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March 2009, MAD’s Opening & Craft’s Second Life

March 2009, MAD’s Opening & Craft’s Second Life

Opening of Museum of Arts and Design 
2 Columbus Circle
New York, NY, 10019

Mad Materiality

The packed opening of MAD in Columbus Circle attracted tourists, artists, and curious viewers who all found themselves waiting outside the new building on a foggy Saturday morning in New York. While in line, many of us, bemused or bewildered, watched half-naked performance artists dressed in Jason Hackenworth’s bright balloon costumes, acting as “artistic” billboards for the inauguration. The throng of Columbus Circle is The Museum of Art and Design’s (referred as MAD and formerly as the American Craft Museum) new home. Columbus Circle itself has recently become a diverse intersection of contradictions. The Trump Tower towers above, a deep black high rise emitting fumes of opulence; the southwest entrance to Central Park standing open like a mouth hungry for tourists, joggers, and pedigree dogs; the Time Warner Center with its glittering mall attracting the usual breed of shoppers and Whole Food’s diners; and Columbus himself, perched in the center, overlooking the heavy flow of traffic with an antiquated absurdity. Now there is also MAD, freshly redesigned despite a recent onslaught of criticism. Architect Brad Cloepfil changed a hulking stone box into a space that almost feels inviting, with MAD’s neighbors providing a vibrant setting for the renovated building and relaunched museum.

Upon entering, the interior of the museum reflects many of these exterior contradictions. A strange kind of mismatched variety can be found throughout the collections, the odd juxtapositions stemming from the material and aesthetic distinctions between art, craft, and design. Though this good, bad, and ugly curatorial approach has also been highly criticized, the variety remains undeniably refreshing in the same manner that second hand stores are appealing; there is always the chance of finding a unique relic to treasure.

Permanently Mad: Revealing the Collection
is a temporary exhibition displaying a taste of the museums collection. Amongst the clutter, the “dated” artworks of the Studio Craft Movement were the unexpected finds among the wreckage of MAD’s grand reopening. Despite older craft artists' supposed lack of relevance, or rather because they have been widely dismissed, their works powerfully resonate with the problems, questions, material freedoms, and prejudices haunting and enlivening contemporary art making. These artworks belong to a generation of artists who wished to expand the boundaries of material acceptability in art, and who reached toward “traditional” materials in order to stretch the “progressive” in art. A crudely asymmetrical Peter Voulkos vase, sculpture, or ceramic object flings away the clash between art and craft, and the material concerns of mashed clay combined with the conceptual ramifications dominate his work. It is not important that Lenore Tawney creates sublime paintings through her geometric textiles, because her woven pieces read as an exploration of domestic materials and their perceived boundaries. Norma Minkowitz’s empty, sculpted figures protrude from the wall subtly asking suggestive questions concerning confinement, containment, and crochet. These works authentically question materiality; they ask what can be made and how, what can be said and why. There is no questioning the pieces’ dated aesthetic, yet because they have aged so beautifully and foreshadowed so clearly, they are worth rediscovering.

In stark contrast, the temporary show looming two floors above these dusty relics, entitled Second Lives: Remixing the Ordinary, shouts out a “hip” new message of “materials for materials sake”. Here the need to impress through ingenuity is so overwhelmingly blatant because it was so blatantly lacking in the works of the older collection. The exhibition, designed to give a new face (sometimes quite literally) to quotidian materials, sadly became a competition of clever recycling. In most cases the material choices had nothing, or at best little, to do with the visual objects produced. I was hugely puzzled as I stood before Steven Deo’s “father-and-son” fisherman made of puzzle pieces. Even worse were the works you “got” in the same you “get” a bad joke. A few exceptions to the rule existed in works that seamlessly combined their material properties with an object of interest and impact beyond that of the material itself— Tara Donovan’s sculptural Bluffs made from buttons and glue, Sonya Clark’s pixelated portrait of Madam C.J Walker made from plastic combs with missing teeth.

Setting aside disappointing details, the overall baffling nature of the show came mostly from the contrast established between the beginnings of the craft movement and how it has been interpreted, or manipulated, by future generations. While artists can and should be thankful for the post-post-modern material freedoms they obviously enjoy, a shift in the uses of those freedoms has drawn artists away from questioning and lead them toward exploiting. Second Lives shows a flippant disregard for objects, their construction, and their conceptual meaning that seemed to be the primary motivation behind the Studio Craft artists and their expansive use of materials.

It is unclear at this point if the fresh face of MAD is really new or simply a novelty, and it remains to be seen if future craft artists can pull together more cohesive, thoughtful, and thought-provoking shows. One can only hope both craft and MAD will settle into their old foundations, and draw from them the structure they graciously provide. 

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Alissa Guzman

Graduating with a B.F.A. from The Art Institute of Chicago, and an M.F.A. in from Virginia Commonwealth University, Alissa Guzman is a young visual artist living, exhibiting, and writing in N.Y.C.

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