I begin by quoting a friend of mine quoting a friend of hers: “I hate museums. They’re a shopper’s hell. So many beautiful things and nothing to buy.”
So if you’re a shopper, steel yourself — prepare for hell — as you enter the exhibition “Crafting a Continuum: Rethinking Contemporary Craft,” now on view at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, because there’ll be things you’d like to buy. I’m 99 percent sure of that. And even though the HCCC shop has lots of very nice things for sale, you’re bound to want some of the fabulous ones in the show that aren’t.
For me, the wanting started the instant I walked through the gallery door and saw Carol Eckert’s And a Wolf Shall Devour the Sun ranged across the wall. The piece is a three-dimensional silhouette of devouring wolves, terrified moose and circling buzzards and crows, made of waxed black linen thread wound around wire. Actually, it’s not quite a silhouette since it stands out a fraction from the wall, but only far enough to cast ominous shadows against the white. Though the tag says it’s all black, it really isn’t: There are dots of white making wolf fangs and animal eyes, and slashes of red for wolf tongues and streaming blood. When I first saw it, I thought “Kara Walker” but inspired by Teutonic myth instead of racial violence. The relevance of this should become clearer later on.
I’ll be completely up front about it, I’m not a craft person. I hardly know my osier fiber from my hog gut. (Yuck. Though I have to say that hog gut looks a lot better than it sounds, at least as Pat Hickman uses it in her Walk in the Woods basket.) So when I walked into the gallery and was gobsmacked by what I saw, it was completely a case of the ignorant enthralled by the unexpected. Is that maybe a definition of Stage 1 love?
Houston is the last tour stop for this exhibition, organized by the Arizona State University Art Museum and Ceramics Research Center in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. All the pieces are drawn from what is clearly a marvelous ASU collection. Elizabeth Kozlowski, HCCC curator since 2014, was in at the very beginning of the show in her capacity as Windgate Curatorial Fellow at the ASU Art Museum before her move to Houston.
Because the exhibition isn’t just a lot of pretty stuff (no reference intended here to any stage of love), but is instead carefully thought out by curators who are the exact opposite of craft-world ignorant, I was able to learn a little by the time I left. There’s ample wall text and there are video stations with headphones around the gallery to help us know-nothings understand a little better what the hell’s going on in this other-world of crafts. I might actually have learned a lot more if it hadn’t been for all those damn beautiful objects continually distracting me. But that’s what catalogs (this one is great, with essays by experts, artist biographies and beautiful pictures) and Tumblr feeds (an ASU symposium on the show is available via the HCCC website) are for.
And now for more about those damn beautiful objects:
Like Laocoön (Woman Reading) by Akio Takamori, a large glazed porcelain marvel from 1994. The piece has references to classical mythology, which, like hog gut and the field of craft in general, is not an area of expertise for me, so I won’t speculate as to the many layers of meaning the artist employs. It’s enticingly painted — on one side with the naked Laocoön ensnared by serpents, and on the other with the equally naked Woman of the title, reading. Just as there is a whole world of craft that’s foreign to me, perhaps there’s an equally foreign world of naked reading. Something more for me to look into.
Anyway, Laocoön (Woman Reading) is a vessel painted on the inside, too, with what appears to be a second Laocoön looking over the Woman’s shoulder. In my eagerness to see all the inside painting right down to the bottom, I stepped up close. So close, in fact, that I realized after a few moments I practically had my chin resting on the naked lady’s plump, round rump in my effort to look inside. Be assured this is not a usual occurrence for me. I know that in museums, and sometimes other places, I shouldn’t touch. But sometimes one just gets swept up in the moment. (Like that time when I mistook another lady’s ample backside for a sofa. I’m seeing a surprising theme develop here. Butt I digress.)
There are some names in the show familiar to me, though very few. Ceramicists Peter Voulkos and Beatrice Wood, for instance, whose work has long been collected by a friend with impeccable taste, so I know they must be important. The Wood piece is a Mad Hatter-esque glazed stoneware teapot, from the spout of which one might expect a tea brewed from Alice’s mushroom to pour — or maybe some other mushroom, but certainly stone(d) seems appropriate for any tea party it might grace.
When I saw Yoshimasa Tsuchiya’s Carnival across the room — a mythological rabbit carved in Japanese cypress, painted white and pathetically (but lovingly) offered like an intercessory sacrifice on a white plinth — I flashed to Zurbarán’s Agnus Dei (Lamb of God), one of the most affecting paintings in the Prado show at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, a couple of years ago. For me the two had similar force.
And when I moved in for a close look at Two Gun Kid by Mark Newport, an embroidered comic-book cover in which The Kid’s outfit is meticulously picked out in French knots (though my grasp of embroidery stitches is not ironclad, so they may technically be something else), Roy Lichtenstein’s comic-strip pop and Steve Wolfe’s paperback book re-creations (some on view at the Menil right now) came to mind.
What, I thought, is the essential difference between Marilyn Levine’s almost miraculous Eyelet Boots in earthenware — so miraculous that once again I wanted to reach out and touch them to really believe what I was seeing — and the lightbulbs in wax and painted plaster by Robert Gober and Jasper Johns, both also currently on view at the Menil?
Of course, when I got home and looked at the catalog, I realized that answering, or at least discussing, that question is a big part of the “rethinking” of contemporary craft this show is all about. What makes one object craft; what makes another art? And where might the twain meet?
Arguably, many of the pieces in the “Habsburg Splendor” exhibition currently at MFAH are crafts, defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary online as “objects made by skillful use of the hands” — though in the Habsburg case, they’re crafts of a particularly rich and rarefied grandeur.
On the other end of the scale, the pieces in “Art of Gaman” at Holocaust Museum Houston, made by Japanese Americans sent to internment camps during World War II — not art for art’s sake, but art for life’s sake — may more easily fit our preconceptions of what “crafts” are: handmade utilitarian items prettier than they had to be, humble bird-figure jewelry or hand-carved toys for children who had no other. Gaman tells a story we all need to hear while the show is in town, by the way.
But even among these Gaman pieces, some transcend any craft/art barrier, like the wooden box top carved by Umakichi Asawa, depicting the interior of his room at the Santa Fe Detention Camp. He carved with a bold disregard for the rules of perspective and gravity, showing a chair, a table, a picture on a blue wall, all only half within the picture frame as though trying to escape from their incarceration into the ghostly, inaccessible outside world glimpsed through the window. It has the power of Van Gogh’s Bedroom at Arles.
As I’ve said already, there are objects in “Crafting a Continuum” that are much like objects in other kinds of museums. Margarita Cabrera’s pieces, fashioned from border patrol uniforms, are also currently included in “The Other Side: Chinese and Mexican Immigration to America” at Asia Society Texas. In fact, there are objects by some of these same craftspeople that are in art museums — where presumably their makers are called “artists”; Peter Voulkos at MFAH is one who specifically comes to mind. Though often they’re relegated to departments of decorative (i.e., “lesser” in the minds of many when it comes to fine-art museums) arts or something similar.
But should they be? What makes them different? What makes them lesser? What makes them craft first and art second, if at all? For those of us who are just lookers — even if active and passionate lookers — it’s hard even to begin knowing the answers. They’re heavy, hotly contested questions that I’m not at all qualified to address — maybe not even to articulate. But they’re questions just below the surface of all these shows that make their beauty more than skin-deep.
Let’s be honest. We’ve all got too many things already, and anyway it’s time we all learned we can’t always get what we want. We’re not the Koch Brothers or the gun lobby. For us mere mortals, sometimes looking is as much as we can hope for. But if this show is a shopper’s hell, it’s a window shopper’s paradise, and when the loot is as luscious as that on view in “Crafting a Continuum,” looking alone is good enough — and much, much more.
Crafting a Continuum: Rethinking Contemporary Craft
Through August 29. Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, 4848 Main, 713-529-4848, crafthouston.org.