Montclair Contemporary Artists Talk About Their Uncommon Threads

By mark-slade April 3, 2011

Contemporary Artists Talk About Their Uncommon Threads

Montclair Art Museum and Montclair State University raise questions and reactions
Section Sponsored By  <a href=’;grp=[group];alias=ox-montclair-slot7;size=300×120;target=_blank;loc=300;key=arts’ target=’_blank’> <img border=’0′ height=’120′ src=’;grp=[group];alias=ox-montclair-slot7;size=300×120;target=_blank;loc=300;key=arts’ width=’300′ /> </a>
There were visible gasps from the audience at the Montclair Art Museum (MAM) this past Thursday night as Matthew Nichols, the visiting critic in residence at Montclair State University (MSU), took the gathered students, artists, and general public on a heady trip through the worlds of contemporary artists Mike Andrews, Lucky DeBellevue, Orly Genger, and Aric Obrosey.
Some people like to shake themselves up by visiting exotic climes, changing jobs or, well, changing spouses. I tend to shake myself up by going to art exhibits or talks outside my usual circuit. MSU and MAM have been collaborating on a series of art talks; Nichol’s talk—“Uncommon Threads”—has had me thinking for days.
Nichols was invited by MAM and Dr. Andrew Atkinson, an assistant professor of digital photography and the program director for MSU’s Master of Fine Arts program, to assemble a panel of contemporary artists and survey and comment on their works. As Nichols emphasized in a follow-up email, there are substantial differences among these artists—uncommon threads—but many common threads emerged:
For one, their biographies reveal a willingness to shake up themselves, their art and received notions of what is craft and what is art.
Each artist places import on the handmade and the transmogrification of traditional crafts—knitting, crochet, lace-making, and, well, twisting together pipe cleaners—into often massive or high concept art works that are anything but common place.
In other words, they take the world of craft shops and homemade projects—know it, honor it and also explode it.
Let’s start with those pipe cleaners, now called chenille stems and available in a wide range of colors. In the art recession era 1980s, then painter De Bellevue arrived in New York City from his native Louisiana and found some stems on the floor of his rented Broome St. apartment. Initially he worked in a modest scale on a series of crowns fashioned from metallic stems and ornamental aluminum foil. De Bellevue went on to create often site specific installations of monumental proportions and often staggering beauty.
His ceiling hung “Khlysty” (pictured here) ran the length of the Whitney Museum atrium at Phillip Morris and was among the works eliciting those audible gasps.
Site specific also has become a frequent destination of Orly Genger who initially took up hand crocheting—no hooks—as a respite from her other art. Soon, the crocheted pieces became her art. As the proportions of her work grew, she switched from yarn to multicolored climbing rope or reclaimed lobster net.
The net, dyed, what Nichols described as a “boiled crustacean red,” became Genger’s massive installation (shown here) at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Arts. The work plays with ideas of order and chaos. What you can’t see, is that  in the adjoining gallery space, she has an ordered geometry that spills over to the organic forms.
Asked during the panel discussion about art and meditation, Genger countered any transcendental state: “My work is so physically demanding, I think of it as the end result of performance art.”
During the panel talk, Genger confirmed that her series of dark colored, geometric sculptures were a deliberate slapping down the glove at older, male artists such as Tony Smith, whose metal solids hid the hand behind them. “You had a group of male artists in the 1960s and 1970s making monolithic cubes of steel, deliberately taking out the hand,” Genger said. “I was trying to cut that apart, to make something on that scale that shows you exactly what it takes to make it.”
The hand of man is the central theme tying together the assembled panel. Aric Obrosey, who went to Bruges, Belgium to study the labor intensive tradition of lace making there, literally pays homage to the hand. Obrosey works, sometimes on a large scale, with intricately burned out paper or more unconventional materials, such as a free standing, rubber work glove.
His works including his intense drawings, take a surprising turn on lace and create a dialogue between the handmade and what the hand of man has wrought. The political themes of his works are especially overt in his equally intricate drawings, where the “lace” is formed by the repetitive use of corporate logos, as in “Oily Doily,” where oil company logos form a lace “doily” that evokes an oil spill. Pictured here is his evocation of the human lung in burned paper.
Mike Andrews, too, is playing with the traditional and the contemporary. His tapestries are responses to Abstract Expressionist works. His freestanding metal and yarn sculptures are commentary on traditional looms.
All of these artists are in the center of what Montclair Art Museum curator  Alexandra Schwartz described in a post-talk conversation as the “hottest topic in the art world”: art and craft.
Or as Andrews emphasized in follow up, “I hope the talk and its title show how many contemporary artists dispense with old hierarchies of art versus craft, and create work that gains much of its impact and meaning from being visibly handmade.”
You can look up these nationally exhibited artists and their works online. And, take some time maybe this weekend or during the coming week at MAM or the George Segal Gallery, The Brass Work Gallery, Studio 51 or the Galleries @ Academy Square to shake yourself up with some contemporary art. The hand of man is visible behind many of the diverse contemporary works on view.