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

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

“Knitting Is for Pus****” by Olek. Photograph by the artist.

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
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

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

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.