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Renwick Craft Exhibit Brings a Hands-On Element

Forget the pipe cleaners and Popsicle sticks: This year’s Renwick Craft Invitational embraces a new age of studio crafting.

“Staged Stories,— which opened last week, includes 58 pieces by four artists, who, according to the Renwick Gallery, “depart in significant ways from the sixty-year traditions of the studio craft movement that emerged after World War II.— It is the fourth installment of the biennial exhibition series first begun in 2000 to highlight crafts created in an artist’s studio.

While much is new and groundbreaking in this exhibit, the show also embraces the accessible nature of conventional crafting with the addition of a special interactive gallery.

In this gallery, “Please Do Not Touch— signs are replaced with ones that read “Please Touch,— encouraging visitors to run their fingers over the smooth ceramic, glass and knitted yarn that are all a part of the exhibit.

Nicholas R. Bell, curator at the Renwick Gallery, described the room as a “release— for visitors after they’ve walked through the exhibit and seen all of the pieces. Statements from the artists describing their techniques and artistic processes are displayed on panels along the walls. As well as being able to touch the pieces, visitors will also have a chance to take part in a knitting project started by one of the artists.

Each artist in the show has a unique expertise and point of view. The first room to greet visitors will stir visions of ancient Greece and Rome. The artist, Christyl Boger, works with ceramics and has produced a group of stunning works echoing the style of the ancient marble statues. Gracefully posed and flawlessly shaped, the pieces echo the style and effort of ancient artists. “One of the things that specifically drew me to work in clay,— Boger said in a statement for the exhibit, “is a permission to labor’ that is implicit in the crafts.—

The eight figures featured in the exhibit, all nude and glazed in white earthenware, fold in on themselves, concealing their nudity instead of flaunting it, while their faces are skewed into expressions of discomfort and concern. Boger has used gold luster to decorate the bodies with floral motifs and to create the illusion of certain body parts having been dipped in gold. The contrast between antiquity and modernity are further exaggerated by the addition of pool toys to the figures as part of the sculptures.

One piece, aptly named “Sea Toy,— is a female nude figure sitting awkwardly grasping her knee toward her body with one hand and what appears to be an inflatable seahorse to her body with the other. Boger writes of the sculpture: “The pool toys are playthings, the type that does not assure buoyancy in times of crisis, and emphasize the figures’ vulnerability. So do their crouched positions, which make them seem like they are attempting to hide from the viewer’s gaze, exposed rather than empowered by their nakedness.—

The mood is very different for another artist, Mark Newport, and his superheroes. Newport learned to knit from his grandmother as a young boy and has used this skill and passion to create a collection of knit superhero costumes.

The six knit costumes of various sizes and colors are accompanied by prints, a bedspread made of comic book pages and a video of Newport knitting, showing the performance aspect of his craft. The bodysuits hang lifelessly from the ceilings and sway and spin freely in the open air of the gallery. They are meant to emphasize, Newport writes, the “false security promised by fantastic beings— and “seem to mock the implied physical power of the familiar emblems and color schemes.—

Newport has recreated the suits of Batman, Two-Gun Kid and Rawhide Kid, as well as created original pieces. Newport’s works make a mockery of the modern superhero and have the ability to cause some discomfort in the viewer, combining the typically feminine pastime of knitting with the male-dominated genres of comic books and superheroes.

As visitors enter the next room of the exhibit space, they will encounter the works of SunKoo Yuh. Yuh’s ceramic sculptures, displayed along with 20 of his drawings, feature the heads and busts of humans, animals, fish and plants. Inspired by Korean art, the pieces act as sociopolitical critiques. The characters in his sculptures have exaggerated features and are decorated in streams of pulsating colors that seem to drip down the faces and bodies of the subjects.

The drawings are studies for the sculptures and works of art. In a statement for the exhibit, Yuh said: “These two-dimensional images contain unconscious concerns in my life. My work expresses my inner emotions, communicates about life, and directly draws from mundane experiences.—

“False Start,— a ceramic statue, is Yuh’s response to the war in Iraq. A soldier, tank, weapons and animals are crowded together on a platform supported by grenades. A figure in cobalt goggles and a teal vest points the gun on the top of a tank in the direction of a man wearing a deep brown robe and turban.

A fourth artist, Mary Van Cline, creates photographic glass art in which she uses glass as one would use photo paper. The result of this process, called photo emulsion, is black and white photographs of landscapes on glass. Van Cline combines these pictures, along with other materials such as bronze, wood and metal, to create decorative pieces of art. Many of the photographs include a person with her back turned or almost fully cloaked, creating the illusion of anonymity and timelessness.

One work, “The Ocean of Memory Within,— is composed of a symmetrical piece of pâte de verre, what looks like a green-colored glass, supporting two individual mirror images of a rock-covered beach. On one of the glass pieces is a male figure on his knees, leaning over and supporting himself with one arm. The tranquility and harmony created by the balance of the materials is unexpectedly offset by the lone figure, requiring the viewer to study the piece more closely than originally expected.

Overall, the Renwick exhibit calls into question not only traditional assumptions about crafting, but also the standards and formalities of art. “Staged Stories— blurs the distinction between what can be considered art and what can be considered craft.

“Staged Stories— will be on display through Jan. 3.

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