On Thursday December 29, 2011 I was in New York City. After we visited the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side (for my husband) and Nintendo World at the Rockefeller Center (for my son) we trundled off to the Museum of Art & Design (for me!). There were three noteworthy exhibitions: an exhibit of Japanese contemporary craft drawn from the permanent collection, a visiting exhibit of new Korean craft-based art and an exhibit that traced the evolution of Modernism in American craft.
The Japanese group show was drop-dead gorgeous yet lyrical. The elegant baskets and wabi-sabi pots are "timeless" if they suit your taste and "dated" if they don't. (Personally, I think they are beautiful.) The Korean group show was edgy, energetic and opinionated with digital flourishes, uses of recycled material such as an impressive Minotaur from car tires, and huge classical vases made from soap instead of ceramics.
The standout in the Modernist show was not the objects themselves –say Sheila Hick's textiles or Sam Maloof's furniture–but an interactive timeline that situated the objects in a variety of contexts whether it was social, like the advent of "the Pill", or cultural like the Beatle's music, or political like the Vietnam War. Now, we get the real benefit of the retrospective gaze.
The highlight of our trip to the MAD was a visit to the open studio, where Don Porcella had just started a residency. Don Porcella works with pipe cleaners to create life-sized sculptures. His "art dealer" kept us company with its Crayola palette and cozy plush animal textures. On the table were sample segments so we could see how Porcella uses chicken wire as an armature to make large scale and volume possible. He explained to me that he like the ready-made quality of working with pipe cleaners. I replied that they had a pop culture feel and that sent him reaching for his portfolio. Porcella showed me images of some of his other sculptures including his versions of Warhol's Brillo Box and Duchamp's urinal/fountain. In one sculpture they were being "burnt" on a pipe cleaner pyre. In another, Porcella had interpreted the famous Australopithecus Lucy as a graffiti artist cave painter complete with spray cans.
I glanced at Porcella's resume and noticed that he had two degrees in painting and asked about the move from 2D to 3D. He explained that he had worked in encaustic and showed me images from that time period. Guess what? The paintings had the same palette as the pipe cleaners. Porcella's first encaustic creations were made from Crayola crayons. Earlier in the conversation, Porcella had also mentioned his mother was a weaver. All the pieces fell into place: ready-mades, pop culture, the accessibility of pipe cleaners for the viewer, mom the weaver as a role figure, and paintings that had taken on 3D shape. Don Porcella and I smiled broadly at each other and as my family left his studio he chased out the door to offer my son a multicolored handful of pipe cleaners.
I look forward to seeing more of Porcella's sculpture. It is irreverent but positive. In contrast to the exhibits I had just seen at MAD, Porcella's work did not have the preciousness of the Japanese work nor the self-importance and preoccupation with materiality and technique of the Korean work.
Don weaving with pipe cleaners - photo courtesy of the artist.