Lace and knitting - hip and avant-garde. Doesn't sound quite right, does it?
In "Radical Lace & Subversive Knitting," an exhibit at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art opening Saturday, Sept. 20, the centuries-old worlds of lace and knitting are taken out of your grandmother's attic and thrust into the world of cutting-edge conceptual art. Instead of doilies and ugly sweaters, it's thought-provoking and visually impressive pieces like "The Expanding Club" by Janet Echelman (the Boston-area artist behind "Sky Bloom," the controversial public art being constructed in downtown Phoenix), a giant nylon net reminiscent of a mushroom cloud in which the colors match up with the flags of countries with nuclear capabilities. Not necessarily examples of modern knitting and lace, the exhibit is 39 pieces by 27 artists that reference and comment on the craft forms while utilizing many of their methods.
"It's SMoCA's first show from a New York-based museum," says SMoCA curator Cassandra Coblentz. The show originated at the Museum of Arts & Design in New York City.
Echelman's contribution is immediately striking, stretching toward the ceiling and filling nearly an entire room. Coblentz says that "The Expanding Club" is consistent with much of the artist's work.
"She works with these nets in general," Coblentz says. "At the time she was conceiving of the idea, North Korea had been doing some nuclear testing. She's been using these nets in different ways. She's really interested in how they reference ephemeral things like clouds and the ocean."
Edward Mayer's "Drawing In" forms a symbiotic relationship with its gallery space, integrating itself into the walls and rafters of the museum. A collection of steel shelving and found objects like hangers, it is by nature different every time it's been exhibited, depending on the display space. Mayer installed his piece at SMoCA.
"They're all random objects," says Coblentz. "You can pick things out like different trays and hangers. They're completely woven around each other, like something knit."
London-based artist Shane Waltener also installed his own work, a series of interwoven white lace stretching between the galleries of the museum and outside the restroom, essentially taking on the appearance of cobwebs.
"The idea is to put it in otherwise redundant areas of the museum," says Waltener. "I like this idea of lace coming close to cobwebs, and putting cobwebs in the museum - the irony of it. Museums spend a lot of time tidying things up, and they don't want the cobwebs, and here we are, looking at cobwebs."
Like "Drawing In," Waltener's installation varies greatly in each venue.
"Depending on where it's placed, it takes different forms and shapes and opens up vistas onto different places in the museum," says Waltener. "The planning of it really is quite tricky. It grows organically."
Other notable elements of the exhibit include "The Knitting Machine" by Dave Cole, a small-scale physical representation of his 2005 performance art project in which he knitted an American flag using two John Deere excavators and two telephone poles. "Craft Kills" by Freddie Robins is a wool representation of a human being poked by sewing needles, sarcastically poking fun at the "low art" nature of craft work.
Coblentz says the exhibit succeeds in presenting stimulating ideas and showcasing aesthetically interesting art.
"I think that's what's exciting, it's really a conceptually interesting project," says Coblentz. "But in terms of craftsmanship, there's a lot going on. It's pretty stunning, visually."
Like all major exhibits at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, there are several events planned designed to educate and also get people involved in art, specifically to promote the fields of lace and knitting.
Janet Echelman will lead a gallery talk on Nov. 20, and local group the Knit Wits (consisting of kids ages 8 to 12) will knit afghans for the people of Afghanistan and returning U.S. troops Thursday evenings in October.