Making Knowing: Craft in Art 1950-2019; through January 2021 (floor 6)
Rachel Harrison: Life Hack; closed January 12, 2020 (floor 5)
Thanks largely to a postwar infiltration of feminist and diaspora art (often of a piece) in the West and artists working elsewhere receiving wide exposure in the context of an emerging global scene (though dominated by Western avant-garde), distinctions between art and craft in contemporary production have been ostensibly erased. At the same time, long-held gender, cultural and other associations with each term persist. And “craft” most often evokes hand-hewn textile and textural materials … for the better in the “art world,” as per this show, in terms of diversity and possibility vis-à-vis hands-off new media equally ascendant through the same period. Most of the work included seems to acknowledge to varying degrees this semiotic and material lineage, whether as precursor and/or foil, while conveying strongly, personal, pliable and luxuriant relation to preferred mediums and techniques.
Both well known, expected suspects and some with less exposure in this context are represented, overwhelmingly (not completely) by examples in the collection of the museum, which points to its ample interest in this direction. Off the elevator, the perfect intro is a fragmented mural (1976) by Ree Morton, comprised of painted pinkish, putty-like, imitation ribbons, flowers, puffy clouds, and make-shift ladders to … heaven, enhanced by literal floating signifiers—incarnate words like “pleasures” and “atmospheres.” The hopeful feminist romanticism (small “r”) conveyed is refreshing and seems, as well, to incorporate a subtle jab at heroic (male) abstract painting in the gluey strips and skeins of her process. To jump to a personal fave (and then I’ll circle back), which shares some of the same underlying sensibilities and offers reason alone to see this show: Liza Lou’s near full–scale, pop-up kitchen (1990-1995), replete with open fast brand-name food boxes, dishes in the sink, and pie in the oven, sheathed entirely in tiny glittering beads, indicating clearly (in retrospect) a brilliant career still in full force.
Just about everything is engaging visually, with much provocation to jump around via kinship, contrast, comparison. Among first-generationers featured (although works here by them span three decades collectively): aesthetically oppositional sewn up soft sculptures by Yayoi Kusama and Claes Oldenburg; a Richard Artschwager cube-table; an Eva Hesse macramé-like rope hanging; a heavy, draped felt blob by Robert Morris; a cage-y, wire-woven abstraction by Ruth Asawa; a lace-like, shimmery canvas by Howardena Pindell; an example of Harmony Hammonds’s padded rag-swathed scaffold sculpture; a Faith Ringgold painted tangka banner; an open-frame Alan Shields wall work of bead strands; a Miriam Shapiro frilly collage; small-scale weavings-on-paper by Sheila Hicks, who, forthwith, will be known by many through her monumental yarn column-waterfall recently exhibited at MoMA (“Surrounds: 11 Installations”; 10/21/19-14-20). Hicks is also included in MoMA’s current show, “Taking a Thread for a Walk,” with an early serial bundled-yarn piece, which highlights more so earlier 20th-century fiber art and therefore offers (among other things) some historical context for the Whitney work. Selections there by Bauhaus frauen Anni Albers and Gunta Stolz may be further appreciated after seeing Elaine Reichek’s satiric, pedagogic embroidery samplers at the Whitney, one of which bears a quote by a Bauhaus “master” relegating the activity of weaving to women assigned who realized his envisioned textile abstractions.
Other highlights from the next generation and beyond (beyond Lou: Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt’s fragile, foil-filled, flowery flotsam and jetsam dream box, a distant relative of many “containers” by Joseph Cornell; Pepon Osorio’s barrio-baroque assemblage-portrait; a super-fly Nick Cave sound suit; a Mike Kelley big-baby blanket incorporating mangy stuffed animals; a very large textile-inspired figurative painting by Njideka Akunyili Crosby; a conceptual piece of found blankets beneath a rising metaphoric city recalling Native American by Marie Watt; a ceramic and straw, regal and demure giantess by Simone Leigh. Of an abundance of more strictly ceramic works, Viola Frey presides with a characteristic painterly-glazed colossus in business attire, along with figurative parodic peer Robert Arneson; I also noted an earthy, rolled and modeled reclining figure by Mary Frank; and the sensual abstracted vessel series by Katy Schimert (whose work I first saw in a Whitney Biennial).
The Rachel Harrison solo (10/25/19-1/12/20) was an apropos complement in several ways. Harrison thrives on very mixed up media, mainly mashing lots of found stuff with some artsy-like, painted plaster-y, wood-built structural and ornamental elements. My reaction to the furtive “one person’s trash is her own … art” kind of thing was tentative; in fact, the blur of 1990s DIY randomness and Duchampian, gender-astute gesture to which Harrison was party (with Karen Kilimnik and Sarah Lucas, among others) eventually drew me in. Solidifying an allusion to an era, a winning series of tragi-comic drawings depicting Amy Winehouse juxtaposed with scribbled Picasso and DeKooning “women.”
But the mainstay of Harrison’s oeuvre is gathered and arranged stuff–tools, socks, wigs, racks, partitions, live plants, her own sculptural forms and more, which impressed as both absurdist stacks and spreads and responsible, inventive forays into perpetual recycling as make-shift decorating. A key section for me was a make-shift urban apartment-like interior within the show. With its flimsy walls papered with photo-blow ups of misaligned faux-wood paneling and other box store improvement projects in progress, it conveyed an ongoing attempt at securing a home-sweet-artist-home.