Have you noticed that it’s just not grandma wielding knitting needles any more, but young hipsters smelling of patchouli, trendy moms lugging toddlers and craft project bags (recycled, of course), and patriots knitting hats and socks for our young men and women in Afghanistan and Iraq. There is another constituency working with yarn and two needles: its contemporary artists.
The work represented in Morlan Gallery’s current exhibition Dropping Stitches: Knitting Trends in Contemporary Art examines the recent resurgence of knitting by addressing the topics that many in this movement are thinking about: materiality, craftivism, knitting as guerilla art, and knitting as protest model.
Knitting is but a single aspect of the current Do It Yourself craze that includes all kinds of “domestic re-engineering” such as sewing, casting, and building. Simply add the suffix “making” to a favorite item and you have an idea of the scope of the current DIY trend. Clearly this rise in making, as evidenced by website communities like Etsy (and more humorously in Regretsy) is a response to our ever-compressed schedules, a way to regain a modicum of control in a world that seems to have spun out-of-control. And for contemporary artists, craft is an intentional technique used to address social and political issues in a new and unique way. But why craft? Why would an artist want to wander outside of the historically effective canon of high art: paint and canvas, hammer and chisel, gold frames on white walls?
Indeed, the claim of modern art---the art in the gold frame---is its own autonomy. Standing alone, fine art has the ability and freedom to comment on anything---political, economic, commercial---simultaneously standing outside reality while attempting to ratify it. Art lives in a precarious neighborhood, always questioning, always changing, always trying not to become what it is critiquing. Certainly, this is the price art pays for the privilege of autonomy.
And what is the claim of “craft”? The word itself notes a mastery of materials, yet in the discourse of modernism, “craft” has traditionally been a sign of inferiority, marginalized to a second class status. Noted French philosopher Jacques Derrida went as far as to declare the decorative arts (a close cousin to craft) as merely “supplemental” to the original entity.
Now contemporary artists are exploiting craft's marginalized status---just as the Feminists did in the 1970s---as a way to embrace the condition of the “Other,” emphasizing crafts association with the marginal and even critiquing it. Indeed, craft’s power lies in its association with the amateur, or “low way” of making art. While “fine art” has autonomy, craft conversely has self-awareness, a position that in our postmodern era of meta-narratives proves to be a powerful vantage point. Craft, as it turns out, has such a powerful outcome that in 2003 the term “craftivism” was coined in order to recognize the strong association of craft and activism.
In Dropping Stitches, the effectiveness of craft’s humble voice to make potent critiques of power structures is clearly seen in the work of Lacey Jane Roberts (The Master’s Tools, 2008), who tears down hegemonic systems through the simple action of hand-cranking her 1970 Barbie knitting toy and creating a razor-wire fence that is yielding and playful. By knitting landmines (Antipersonnel, 2001) in wooly pinks and fuzzy purples, Barbara Hunt transforms herself from knitter to dissident, commenting on the global landmine problem, where women and children below 15 years of age make up 30 to 40 percent of mine casualties. Also working in the subversive, Mark Newport takes advantage of the notion of fiber as familiar (and familial) and shifts the power of superhero costumes into disturbing garments hung flaccidly on the wall; viewers are required to decide exactly who wears those full-body uniforms and why.
Carol Hummel’s photographs (Tree Cozy, 2005) represents urban knitting, what has been called the “world’s least offensive graffiti” and is the newest kind of guerilla art. Tree Cozy took Hummel 500 hours to create and stood for three years outside of Cleveland Heights City Hall.
And there is the inspiration of the material (materiality), as demonstrated in the sculptural work of Stacey Chinn, who joyfully explores yarn as muse. Water pouring from silver faucets and sausages formed from a found object meat grinder, knitting allows for instant accessibility for the viewer, the prejudice of art as pretense momentarily forgotten.
Glenn Adamson, author of the excellent Thinking Through Craft wrote, “Modern art cannot get along in (craft’s) absence, but also cannot admit its indebtedness.” Furthermore, I would suggest that in the postmodern period, craft would be rendered impotent absent the hierarchical and elitist constructs of the modern art world.
Morlan Gallery, director