Academia meets craftiness at the Institute of Contemporary Art

Posted On May 8, 2009

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Note: This entry has been cross-posted to my Examiner blog!

I attended the art talk tonight, at the Institute of Contemporary Art, between artist Beverly Semmes and scholar/author Glenn Adamson.  When the slide show of Semmes most pivotal works began, I realized that she is the artist behind these beautiful, gigantic dresses, where the fabric pools on the floor, sometimes taking up the floor space of an entire room.  (I’ve seen one of her dresses at the Whitney, my all time favorite New York museum.)  Her portfolio includes a variety of other media including ceramics, film, glass, and other textiles (or as Adamson calls it, soft sculpture).  Adamson wrote the book Thinking Through Craft, is co-editor of the tri-annual Journal of Modern Craft, and edited the soon-to-be-published anthology of craft writings called The Craft Reader.

Adamson chose nine of Semmes’ works to discuss.  One of my favorites was also one of the oldest pieces.  It was a still from a Super 8 film that Semmes made, shortly after her graduation from Yale’s MFA program.  At the time, she was living on the grounds of a sanitorium, where her now-husband was working.  She persuaded them to let her use a gardener’s cottage as a studio, where she created a long coat out of screen mesh and feathers, and a hat made from faux christmas trees, wire, and black spray paint.  She put the outfit on her friend and filmed her gallavanting through the sanitorium’s endowment-maintained gardens.  Other works that were discussed included an installation piece where the exhibit guard wore a bright yellow suit and sat in a chair, staring at a room filled with a massive piece of same-colored yellow “poop.”  Her boiled glass and clay pot sculptures were critiqued, as were some of her infamous dresses and other installations.  I appreciated that Semmes experimented with many styles, and she also readily admitted that sometimes she created her works in-studio with aesthetics in mind, and allowed the symbolic meaning of each piece to evolve, either after the piece was started or while she was installing it for a show.

The tables were turned when it came time for Semmes to ask Adamson about his history.  He was an intern at the American Craft Museum when he decided he was going to write the history of craft.  He was just too young at that point to realize that other people had already done it.  Instead, he went to Yale for a PhD in Art History and began the journey of proving how craft was just as valid an art form as painting or sculpture.  He spoke of how craft offers a resistance or friction in the art world, but that it’s not all about rebellion.  He abhors the idea that craft is nothing more than the idea that buying something handmade makes you “more aware” than a Walmart shopper.  Adamson explores the concept of inefficient manufacturing techniques versus the tradition behind a physical set of practices that most crafters follow.  Thanks to a SNAFU with, I haven’t yet gotten my copy of Thinking Through Craft, but if it’s half as good as Adamson in person, I’ll be a happy reader.  This talk was both intellectual and creative.  It was fun to go to something where I learned less about technique and more about theory.

At one point, Adamson said that he met Semmes for the first time just a couple days ago, in her Brooklyn studio, and he left wanting to become an artist.  After listening to Adamson speak, I left wanting to become a crafts scholar.

For more info on other upcoming talks at the ICA, go to the Institute’s website and click on “Programs + Events.”


One Response to “Academia meets craftiness at the Institute of Contemporary Art”

  1. Sarah

    What a great article…as someone who had a minor in art history as an undergrad, I am really interested in learning more about the aftist and art historian that you discussed above. Thanks so much for sharing!


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