In the world of fine arts, crafts are often relegated to second-class status. Consider how even the term "arts and crafts" perpetuates this stigma: Crafts are the cultural tagalong, too important to be excluded from the equation, but necessarily separated. In other words, craft is art, but it's also not art. It's a contradiction rooted in Hegel's aesthetic hierarchy, in which practical application is a distracting barrier on the path to encountering unadulterated beauty. The inaugural show at the newly relocated and renamed Museum of Contemporary Craft convincingly argues that utility and beauty are far from mutually exclusive.
Craft in America: Expanding Traditions, a traveling exhibition which makes its second stop in Portland, collects 120 objects spanning a wide breadth of craft-based disciplines, including furniture, quilts and fabric art, jewelry, and ceramics. Such sprawling content not only makes good use of the museum's impressive anchor space in the renovated Daisy Kingdom building, it also illustrates the potential for limitless variation and subversion of these traditional forms and practices. So while Sam Maloof's meticulously carved "Double Rocker," a two-seated wooden rocking chair, is an astonishing show of technique and design, other furniture pieces rely more on concept and sheer visual impact. George Nakashima's "Conoid Bench with Back," for example, marries austere, Shaker-style legs and backing to an irregularly shaped black walnut bench. The clean contours of the legs and backing, which have been shaped by hand, create a foil for the unruly and gnarled segment of walnut. By preserving the natural edges, Nakashima reverently acknowledges the source of his material.
By contrast, Charles Hollis Jones' "Wisteria Chair" from 1968 reflects concurrent visual arts trends, rather than established furniture-making practices. In Jones' retro-futuristic piece, a single orange cushion seems to levitate in a spare, geometric frame of transparent Lucite. Its cold and unfeeling angles, which anticipate the reduction and restraint of Minimalism, hardly seem fit for human use; the bright orange cushion, conjuring the vibrant colors of Pop Art, is the lone indication that the chair should be a comfortable and inviting site of repose. In this sense, "Wisteria Chair" takes on a sculptural quality that places it closer to art object than domestic accessory.
Like Jones' chair, many of the exhibition's inclusions blur, if not obliterate, this distinction. In Katherine Gray's playful hot-worked glass piece, "Wonder Bread Sandwich Serving Tray," the artist creates a white tray shaped like a piece of sliced bread. On top of the tray, she arranges five small bowls of varying size, colored in the unmistakable red, yellow, and navy blue hues of the Wonder Bread logo. According to Gray, she was drawn to the subject as a symbol of a "blank white slate." Void of nutritional value or, figuratively, substance, the bread takes on the metaphoric possibility of an untouched canvas. Her bowls, shaped like halved bubbles, echo this sense of vacuous airiness as much as Wonder Bread's package itself.
If the blank slate motif of Gray's glass sculpture references painting, the exhibition's most painterly work is the stunning "Traces: Intent" by the fabric artist Lia Cook. At a distance, the tapestry appears to be an enormous print of a child's face, partially obscured in shadow. (In fact, the image is taken from a family photograph of Cook as a child.) But as the viewer nears the piece, it both transitions into unintelligible abstraction and reveals itself to be an intricately woven surface. This effect, which Cook uses a computerized Jacquard loom to achieve, overtly refers to Seurat's pointillist style, which relies on the human eye to process color juxtapositions as visual information. That closer scrutiny undoes the illusion of clarity and distinction in "Traces" also points to more recent paintings by Chuck Close, in which elaborate grids of strategically placed shapes create seemingly photorealistic images. Cook's art historical allusions bridge the supposed gap between arts and craft, but her use of computer technology undermines the assumption that the craftsman's product is always hand-made.
In that sense, Cook's work is the exception in a showcase of artists who use their hands to create objects that boldly assert the value of preserving traditional art-making practices. It's tempting to interpret this work exclusively within the categorical confines of artistic history and tradition. But because crafts are so directly tethered to social practice, they speak to a wider swath of issues. After all, in an age of digital information and mass production, they become important testaments not only to individuality, but also to the activities—whether expressive or mundane, ceremonial or quotidian—that make us human.