Recrafting the Ordinary

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 (photos: 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 Binet).

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 place.

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.

Terese Agnew's “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 starting one.

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 buy money.

About the Author:

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.