• Archie Gibbs

Exhibition Review- Making Knowing: Craft in Art, 1950-2019, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Where does craft sit in relation to art? Is it in art, an addendum to art, less than art or simply art? Who knows really, but binaries surely cannot be constructive. Separating them into two entities marginalises those unable to gain access to ‘high art’ education and maintains elitism. It also reflects an uninspired elite art space unwilling to reconsider an antiquated pedagogy. A craft can be described in a number of ways which is the real allure of it – it can be utility, decoration, both or neither. Those engaging with techniques of quilting, embroidery, crotchet, stitching etc. do not necessarily desire the inclusion within the rigidity of an ‘Art’ framework. Totally encompassing and engulfing craft within Art detracts from the potency of said techniques. Craft is in a precarious position though. Explicitly gendered and marginalised throughout art history, yet its legacy has transformed over past 50 years or so with artists acknowledging its power for purposes of reclamation, empowerment and appropriation. Craft’s opaque ontology alongside the loaded history means that such work approaches themes and issues of society and/or art in ways that traditional mediums such as painting and sculpture may be unable to.

This exhibition does not solve this discussion, nor is that the aim. The first and second wave feminist artists both appropriated techniques and processes frequented by women in the 18th and 19th centuries as either leisurely pass-times, home decorations or for utility purposes such as clothing and textiling. These techniques were never acknowledged by the masculine dominated art academies or institutions as credible or on par with the ‘high art’ produced by men, thus maintaining the gender inequality in fine art. Women’s liberation movements in the early 20th C and then 1960s and 70s saw many reclaim the agency of craft. Instead of it being a tool for masculine hegemony and suppression of women in the realm of ‘high art’, it became a powerful technique for women to express and critique patriarchy and oppression from their own perspective. This achieved the political efficacy desired whilst simultaneously raising the status of a form of making once absent from spaces like the Whitney all together.

The curators display an array of artists under a commonality that they all in some way relate to or are identified by the moniker ‘craft’. The works themselves are incredibly diverse in size, form, subject matter and material. Look no further than the wall labels to see how craft has become the ‘all things go’ curatorial go-to to encapsulate an umbrella of etcetera mediums. Wax, glass, straw, clay, rope, polyester – the list seems inexhaustible and when closely inspected it pretty much is.

Eva Hesse, No Title (Rope Piece), 1969-1970. Whitney Museum, NY

Eva Hesse’s No Title (Rope Piece) catches my eye at first. A well-known work from a particularly high-profile name in the art world, the inclusion of this work in a craft centred exhibition is interesting. Produced in the milieu of late 1960s Greenwich Village, works like this were commonly referred to as either soft sculpture, post-minimalist or ‘anti-form’, though certainly not considered a craft. The work nonetheless matches the ostensible quota; the eponymous primary material, rope, is coated in latex and does not look out of place among the others. Rope Piece is a work of sheer contrasts. This mixture of materials renders a flesh like, uncanny imagery of something biological and alive whilst equally artificial and industrial.

The large exhibition space is cluttered, though despite this it is rather stimulating to navigate such an eclectic mixture of materials and spectrum of tactile objects - it livens up the otherwise limp white walled gallery space. The final room of the exhibition hosts two of the largest works, Simone Leigh’s Cupboard VIII (2018) and Liza Lou’s Kitchen (1991-1996). Leigh is an artist getting her flowers now and deservedly so. With a large-scale public commission on the High Line in New York last year, her work can be seen all over the city with this piece being a shining example as to why she is in demand. The work (also shown at the 2019 Whitney Biennial) towers over me at 10ft. A stoneware bust of a female figure with a gaping urn for a head mounts a dome of raffia (palm) resembling a sort of skirt/dress. Her work comments on, but is not limited to, domesticity, the black female subjectivity, caricaturisation, gender politics of ancient roman and Egyptian artefacts and the identity issues of folk art.

Simone Leigh, Cupboard VIII, 2018. Whitney Museum, NY
Liza Lou, Kitchen, 1991-1996. Whitney Museum, NY

Liza Lou’s Kitchen provides quite the visual contrast; this is a full-scale kitchen model covered with metallic multicoloured beads. Kitchen comments on the division of labour and

the socially constructed positioning of housework and domestic chores within the domain of women.There is an air of pop art about this work; the bright, brash colours and brands featured screaming white picket fence American dream, though they are a pastiche of consumption culture in the US especially denoting advertising trends targeted towards women. This work was a 5-year project of Lou and it is only truly appreciated when seen up close. The extreme detail and intricacies in such beadwork reflect the capabilities of craft and ultimately cement its rightful position in a fine art space.

Making Knowing offers an informed approach to (re)consider the position of a wide range of making processes (craft) in art. This is a discussion that has been going on for over a century and will not end at this exhibition, however what the curators Jennie Goldstein, Elisabeth Sherman, and Ambika Trasi have done is highlight works perhaps previously underrepresented due to their medium and exhibited them with full acknowledgement and appreciation for their deserved spot and equal footing in such an institution.

Making Knowing: Craft in Art, 1950-2019, runs through October 2020 (though likely prolonged due to COVID-19) with general admission to the Whitney Museum starting at $25 for adults.