Practical, everyday objects have largely disappeared from the world of contemporary crafts as potters, weavers and glass-blowers jettison function in the name of art. The latest “Craft Invitational” at the Renwick Gallery reflects the trend in pretentious sculpture, costumes and installations.
Too much of the show is driven by the mistaken idea that an object made to serve no purpose is automatically considered art. Many of the 58 ceramic, fiber and glass pieces aren’t fresh but largely derivative of works by better known fine artists. They are handmade for the most part but could have been as easily expressed in machined forms to convey the same concepts.
The annoying exhibit is the fourth in a biennial series established by the Smithsonian Institution in 2000 to showcase the work of contemporary craft artists. This year’s group of four artists was chosen by Kate Bonansinga, director and chief curator of the Stanlee and Gerald Rubin Center for the Visual Arts at the University of Texas at El Paso; Renwick curator Jane Milosch; and Paul J. Smith, director emeritus of New York’s Museum of Arts and Design.
The most intriguing part of the exhibit showcases the ceramic sculpture by South Korean-born artist SunKoo Yuh. His dense clusters of cartoonish figures, animals and plants recall the pop-art constructions of artist Red Grooms.
Some suggest urban vitality as in the multiracial busts, stacked cars and skyscrapers of “Memory of Pikesville, TN.” Others such as “Fortune Pig” relate to the artist’s Asian roots in juxtaposing animals from the Chinese lunar calendar with caricatured self-portraits.
Of all the artists featured in the exhibit, Mr. Yuh most clearly evinces his craft. His diverse groupings are enlivened by brushed-on bright glazes that drip like blood in places. Recording the imprecision of the kiln-firing process, these messy, flowing colors are both reminiscent of expressionist paintings and Chinese Tang dynasty funerary sculpture.
In some places, Mr. Yuh doodles patterns on the bodies of his figures to suggest tattoos. He clearly likes to draw. A wall filled with 20 of his loose ink renderings shows how he generates ideas for his crowded sculptures in two dimensions.
Compared to his exuberant works, the stylized ceramic figures sculpted by Indiana University professor Christyl Boger look stilted and stagey. Decorating their white surfaces are pale colors and the shiny metallic glaze called luster, which is applied in places like floral china patterns.
With their trim physiques and exaggerated poses, the statues appear to be inspired by ancient classical and baroque sculptures. Some hold plastic-looking swimming pool floats as if they were preparing for a dip in the water, recalling sculptor Jeff Koons’ campy statuary and inflatable toys.
The wall text describes the figures as introspective and vulnerable but their confident postures and golden genitalia suggest they are closer to seductive sex symbols from Hollywood.
Similarly theatrical are the only fiber pieces in the exhibit. These garments, knitted by Michigan-based artist Mark Newport, are meant for imaginary superheroes such as Batman and Superman.
Mr. Newport’s childish, one-size-fits-all outfits with attached mittens, hoods and feet are the opposite of the skin-tight bodysuits worn by the comic-book characters. Some replicate patterns from Aran sweaters while others are randomly striped or stitched to outline vests, belts and buttons.
Their drooping shapes, made through the feminine craft of knitting, mock the manliness of the fantastic beings for which they are made. A series of prints showing the artist in his garments also undercuts the tough-guy images of familiar cartoon characters.
Mr. Newport often dons his creations to create performance art, as shown in a silly video in the exhibit. Cloaked in “Sweaterman 3,” the artist knits in a rocking chair to the accompaniment of Rossini’s “William Tell” overture (familiar as the theme music from the “Lone Ranger” radio and TV series).
In the last gallery, the pieces by Seattle artist Mary Van Cline depart from traditional handicrafts in their photographs printed on glass. Like the other artists represented in this exhibit, she mines art history for content. Her precious pieces resemble classical Greek urns and Japanese screens, associations reinforced by the draped and masked figures in the photos.
Ms. Van Cline’s most crafty work, “Winter Ice Branches,” best reflects her skill in molding a glass and binder mixture called pate de verre (literally “glass paste”). The oversized, frosty leaves simultaneously appear fragile and monumental, but unfortunately are displayed too close to another installation so as to look part of that larger work.
Like so much of this show, the technical feats of craft are overshadowed by self-conscious attempts at art.
WHAT: “Staged Stories: Renwick Craft Invitational 2009”
WHERE: Renwick Gallery, Pennsylvania Avenue and 17th Street Northwest
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily through Jan. 3
WEB SITE: www.americanart.si.edu