In the town where I grew up lived a man named Bruno who was
famous throughout all of Beaver County for building a violin out of
matchsticks. The instrument, we were told, could actually be
played, but as far as I know, nobody ever heard it and nobody
cared, including Bruno himself. He was not staging an intervention
between lighting up and playing Vivaldi. He was not even making a
statement about the transformation of materials through
transcendent reinterpretation. Bruno was a hobbyist, not an artist.
He was, however, a craftsman. As I went through “Second Lives:
Remixing the Ordinary,” the opening exhibition of the newly housed
Museum of Arts and Design,
formerly known as the American Craft Museum, I wondered what Bruno
would have thought of it all. For that matter, I wondered what I
thought of it all.
Craft has often been equated with and disparaged as “artsy
crafty.” When the museum changed its name a few years ago many
craft followers (myself included) were disappointed at what seemed
to be still another indication of embarrassment brought on by any
association with craft, even by an institution in the business of
collecting and nurturing it. In this connection, it was
heartening—after the sad announcement recently of Paul Newman's
death—to see how many obituaries paid credit to the actor's mastery
of his craft.
The changes of name and venue had certain payoffs. The first was
the acquisition of the acronym MAD, which the museum has decided to
exploit punnily every chance it gets. In time it will take on the
neutral affect of what George Orwell called a dead metaphor, a term
that, once vivid, has lost its life and become just another word. A
more positive payoff came with the change of venue. The move has
given the museum badly needed space to exhibit its collection, and
enabled it to escape from the almost literal shadow of the Museum
of Modern Art.
Promotions playing on the the MAD acronym, designed by Pentagram
The building, which itself has had a couple of previous lives,
has attracted a lot of controversy, not for the first time.
Designed in 1964 by Edward Durell
Stone as a medium for expressing the late Huntington Hartford's
hostility towards abstract art, and as a repository for the
representational art he spent most of his A&P inheritance
collecting. The building was scorned for its frivolous appearance
(the architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable compared its columns
to lollipops) and even more for its utter unsuitability for the
display of art.
The redesigned building by Brad Cloepfil (photo: Hélène
Although architects were highly critical of the building in
1964, many protested the prospect of its being redesigned. Some
campaigned to have it preserved as a landmark. It wasn't, and the
current version, designed by Brad Cloepfil, has so far been no
better received than its predecessor.
Well, it may not be an architectural triumph, but it does
provide light, space, views and visibility. Exhibits these days are
designed so that viewers cannot escape the museum shop. MAD's shop
is at street level, competitively facing the Time Warner Center's
vast mall (where tourists can find the same chain stores and
merchandise they left back home).
The opening show's installation, directed by Dorothy Twining
Globus, is inventive and clear, focusing attention on the
incredible diversity of artists who use found objects—for the most
part the humbler the better—in their work. If there was a violin
made of matchsticks, I missed it, but it would not have been out of
Sonya Clark's “Madam
C.J. Walker,” constructed with combs (close-up at right).
Two of the most striking creations in the show are portraits
using common objects to delineate a person. In mixed-media artist
Sonya Clark's Madam C.J. Walker, the subject is the first
black woman to become a millionaire. Madam Walker acquired wealth
and success through her cosmetics and hair care company, and Clark
has composed her portrait of the entrepreneur out of plastic combs,
referring to the importance of hair and the fashioning thereof in
western culture, as well as the hair-consciousness of blacks,
described by Clark as an element of “race politics.” The idea and
the execution have a rare congruity.
The show's other portrait subject is not a particular historical
figure, but a symbolic one. Terese Agnew's Portrait of a Textile
Worker was stitched into shape from 30,000 designer clothing
labels. Each label is a pixel in a photograph of a garment worker
at a sewing machine. The point seems to lie in the juxtaposition of
an anonymous worker with the designer “names” on the labels of
which her image is made.
“Portrait of a Textile Worker,” stitched from labels.
The captions throughout make much of the indisputable (and
undisputed) fact that the lines between art, craft and design have
been blurred. But they never were wholly separate, although they
still exist as independent entities. It is hard to imagine how
there could be design without craft. As one of the artists in the
show notes, “Craft… is a way of doing things.” Well, art and design
are among the myriad things that craft is a way of doing.
The theme is diligently maintained through a staggering variety
of works on view, but the diversity of the works is not matched by
the text and captions, which, while literate and informative, are,
perhaps inevitably, monotonous. After dutifully identifying the
artist, the technique and the materials, each caption describes the
intent. Nothing unusual about that—except that here, the intentions
reveal a numbing sameness. Repeatedly it is asserted that the
transformation of beer-bottle labels, dogtags, coins, buttons and
other pedestrian items into vases or collages makes an ironic
statement about some aspect of civilization. And over and over we
are told that these statements are achieved by the artist's
“intervention,” as if art were a means of stopping a fight. Or
The ordinary is more convincingly remixed with a lighter touch.
Saul Steinberg once bought five dollars worth of Confederate money
as an example of design excellence, admiring it because “It looks
like money.” “Also,” he explained, “it amuses me to use money to
Ralph Caplan is the author of Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design
and Its Side Effects and By Design. Caplan is the former editor of
I.D. magazine, and has been a columnist for both I.D. and Print. He lectures widely, teaches in the graduate Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts, was awarded the 2010 “Design Mind” National Design Award by the Cooper-Hewitt
and is the recipient of the
2011 AIGA Medal.
Paper is skin for the tattoo of ink, used by designers, artists and writers to leave their marks. Barringer meditates on the utility and fragility of paper in its many forms.
Section: Inspiration -
graphic design, print design, critique, Voice
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