The slightly weird museum of crafts
Portland's Craft Museum, founded in 1937, went on a roller coaster ride after leaving its home in John's Landing in 2016.
After many name changes, the Museum of Contemporary Craft's collection is in storage in a warehouse in Southeast Portland. The collection belongs to Willamette University of Salem, which also now runs the Pacific Northwest College of Art. Three PNCA curators had the run of the collection, to give a few of its 800 objects an airing in this post-lockdown, pro-screen life world.
The show "Commonly Uncommon - Selections from the Museum of Contemporary Craft Collection" runs now through Dec 10 at PNCA at 511 N.W. Broadway in Portland.
Pamplin Media talked to co-curator Hannah Bakken Morris about which objects were chosen.
Bakken Morris's thesis is that craft creates community, because you have to learn it, in-person, from other skilled craftspeople. Often the work is unpaid, and the markets are informal.
The postcard image of the show is Patrick Horsley's "Purple Teapot," from 1998, which probably could hold and pour tea, but which is comically exaggerated. The pot is slim, like an elongated steam iron, the lid is tiny, and the spout loops back on itself. Chances are it would be broken in a day in any household, but it's Mad Hatter looks rendering it fascinating.
She said another viewer was amused because it seemed to retain a practical use. "They laughed at ceramicists in their obsession with remaining true to utilitarian use of an object, even if it doesn't," Bakken Morris said.
Bakken Morris holds the rather cerebral role of Interim Director for the Center for Contemporary Art & Culture at PNCA. However, she said "Commonly Uncommon," the show title, "was a little tongue in cheek. (We were) thinking about the role that craft plays in community, and how we see ourselves socially and as individuals. Often craft is associated with domestic work and labor, and is set aside from what is considered fine art."
Keep crafting weird
The show's goal was to "(Come) at it through a lens of domestic object, putting a kind of uncanny, strange term on them. Things that are common, but uncommon in their final form," Bakken Morris said.
One piece is a wooden stepladder that has been pared down with a knife so that its struts are thin and unable to bear weight. It has become the essence of a stepladder, but it would no longer work. It is called "(Object) Ive Failure" by Casey Brown. "It's been a crowd favorite for so many. We had our facilities crew come in and obsess over it and make jokes like, 'How do you get three points of contact with that?'"
A Storm Tharp piece called "Bather II" consists of a ceramic bust of a bearded man with a paper flower in his hair. "It grabbed our attention for this exhibition because it looks like a bust, maybe a Grecian Roman reference, and that cracking in the glaze is a very interesting texture and materiality, (in) contrast to traditional forms," Baker Morris said. The Portland artist Tharp is better known for his 2D work. "The precision and sculpting of this human face are really lovely to look at."
Nearby is a coffee pot, cake stand, ash tray and bowls in turned aluminum, made in 1934 by Russell Wright. It's cool High Modernism has aged well, and the set would still be classy housewares today.
"Russell Wright has a good notoriety for being a really well-known designer and object architect. He is very prolific in ceramics as well, which were wider collected and a bit more accessible in a price range. He is still coveted, I know people that are always hunting for Russell Wright pieces."
It has a different meaning today.
"In the 1930s making this piece that's a pretty profound way to push back on growing industrialization, to really work this metal, without a machine, and work it by hand," Bakken Morris said.
According to the curators, "This exhibition presents objects that illuminate issues of function, use, the nature of labor, and methods of production. Viewers can engage with both objects and archives to understand the way in which they inform one another as well as the multiple ways makers, curators and audiences appreciate and define an institution and its place in a regional artistic ecology."
A few teacups, saucers, plates and a butter dish made of pink melamine had a pattern of flowers and fish scales cut into it. It was mounted on glass, above a white shelf, so the shadows were visible.
It is by Heidi Schwegler, who copied the design from Ming pottery and cut it into the plastic using jewelry tools, by hand.
"She's talking about what happens when you take this material that is not precious and imbue it with these patterns that are historically revered and cared for. Do you start to care for this object in a different way?" said Bakken Morris of Schwegler. "She used to teach at the Oregon College of Arts and Crafts and is very well known in the craft community here in Portland. And her work is creepy. She likes to take things that are very common and banal and make casts of them and turn them into the objects that are maybe monumentalized or they're just not quite right."
This is the uncommon or uncanny that this show aims to reveal.
In a separate room, the 2008 documentary "Handmade Nation" by Faythe Levine and Cortney Heimerl is on a monitor in PNCA's Lemelson Innovation Studio, along with artifacts (T-shirts, posters, little Hi8 videotape cassettes).
Bakken Morris said 2009 was a moment for craft, before Etsy took off, and in 2022 it's happening again. "Students are hungry to use their hands and be self-sufficient with their creative practices." They want to learn the old crafts or at least work with their hands after the march of technology — accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, made them tire of screen, keyboard and mouse work.
"Let's hope we have another moment growing again, in response to capitalism, and how it's maybe changed communities."
In June 2021, the Pacific Northwest College of Art merged with Willamette University making the Northwest's oldest school of art and design an integral part of the region's leading liberal arts university. Along with this exciting merger of institutions, the art collection from the former Museum of Contemporary Craft (which closed in 2016 as a program of PNCA) has become part of the permanent collection of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art at Willamette University. Founded in 1937 as the Oregon Ceramics Studio, MoCC was the oldest continuously running craft institution in the country. Throughout the years, the name of the institution changed from the Oregon Ceramics Studio (1937) to Contemporary Crafts Gallery (1965), Contemporary Crafts Museum & Gallery (2002), and Museum of Contemporary Craft (2007). While the museum has now closed, the collection lives on as part of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art. The Hallie Ford Museum of Art has a long history of collecting, exhibiting, and publishing about artists associated with PNCA and the Museum Art School (as it once was known).
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