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Knit Happens

Raised in Craftivity ain’t your grandma’s crochet work.


Consider the "Dominant Male of the Blue-Striped Variety."

It consists of two taxidermic deer heads linked by an exaggeratedly long crocheted sweater sleeve. As the opening piece, this work by Houston artist Elaine Bradford implies the delicious visual and conceptual punning we might find inside the exhibition Raised in Craftivity.

First, though, we have to look past the original intent of this broadly cast exhibition. In her curatorial statement, Kansas City Art Institute professor Maria Elena Buszek writes that the exhibition "spotlights the work of contemporary artists working in craft media to celebrate, challenge, and subvert our expectations of these media and the cultures with which they are associated." She seems to suggest that contemporary artists who work in craft media are mining new conceptual territory and that we might not understand this. In fact, artists have been using "craft"-based material for decades; it's not unexpected to find knitting, embroidery, ceramics and plastics in the work of contemporary artists. (French artist Annette Messager has been knitting teeny sweaters for taxidermic birds for years.) Most audiences no longer have any fixed expectation of what these materials and techniques may mean in a work of art. Let's instead look at the work on its formal and conceptual merits.

A few other pieces in the exhibition shore up Bradford's clever opening salvo. Pittsburgh artist Ben Schachter contributes "Prada Bag" and "Monogram Bag," two diminutive digital prints of black paper-binding clips photographed to look like purses — witty jokes about perception and social value. In "Sugar Spoons," Kansas City artist DeAnna Skedel has etched tiny scenes of boxing men and nude wrestling men into five ornate spoons resting on a pink-illuminated box. The unexpected narratives cradled in the spoon's bowls (and their method of display) gently mock the habits of folks who might collect and display tourist spoons. Chicagoan Karen Reimer's embroidered, text-based facsimiles examine the spaces between copy and original: "Popeye's" is a cloth cup embroidered with "new style" and "spicy," reinventing trash as an object of value. Similarly, "Moving Words," an embroidered copy of a ripped magazine fragment, refers to the magazine article's title — as well as the reality that words are indeed moving from one place to another and one value to another.

Brooklynite Laura Splan's work is some of the most intriguing in the exhibition. Her small installation of three latch-hooked "rug" pillows, titled "Zoloft," "Prozac" and "Thorazine," invites the viewer to cozy up to the happy promise of the drugs' palliative effects. Large, fluffy and inviting, the pieces' seductive surfaces belie their potentially dangerous impact on individuals and a society under chemical siege.

Even more effective is Splan's "Blood Scarf," an unnerving examination of attraction and repulsion, beauty and horror. By knitting a scarf from what looks like blood-filled IV tubing and then photographing it wrapped around the neck of a woman in a hospital gown, Splan directs our attention to the grotesque. In one color photograph, we see a close-up shot of the glistening scarf — only to notice that the end emerges from a bandaged IV site on the top of her hand. A second photo presents the bottom third of the woman, the red tube dangling by her legs, with one drop of blood about to fall from the tube. The photography is spare yet shows that material carries its meaning with it, regardless of how it is used. Blood, though beautiful in this knitted tube, is still abject and alarming. And being alarmed has its seductions.

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