Cyrilla Mozenter, Castle (2006), pencil on industrial felt hand-sewn with silk thread, 12″ x 17″ x 12″; courtesy Five Myles Gallery
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In their 1978 essay “Femmage,” the artists Miriam Schapiro and Melissa Meyer posited collage as a medium inherently suited to women, linking it to scrap booking, quilt-making and other creative outlets typically pegged as “craft” or “woman’s work.”
In the brochure accompanying Art/Sewn: Tradition, Innovation, Expression, an exhibition at Five Myles, curator Ward Mintz iterates similar points about Feminism, “women’s pastimes” and art historical hierarchies, even managing to slam, albeit obliquely, that perpetual arch-villain Clement Greenberg for daring to distinguish between craft and art. Mintz is worried the viewer won’t see the aesthetics for the stitching.
Forgetting for a moment that it’s a critic’s job to make distinctions, it’s worth pondering if categorization does matter, particularly in a culture where “anything goes” is a rule of thumb. Mintz states that the eight artists featured in Art/Sewn—Emily Barletta, Denise Burge, Elisa D’Arrigo, Linnea Glatt, Janet Henry, Cyrilla Mozenter, Jessica Rankin and Anna Von Mertens—“inevitably [raise] the question, ‘But is it art?’”
Given the quality of the pieces on view, it’s clear that each artist is cognizant of the associations and preconceptions engendered by working with needle and thread. How could they not be, particularly when D’Arrigo cites her grandmother’s embroideries as a touchstone and Mozenter confesses to having once felt “sort of snooty” about craft?
Categorical distinctions do matter, if only because every creative endeavor has its own peculiar imperatives; without a thorough grounding in them, an artist is nothing more than a dabbler. D’Arrigo’s haunting effigies, Mozenter’s stoic deflations of Minimalist precedent and Burge’s goofy meditations on the environment aren’t hampered by this reality; they’re powered by it. And so it goes with the rest of the artists. But is it art? Methinks the curator doth protest too much.
The more pertinent issue raised by Art/Sewn is “When isn’t it art?” This seems an altogether more fruitful, if potentially uncomfortable, question that Mintz shimmies around. Happily, the artists simultaneously embrace and trample over it.
© 2011 Mario Naves
Originally appeared in the April 5, 2011 edition of City Arts.