The labor of art

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Speaking of minimalism and art going back to square one for a bit of soul searching (see Libby’s post below) I wonder if the current boomlet in labor-intensive art likewise is collective soul searching — and maybe a reaction against found object conceptualism that, for whatever its strengths, is lacking in the craftsmanship department and seems a dead end on the art family tree.

“Fiber Friends” at Spector and “Labor” at Abington display art’s return-to-crafts movement. What’s new is that the crafts adopted aren’t necessarily what you think of as high craft. In fact, there’s a lot of A. C. Moore hobbyism here in the sewing, hook rugs and origami on display.

Also breaking with some of art’s recent coolness, these works have a kind of personal mania to them that runs hot. These are works that wear their sentiments clearly. They don’t beat around the bush.

Lauren Ashley’s red work quilts (traditional white quilts that use only red thread) at Spector are beautiful subversion of a traditional craft form. Note the non-traditional imagery – rain clouds, a bonfire — which differs from the normal nursery rhyme kitties and bunnies (detail, above of Ashley’s quilt “20 blocks). Eric Steinberg’s linen weavings, also heavy with red, seem like anti-establishment posters, only much more beautiful and poetic. And outsider artist Brian Bazemore’s soft fetish dolls – stuffed “like time capsules” (the artist told me) with things like the gas bill and other daily memorabilia – represent people Bazemore is bringing into his life – or expelling out of it. (Steinberg’s “Swell” is above, right.)

Whitney Lee’s “Soft Porn,” a latch hook rug and the clear show-stopper, took 350 hours to make and includes 64,000 knots. Lee, a Columbus, OH artist who got her BFA from Ohio State University and once was a Spector gallery assistant (as were Ashley and Steinberg) told me she downloads images from Playboy’s website then plots the colors and designs the rug on the computer and goes to work. (Speaking of work, see the image of Lee standing on “Soft Porn” and vacuuming it.)

Additional images are from Abington — Amy Kaufman’s “Hello Kitty” (right below), an origami extravaganza and Susie Brandt’s “Some Assembly,” (left) a red work quilt based on industrial drawings that came with the artist’s kitchen and studio tool purchases ( a fan, a cuisinart).

There’s something appealing about repetitious hard work. If nothing else, it frees the mind to roam. Also, it answers the question “what should I do now?” And like Kiki Smith says in her episode in PBS’s “Art 21,” she always has something to do — she can always go in the studio and file down some of the flaws in her cast sculptures.

A final thought. Could this laborious activity be a particularly American phenomenon, coming out of our do it yourself tradition?

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