Craft's New Consciousness

Craft's New Consciousness


Kate MacDowell; Taking Root 2, 2010; handbuilt porcelain; 4.5 x 4.5 x 1 in.

Since DIY - the abbreviation for "Do It Yourself" - is usually associated with self-empowerment, it's not surprising that works in the exhibition "DIY: A Revolution in Handicrafts" seek to reveal some disquieting truths. Most of the 16 featured American, British, and Canadian artists in the show at Pittsburgh's Society for Contemporary Craft (in celebration of the organization's 40th anniversary), move beyond traditional, artist-versus-craftsman debates and use meticulously wrought productions to make cautionary social statements.

Perhaps the most openly political work is CBU 87, 2010, by Desert Storm veteran Ehren Tool. CBU 87 refers to the specific weapon used by the U.S. Air Force; commonly known as "cluster bombs," they do not require precision, since smaller component shells disperse to damage a broad area. Tool's figurative bomb, which has a strong totemic presence, is populated with about 200 of the artist's trademark ceramic cups. Some are stamped and glazed with images of war. Others lie in shards. Tool offers the ideal metaphor for war's impact: It either permanently imprints - or entirely breaks ­- every
person involved.

The British artist who goes by War Boutique offers an even more blatant social statement, pointing out the almost casual flow of militarization into our visual vernacular. Bak-2-skool, 2008, features four bulletproof vests, each emblazoned with academy insignia, fitted with a traditional school necktie, and sized for an ele­mentary school child. While it is no longer shocking to see adult-size flak jackets, pint-sized Kevlar marked with school emblems can still startle. Yet with the dramatic rise in school shootings, how far away is this reality?

The troubled future already has arrived in the works of Americans Amy Johnston and Kate MacDowell. Johnston's sterling bracelet Did Dolly Dream of a Bio Mom?, 2010, makes witty reference to the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which inspired the dystopic 1982 movie Blade Runner. Her work's helix-shaped band - ending in the bounding front halves of two fuzzy ruminants ­- alludes to Dolly the sheep, the first example of the extra­ordinary leap taken by cloning living creatures via DNA.

By contrast, MacDowell considers man's unintended interference with genetic codes through widespread pollution. In Taking Root 2, 2010, a human ear sprouts blossoms, berries, and foliage. The work's unglazed porcelain has a brittle translucence that perfectly communicates the unsustainable fragility of humankind's current relationship with the natural world.

Still, other works are genuinely optimistic. Husband-and-wife team Paul Roden and Valerie Lueth, collectively known as Tugboat Printshop, produced the woodblock print America the Beautiful, 2009; the painstakingly hand-carved blocks used to create it celebrate skillful production. It also provides a buoyant, brightly colored portrait of the nation's varied and unmarred topography. 

Other works forgo socio-political engagement, exploring instead the ever more-indistinct boundaries dividing art and craft. For example, the brilliant work of Canadian ceramist Julie Moon, whose multimedia pieces Seat, Birdie, and Untitled (Scales With Ruffles), all 2010, each recall the anatomically inspired sculptures of French-American sculptor Louise Bourgeois while glorifying (and feminizing) the inherently imperfect organic form.

The exhibition's single flaw may be its title, which suggests a survey of craft as the new cottage industry, as an innovative populist movement. Certainly, some of these elements are present; yet nearly all the artists featured have gallery representation or MFAs. Looking deeper, the show reveals a metaphorical change to architect Louis Sullivan's maxim "Form follows function." In DIY, practical function often equals deeper meaning, which can be as exceptional as the forms over which the artists labor. And such pointed messages, working in concert with remarkable designs, surely contribute to a revolution of consciousness.

Savannah Schroll Guz is an art critic for Pittsburgh City Paper, a monthly review columnist for Library Journal, and author of two short fiction collections.