Allison Smith at MCA Denver

The contemporary art world – accepting as it may be of the most oblique artistic practices – still responds tentatively to artists engaging with notions of craft. Yet, at a time when the handmade – a once integral part of everyday life – has become a luxury, craft can serve as a potent commentary on our history and national identity. In Piece Work, an exhibition on display now at the MCA Denver, Oakland-based artist Allison Smith draws on American decorative arts and craft traditions to address just this. Smith’s works offer a contemporary investigation of pre-modern and early American craft, but viewed from perhaps an unexpected perspective: the convergence of art and war.

Three display cases contain objects from Needle Work, a series in which Smith recreates European and American cloth gas masks from World War I and World War II. Aestheticized in museum vitrines, it is hard to imagine that such tenderly handmade items were once used to protect when our soldiers are now clad in Kevlar.

Needle Work (Wartime Textiles), 2010. Fabricated display cases containing sewn reproductions of wartime textiles, with identification tags and research images.

A central work in the exhibition, Fancy Work (Braided Rug), is a large rug begun by the artist, but carried on by visitors who are encouraged to continue its braiding in the museum gallery. While its sheer beauty and intricacy is enough to stop anyone in his or her tracks, Smith forces visitors to linger with the piece and its conceptual content by implicating them in the work’s very fabrication. Together with books addressing the tactics and varying histories of war scattered across the rug’s surface, the work creates a space in which participation and discussion foreground an engagement with history and personal experience of war. The slow, arduous completion of this handmade rug is a fitting metaphor for the protracted duration of contemporary war.

Fancy Work (Braided Rug), 2010-2011. Screen-printed linen.

In keeping with this spirit of collaboration, Smith organized several events during the exhibition that engaged both the local arts community and the general public by inviting them to create works in the museum. For example, Smith hosted “Sheep-to-Shawl,” a daylong event in which visitors collaborated to shear a sheep, spin the resulting fleece into wool and ultimately weave a shawl; the day was punctuated by speakers addressing the history of craft and fiber arts. By hosting a program rooted in collaborative craft-based work within the museum environment, Smith encourages the arts community and public to widen the scope of creative practices and interactions deemed relevant to the growing discourse on contemporary art.

Allison Smith: Piece Work runs through May 29th at the MCA Denver.

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