Don’t tell my stylist, but I’d never thought of hairdressing as art. Then I saw Sonya Clark’s brilliant “The Hair Craft Project: Hairstylists With Sonya,” covering two walls in “Crafted: Objects in Flux,” an up-to-the-minute overview of contemporary craft at the Museum of Fine Arts.
Clark, who has called hairdressing the “primordial fiber art,” went to 11 African-American hairdressers in Richmond over the course of a year, offered them her head, and let them go to town.
We see the outcome in a grid of photos: Clark poses with her back to us, her hair in spectacles of beads, knots, braids, and one eye-popping flower design. The stylists stand beyond her, facing us, slightly out of focus. On the opposite wall hang canvases that Clark primed with silk thread and gave to the hairdressers with the same instruction. They, too, bear intricate designs; one is knotted into the words “Good Hair.”
By placing this work in a museum, “The Hair Craft Project” explodes unwritten definitions of art by elevating the ephemeral, everyday work of stylists. It’s also community-based performance art — Clark wore each cut for weeks — that celebrates African-American hair. The artist plans to bring a stylist to the museum on Oct. 12 for a performance.
“The Hair Craft Project” captures the thematic complexity of “Crafted,” which roots itself in tradition even as it vaults into the unknown territory of what’s next.
Almost by definition, craft is tradition-bound. We associate it with handwork, utility, technical finesse, and decorative beauty. Under its umbrella fall particular materials: metal, wood, ceramics, fiber, and glass. Plenty of crafts out there still fit this bill — some stellar, some hidebound, some kitschy.
The artists who have challenged convention are the ones we remember. The outlier ceramic artist George Ohr made fluid, fleshy, often asymmetrical pots more than century ago. In the 1940s and ’50s, several artists in the studio craft movement pushed beyond tradition. Fiber artist Ed Rossbach, ceramic artist Ken Price, and others made abstract, sculptural, and conceptual pieces. Their craft engaged the bigger questions of contemporary art.
Today, many of those bigger questions revolve around technology, performance, and installation. Emily Zilber, the museum’s curator of contemporary decorative art, structures “Crafted” around these themes, even as she holds fast to craft’s best enduring trait: It’s gorgeous stuff you want to touch. But don’t: If you get too close, a high-pitched beep will warn you off.
We use furniture, we drink from goblets and mugs; we wear jewelry and textiles. Zilber capitalizes on our bodily associations — they tie neatly into contemporary art’s tendency to be an experience as much as it is an object. But they are sometimes hindered by the static quality of museum display. The curator works hard to counter that.
Chien-Wei Chang’s “Huge Ladle” hangs on the wall, its giant, silver-plated cup perched on a long wooden handle, peering out at us like a curious companion. We recognize the form, yet it’s our size, and we easily imagine holding it, wielding it. A photo of a kneeling man bracing it against his back amplifies that response.
Photos help conjure some of these pieces outside the museum walls. One is part and parcel of Susie Ganch’s “Drag” a voluminous bracelet. It looks at first like a festive train a drag queen might wear at Mardi Gras, red trailing off into white. Equal parts jewelry artist and environmental activist, Ganch made “Drag” with her own trash: coffee lids, nametags. The more you look at it, the less decorative it seems, and the more like a ball and chain.
Just as we can’t try on Ganch’s bracelet, we can’t immerse ourselves in most of the so-called installation work. It’s simply too discrete. Rowland Ricketts’s “Mobile Sections” is a terrific exception: a spiraling space made of cloth lushly dyed in indigo.
The scent of indigo — like hay, leavened with floral overtones — pervades the piece, and halfway in you’ll find a wall carpeted in its deep, green-blue leaves. “Mobile Sections” is extraordinarily specific — all indigo, all the time — but open-ended, a space you can dream into.
The other installations may not engulf, but they grab attention. Nathan Craven’s ceramic screen “Poros,” filling the only window in the gallery, could be a luminous hybrid of coral and stained glass. The spectacular marquetry in Alison Elizabeth Taylor’s “Tap Left On” comically describes water damage, not the ritzy ornamentation we associate with inlaid wood.
Zilber’s third category, about rapidly changing tools, is an old saw at this point. Artists have always habitually rushed to technology’s forefronts. Yet, when it comes to craft’s allegiance to handwork, showing off its high-tech side seems necessary.
New technology can change forms as well as methods. Yes, 3-D printers now use clay. And yes, digital weaves can ape data. No surprise there. But Astrid Krogh’s “Ikat II” dazzles. The title refers to an Indonesian dying technique, but this textile doesn’t get its color from dye. Krogh wove it from optical fibers — glass threads that transmit light. Color courses up and down the piece as if it were silk shimmering in sunlight.
Anton Alvarez created a new technology that slowed him down, deeper into methodical handcraft. His “The Thread Wrapping Machine Chair 090415” is ingenious, yet a throwback. He binds pieces of wood together with layers and layers of thread, feeding them through a contraption of his own invention. The result — a chair, bright and chirpy as a birthday present — begs you to sit down and make yourself comfortable. If only you could, without setting off alarms.
CRAFTED : Objects in Flux
At Museum of Fine Arts
465 Huntington Ave., through Jan. 10.
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.