Visual Arts

“Radical Lace and Subversive Knitting” at SMoCA Manifests in the Form of Lead Teddy Bears and Car Wreckage

When it comes to constructing things, I'm not the most capable person. I rely heavily on safety pins rather than sewing machines. I seem to believe that a nail into drywall can hold up any size picture frame. Oh, and spackle is the perfect material to use when filling huge, missing chunks of wood from a doorjamb (courtesy of a stir-crazy cat in need of a scratching post). Yes, my wardrobe is often poorly constructed, my pictures fall off the wall, and as for that doorjamb . . . let's just say I didn't get my deposit back for that apartment.

But that's what I get for using improper tools and materials to put things together. Safety pins plus fabric does not equal shirt. And, apparently, neither drywall nor spackle equals wood.

I must be going about it the wrong way. Because at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art's "Radical Lace and Subversive Knitting," charred car parts equal lace and lead yarn equals teddy bear. See, unlike me, the artists in this show successfully push the boundaries of method and material.

Filigree Car Bombing by Cal Lane is a pile of charred car wreckage in the corner of the gallery. Cut out with a torch, doily-like designs crawl and take over the black and rusted steel like a rash. The burnt metal is violent and ugly. It screams ideas of tragic accidents and burning flesh. But with grandma patterns of sweet spiraling flowers and plants growing all over it, the piece softens. The contrast is heart-wrenching and irresistible.

Dave Cole's Lead Teddy Bear boasts a loose weave of "fabric" made from knitted hand-cut lead ribbon. It's in the shape of a teddy bear, about the size of a cantaloupe. The piece is adorable. And it's too heavy and too toxic for a child to play with — a dirty trick.

These are not the kinds of things I expected to see when I first heard the title of the show.

No, knitting and lace initially brought me back to art history class in college; to the section on the Arts and Crafts Movement. This began in the late 19th/early 20th centuries and asserted handmade wares as legitimate artistic practices — holding the same merit as painting and sculpture. The argument has continued since and was reiterated with the feminist movement (and its subsequent backlash) with high-art exhibitions that incorporate sewing, knitting, quilting, and crocheting.

Much to my relief, this show is not a repeat of this tired discussion. It may bump into similar ideas, but the real focus here is on process and materials. The knitting and lace-making pushes the practice of weaving, knotting, and tangling through experiments with scale, method, and various fibers. It's almost as if the show says, "Okay, all you arts-and-crafters, you made it in. Now where are you going to take it?"

The artists in this show answered the call and took it to a great place. Focusing on just two crafts, most artists re-created lace or knitting into a completely new activity with totally fresh results.

This enormous exhibition, originally realized at the Museum of Arts & Design in New York by chief curator David Revere McFadden, includes more than 40 pieces in three of SMoCA's galleries.

Piper Shepard's Lace Meander is absolutely stunning. Three enormous panels of lace hang from large rolls affixed to the wall. Like any traditional lace, the design is plant-inspired. But this time, the lace is made without knotted threads. Instead, Shepard hand-cuts the design out of a single slab of fabric using an X-Acto knife. It's an incredible work of craftsmanship with a relentless demand for meticulous detail. Staring at the piece, you can't help but imagine the work involved. How many hours did this take? How many X-Acto blades? How did she get it so perfect? And did her back hurt every night while she made this? Part of experiencing this piece as a viewer is its incessant command that you imagine and empathize with the painstaking process.

And yet, one of my favorite pieces was, perhaps, the most simple. Doodling by Hildur Bjarnadottir is a small work — about the size of this paper. With blue cotton yarn, Bjarnadottir uses tatting (a knotting technique) to create an improvised piece of lace. The knotted yarn makes vines, buds, flowers, and leaves that coil and bounce without rhythm or symmetry. The dainty design is affixed straight to the wall without any fanfare. With so many other rigid, meticulous patterns, the spontaneity is liberating.

Althea Crome knits fine silk thread using stainless steel medical wire as knitting needles. Her miniature designs of intricate patterns on teeny-tiny sweaters (ones that would fit your thumb) really push the physical limitations of the art.

There's a bulb-less lamp made entirely of knotted fiber optic cable by Niels van Eijk. Henk Wolvers dripped porcelain slip onto plaster kiln boards to create cold, hard panels of porcelain lace. And there's a dramatic gown designed by Liz Collins made of scraps of fabric attached to a knitted framework.

But with all the good stuff, it's inevitable that a show of this volume has some weaker points. The Expanding Club by Janet Echelman was a disappointment — especially considering I'm a fan of her work. In the largest of the three galleries, this work dominates the space. A gigantic net connected by a series of metal rings creates the shape of a mushroom cloud from floor to ceiling.

Normally, Echelman's grand-scale pieces are outdoors and interactive with the elements — moving and flowing with the atmosphere. Incidentally, she is responsible for the upcoming Phoenix public artwork Sky Bloom, which is currently under construction. You can see the framework for this monumental piece on First Avenue, just south of Fillmore Street. But within the walls of SMoCA, The Expanding Club remains static. And, unfortunately, it looks like a gigantic basketball hoop. The piece's energy just dies indoors. But I'm not letting it spoil my enthusiasm for Sky Bloom — which I still expect to be awe-inspiring.

Minor hiccups aside, this compelling show successfully pushes the boundaries of traditional knitting and lace. And it's given me hope. Maybe if I keep playing in a world of safety pins and spackle, I'll come up with something spectacular — if not fully functional — someday.

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Lilia Menconi
Contact: Lilia Menconi