Kat Murrell
“New Materiality” at MAM

Craft in the digital age

By - Mar 12th, 2011 04:00 am
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The New Materiality: Digital Dialogues at the Boundaries of Contemporary Craft at the Milwaukee Art Museum reflects the integration of technology into creative acts. Digitized pictures permeate the realm of craft where, traditionally, the making of things by hand has been most prized and the physicality of objects treasured.

Fo Wilson, an artist and assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, curated this exhibition of work by 16 artists. In this small but spacious show,  the alluring video screen or digitally altered image is nearly ubiquitous and might mark a trend. As described in the exhibition’s introduction, the works on view “express a new kind of materiality that is not necessarily tangible.”

Many works go beyond the simply decorative or merely functional and comment on contemporary living. Sonya Clark’s pithy video, The Important Thing, references the old habit of tying a string around a finger in order to remember something. The camera focuses on a pair of hands. Carefully, deliberately, a ribbon is tied on — then another and another, faster and faster, around the same finger, in an apt metaphor for the overload of tasks, ideas, and obligations that saturate daily life.

A more abstract commentary on freedom and restraint comes in Shaun Bullens’ Anxious. Trained as a woodworker, Bullens adheres to the craft traditions of finely made objects with two beautifully constructed wooden stands. One supports a tall birdcage. The other is a table pierced through by a substantial tree branch. A small bird on a video screen inhabits each stand. The plucky little creature sits on a perch, but only in the video nestled in the tree does it fly away, and then come back. Its actions are not curtailed by the closed environment of the cage, and not even the digital frame can hold it.

Metaphors rest easily enough on the surface of these two works as generalized reflections on concerns and conditions of life.  Other pieces send more specific messages. Cat Mazza’s microRevolt video documents the making of the Nike Blanket Petition. Knitters around the globe contributed squares which were assembled into a large blanket emblazoned with the Nike swoosh, to be presented as a crafted petition urging the company to change exploitative labor practices. Mazza also transforms the visuals of knitting into digitized patterns in Knitoscope Testimonies, commentaries on labor in various regions of the world.

Other works in the show bear weighty statements in more esoteric or obscure fashion.  Cutaways in the top of Susan Working and E. G. Crichton’s deliberately lopsided Table reveal a video screen. Images of forests connect the finished table to its origins in nature. Donald Fortescue’s Under the Bridge evokes a sense of place with images of water filmed under the Sydney Harbor Bridge in his native Australia and the San Francisco Bay Bridge, in the city where he currently resides. The crafting of wood is incorporated through the mounted boxes housing the videos, but the projections of these specific waters are like deeply personal ciphers. They depend on interpretive text to illuminate the underlying significance.

From Tim Tate’s “Memories of Reading.” Photo courtesy Milwaukee Art Musuem.

Tim Tate’s diminutive video screens under glass are fanciful oddities, like things from a cabinet of curiosities of the digital age. In Memories of Reading, Tate used similar forms in the construction of each small vitrine, of blown and cast glass with small monitors with visible wires and components. Each ruminates on a different aspect of the fate of the old-fashioned printed book in the face of technology. Burned But Not Forgotten shows immolating title pages of classic tomes by Voltaire, Mary Shelley, Mark Twain, and Shakespeare. This electronic lamentation is an ironic one; the device for mourning the demise is also the executioner.

The New Materiality: Digital Dialogues at the Boundaries of Contemporary Craft feels exploratory in its integration of digital media, with its fleeting nature and ultimate intangibility. This technology complicates the notion of craft as fundamentally analog and hand-wrought and winds us back to a defining question: Is art about the object or about the idea?

The New Materiality: Digital Dialogues at the Boundaries of Contemporary Craft continues at the Milwaukee Art Museum through June 12, 2011. The show is organized by the Fuller Craft Museum, of Brockton, Mass., and is organized at the Milwaukee Art Museum by the Chipstone Foundation.

Lead image on A&C cover: Donald Fortesque and Lawrence LaBiance, Sounding, 2008. Courtesy of the artist. Image Courtesy of the Fuller Craft Museum.

Categories: Visual Art

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