Artists making a case for craft's revisited importance in contemporary art

Loose Threads

Last week's art gallery openings in Wynwood and the Design District officially marked the beginning of Miami's fall season, a period that crescendos and culminates in December with Art Basel.

What's special about "Hanging by a Thread," curated by José Diaz and Nina Arias at the Moore Space, is the opportunity it provides viewers to become acquainted with the phenomenon of fiber media. On that note, I digress.

Throughout history, handmade crafts have battled for acceptance in the contemporary art world. During the Nineteenth Century, weaving was considered a noble tradition, in spite of its association with the exploitation of women -- females were considered ill-suited for allegedly manly professions such as engineering or banking and were confined to domestic, menial tasks such as craftwork. However, as Karl Marx said, the "contradiction of capitalism's inexorable expansion" spearheaded the industrial revolution and made goods cheaper and more readily available. Consequently the might of the machine diminished the importance of the craft trade and rendered it almost obsolete. Elsewhere the art world entered a period of highs and lows. Sculpture and painting, for example, were considered high points, but the once-revered craft trade -- pottery, quilting, weaving, and ceramics -- was now looked down upon because it no longer produced practical and usable objects.


"Hanging by a Thread"

The Moore Space, 4040 NE 2nd Ave, Miami

Through October 28. 305-438-1163. Open Wednesday through Saturday 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. or by appointment.

Only recently have we begun to fully comprehend the extent to which race, gender, and class influenced society's perceptions of art. The worlds of sculpture and painting were funded by the rich and promoted a culture of leisure, whereas crafts were stereotypically considered kitsch.

Today those art forms traditionally considered low are questioning the old rift, but now from a position of parity. Think about it; if a plank of plywood -- propped against a gallery wall perhaps -- is really a skillfully crocheted fabric that mimics the wood's form and surface, then could weaving be considered as nonfunctional as painting? Can craft make fun of the machine and become as legitimate an art form as drawing or sculpture? Answers to these questions can be found among the works exhibited in "Hanging by a Thread."

I was impressed not only by the unique appearance of the event's various materials but also by the realization of the works on display. Paintings are generally solid and nonporous, yet quilting has a peculiar warmth and softness. The labor is transparent: The backstitching on the cloth's surface and the intended design plan are visible -- reminiscent of the hip way in which Orly Cogan's works depict femininity. In her Allegory, Cogan stitches a party scene comprising frolicking, pubescent females whose body contours gracefully overlap to reveal a wide range of emotions -- from curiosity and calmness to delight and ecstasy. Cogan infuses recycled vintage fabrics and linens with what critic Margaret Hawkins describes as "a happy-go-lucky postmodern perversity."

Misaki Kawai's sophisticated assemblage, Himalaya Space Station, belongs in a toy store window display -- think big narrative paired with painstaking attention to detail. Compare the doll-like figures positioned inside one of the rooms in Kawai's huge space station, which also contains every imaginable space-related minutia, to those characters cruising in Yeti Jet spaceships leaving long, white trails of smoke in their wakes (the smoke is made from a solid substance that looks just like cotton candy).

Cosima von Bonin's installation, consisting of large upholstered mushrooms and poly-foam dividers, gives a new twist to Marcel Duchamp's ready-made concept. A puzzled artist approached me at the show and exclaimed, "I don't get it!" "That's the idea," I replied. "Von Bonin's hybrids mix us up."

Local artist Frances Trombly presents her Star Piñata, a colorful, hexagonal frame made from handwoven cotton and papier-mâché. Trombly's use of weaving, a labor-intensive craft, to imitate another object's textural surface takes skill, but it's also a lot of fun and can fool just about anyone when it's done well. Her pieces caused me to ponder the three-dimensional element of this medium and its ability to assume multiple forms that test the bounds between fiber and sculpture.

Quilting can be traced back to ancient Egyptian times and is believed to have been brought to Western Europe on the heels of the Crusades. Until recently, quilted drapes and bed clothes were used not only as decorative ornaments but also as functional items to keep damp bedchambers warm.

Who said beauty can't be functional?

I preferred Gean Moreno's collage, Black Zodiac, a terrific constellation of trinkets, loose strings, buttons, pins, et cetera, integrated into the surface of a quilt. Moreno's piece elicits reflective, understated sorrow and a certain persuasive honesty.

Two artists working with paper are Jon Pylypchuk and Diego Singh. Pylypchuk's command of materials is surprising, but his works on paper always achieve good results in a funny, twisted way and not without a dash of melancholy. Singh's The Land of the Young draws on a science-fiction theme, into which the artist incorporates detailed, elegantly contoured imagery with empty, white spaces that suggest the presence of ominous entities.

"Hanging by a Thread" has minor flaws. Its only sin is overabundance, but the exhibit is important to Miami because it showcases works that effectively mirror one of the major trends in today's arts scene. I liked the featured mix of artists in varying stages of their careers and the fact they come from different backgrounds. I also praise the collaborative process among those involved: young curators, an alternative space, galleries, and collectors alike.

A short walk from the Moore Space is the Buena Vista Building. On the second floor are some vacant spaces, one of which is showcasing Carlos de Villasante's works, collectively titled "Spare Parts." I've always liked Villasante's attitude, his mix of game, self-importance, and antagonism. For this show the artist has painted images of himself and a female alter ego on various car parts and the bottoms of theater seats, which he has displayed in a pile in the middle of the gallery floor. The artist's many faces -- whether skewed, conceited, or hidden behind a wrestler's mask or a scene of burning flames -- demand and snub your attention simultaneously. The reduced color palette of gray and red allows him to effectively portray images of intense action and drama.


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