Olek, Knitting
Olek, Knitting

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Every two years, the Renwick Gallery mounts an invitational exhibition of craft and decorative arts, yet 40 years after the museum’s founding, it still has its work cut out for it: “Craft,” for better or worse, can still be a pejorative term in fine art circles. This year’s invitational, “40 Under 40: Craft Futures,” shows that shouldn’t be, and isn’t always, the case: If anything unifies this exhibition of contemporary approaches to craft, it’s how uncrafty much of it feels.

It is by coincidence that 2012 is also the 40th anniversary of Womanhouse, an seminal 1972 feminist art installation organized by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro in Hollywood. Several participants in that exhibition employed craft techniques—what might have once been called “women’s work”—to support the content of their pieces. Simultaneously they confronted that most patriarchal of art approaches: painting.

These days, fine-art institutions are plenty willing to accept one of Jenny Hart’s embroidered narrative portraits (she contributes a stitched up image of La Llorona here), or the wood-turned vessels of Matt Moulthrop. These artists use the language of craft more or less as it is commonly conceived.

Other artists in the exhibition push the limits of their materials. Sebastian Martorana’s carved marble pieces of towels and pillows recall the sensitivity of Bernini. Marc Maiorana’s handling of iron is so fluid it feels as if the material has been squeezed from a tube rather than forged with fire and hammer. Then there is Erik Demaine’s origami, created with the use of mathematical models (the MacArthur genius earned a Ph.D. in math at the age of 20).

Demaine’s work acts as a subtle fulcrum within the exhibit, integrating contemporary technologies with his traditional medium. Likewise, Shawn Smith’s sculptures are inspired by the pixels of low-resolution images. Joshua Demonte uses 3D models to transform classical architecture into wearable accessories. And Nick Dong’s “Enlightenment Room” has a similar effect as one of James Turrell’s Light and Space structures—only Dong experiments with light’s brightness, not its deprivation.

Impressive technique and imaginative uses of technology bring some wow factor, but it’s the content that elevates the work. Cat Mazza has designed software—knitPro and knitoscope—that transforms images and video into crochet patterns, like an old ASCII print. (Here, her videos show images from World War II, Vietnam, and Iraq.) A room installation of crochets by the Polish artist Olek draws influence from camouflage (fittingly, the artist knit-bombed the Albert Einstein Memorial on C Street NW to coincide with the opening of 40 Under 40). Stephanie Liner, a trained upholsterer, contributes “Memories of a Doomed Construct,” a seat reminiscent of Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage, complete with Georgian legs. Her work comments on the lost manufacturing industries, like the furniture and textile trades, that were once prevalent in the South. Combine her work with Andy Paiko’s functional “Spinning Wheel,” which is made mostly of blown glass, it seems that despite changes in the manufacture of contemporary craft, artists will continue to utilize antiquated methodologies irrespective of their fragility. How crafty.