year the Renwick opened as an outpost of the American Art Museum. “This cannot be considered a comprehensive overview of craft’s youth,” writes curator Nicholas R. Bell in an introduction to the exhibition’s catalog. “These forty were selected to show the most engaging work of this generation.”

“Engaging” is certainly one word that applies, although “creative,” “aggressive,” “innovative,” and even “exhibitionist” might also do the job. Craftsmanship, so often associated with holiday trade shows and Hobby Lobby discount bins, is obviously thriving as a medium, but skill aside, there’s one element almost all of the artists in this show have in common: the ability to shock. Whether it’s Olek swathing models from head to toe in crochet bodysuits or Lauren Kalman tattooing her own neck with an empty needle until it’s raw, it’s hard not to think crafts(wo)men these days have to embrace the edgy to make a name for themselves.

Kalman’s work is the most viscerally shocking, since it exists only in photographs and glass jars filled with fragments of her own skin. In “Hard Wear (Necklace),” the artist branded her skin in the shape of a necklace with an inkless tattoo needle before filling in the red skin with gold leaf (the pink and gold remnants of the work are on display underneath the photographs). In “Blooms, Efflorescence, and Other Dermatological Experiments (Cystic Acne, Back),” Kalman pierced her back with hundreds of semiprecious jewels in order to explore the idea of acne and other skin conditions. The effect is both mesmerizing and hideous; it’s a smart take on extreme body modification, though it’s also discomfiting to look at.

That said, what “Craft Futures” mostly excels at is showing how artists can subvert traditional images and items and make them wholly new, as in Andy Paiko’s blown-glass “Spinning Wheel,” a delicate concoction of infinitely fragile parts that’s also entirely functional. And Jamin Uticone’s woven backpacks and briefcases are almost humorous in their handmade, deeply old-fashioned approach to the needs of the modern lifestyle. Craftsmanship still has a place in the 21st century, Uticone suggests, and after seeing this show, visitors might well agree.

“40 Under 40: Craft Futures” is at the Renwick Gallery through February 3. For more information, visit the museum’s website.