The New Materiality

Digital Dialogues at the Boundaries of Contemporary Craft

By: Susan Mulski

Fuller Craft Museum • Brockton, MA • • Through February 6, 2011

What would happen if an artist used technology in conjunction with traditional clay, wood, glass, metal, and fiber? Would this provide a new means of expression? This conceptual show, organized by independent curator Fo Wilson, explores these questions with twenty-six works created by thirteen artists.

Fortesque LaBianca TateThese artists’ responses to today’s technological revolution share many parallels with the arts and crafts movement of the nineteenth century. The emphasis on the handcrafted object, improving the status of craftspeople and their working conditions, and the debate as to whether machines have a place in making art are all addressed here.

Technology can add the dramatic impact of sound. Donald Fortescue and Lawrence LaBianca’s Sounding dominates the first gallery. Inspired by Moby Dick, a wire cabriole-leg table filled with rocks was lowered into the sea along with a recording device to capture the accompanying sounds. The result is this rust and seaweed-encrusted object, topped with a polycarbonate “sounding horn” that resembles an old-fashioned phonograph rendered in cartilage.

Just as the nineteenth-century arts and crafts movement tried to improve working conditions of artisans, today’s artists can use technology to make social statements. Cat Mazza uses knitting as a vehicle to protest sweatshops. Her video microREVOLT documents the creation of the Nike Blanket—a knitted petition addressing conditions for Nike garment workers. Wendy Maruyama’s commentary on Japanese-American relations, You’re a Sap Mr. Jap, is difficult to see. More successful is her take on women’s roles in Stroke, a geisha-inspired wood Kanzashi hair comb inset with a hypnotic video.

Sometimes technology can poke fun at itself. Tim Tate’s Last Books series includes Memories of Reading; a glass reliquary houses the screen image of a book page, preserving digitally what might soon be a memory in the age of Kindle. Shaun Bullens uses video parakeets, forever kept in a cage or allowed to fly free, to pose the question, is technology a liberating force or a prison?

While means of reading have changed dramatically today, so have our ways of seeing. Brian Boldon’s Looking and Blindness uses the ceramic image of an eye as both a projector and receiver. Technology also draws attention to the craft material itself. E.G. Crichton’s and Susan Working’s Table 1: Murmur features a wooden table embedded with video of a forest, reminding viewers of the table’s origins.

Several of the works use computer-assisted design. Digital textile weavings “magnify the topography of the face” in Lia Cook’s Face Maze: Three Generations. In Christy Matson’s Soundw(e)ave, the actual sounds of Jacquard looms create three woven compositions. Mike and Maaike depreciate famous jewelry with inferior digital copies in Stolen Jewels. Computer pixilation informs Sonya Clark’s Portrait of Madame C.J. Walker. Hundreds of small black hair combs create the face of a woman who made millions selling hair care products to African Americans. Such use of computer technology recalls the arts and crafts debate, whether machines really debase art or promote creativity.

Scientific data is imaginatively incorporated into weaving by Brookline artist Nathalie Miebach. On loan from the DeCordova Sculpture Park + Museum, Boston Tides is an undulating woven form pierced by sticks containing data recording high and low tides, sunrise and moonrise, creating an awe-inspiring three-dimensional graph. A motion sensor activates an air pump inflating a plastic glove suspended over a glass vase in Mark Zirpel’s Digital Vase. It is fun to watch, but is this craft or an art installation?

Many of the objects in the show certainly push the boundaries between craft, art, and technology to the point that one wonders why distinctions ever began.
To their credit, these artists are innovators, figuring out how to use these new
materials in broadened artistic territory. However, technology brings with it the inevitable “technical glitches” evident during my visit, and an excess of electrical cords.

—Susan Mulski

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