New Show Expands Boundaries of Craft

by Sura Wood

The Museum of Craft and Design showcases cutting-edge craft in two new exhibitions.

Though the fast-changing world of digital technology has transformed the visual landscape, traditional crafts—from textile weaving, ceramics and sign painting to quilting—remain the medium of choice for many artists. In “Constructed Communication: Nakayama, Sinbondit, Venom,” a new exhibition at the Museum of Craft and Design, three artists put a contemporary spin on handmade objects while experimenting with the concept of communication through subtext, typography and symbols. “Spending as much time as we do in the virtual/digital realm, tangibility and the hand-made become an important counterbalance,” explains exhibition co-curator Ariel Zaccheo. “These artists meld contemporary themes and cultural trends informed by the digital age into the very traditional techniques used to create their work.” What they have in common, she adds, is “an attachment to translation,” whether it’s the translation of images, gestures, ideas or objects.

Artist Ben Venom, nee Ben Baumgartner, who has a Master of Fine Arts degree from San Francisco Art Institute, was inspired to begin quilting after seeing “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend,” a 2006 exhibition at the de Young Museum that showcased vibrant quilts made by women from a small, remote African-American community in Alabama. Venom, who had been immersed in the 1990s punk scene in his native Georgia—he was an avid follower of heavy metal bands such as Metallica, Megadeath, Slayer, Iron Maiden and Fugazi—took old concert t-shirts he had collected and put out a call to his friends for similar items. Mixing quilting techniques with a post-modern combination of tattoo and occult imagery and biker and heavy metal logos, Venom fuses a medium that has been marginalized as “women’s work” with the aggressive, hard-driving male energy of heavy metal. His latest body of work, on view in this show, merges a heavy metal vibe with paisley and floral patterns and a psychedelic color palette, evident in “Total Eclipse,” which features a moon with a human face and rainbow hues. The half-dozen hand-constructed quilts, ranging from epic-sized to smaller throws, have titles that are an exercise in intentional misdirection. “Vengeance is Mine,” for instance, uses letters from a t-shirt to spell out the “Vengeance” of the ominous title, but the central image depicts two hands clasped together in friendship. In the immense 13-foot x 7-foot quilt “Don’t Tread on Me!,” whose subject seems to have little to do with the slogan from the American Revolution, knight chess pieces, like sentinels, frame a design with a skull sitting atop a wide open blood-red mouth with bared teeth and fangs.

Although Venom was initially drawn to the communal aspect of quilting, he constitutes a community of one; he has joked that he has an army of grandmothers working for him but in fact, works alone in his home at a single sewing machine.

Capturing the moment before an idea is translated into language is a key component of the enigmatic, abstract work of Cleveland-based artist Amy Sinbondit, who emphasizes texture and muted hues in her small-scale ceramics. She physically manipulates her extruded and fired clay tube sculptures, a process that can result in the mottled surface of “Gather Nothingness,” a tilting rectangle with a square cut-out inside it that has the appearance of concrete, or “Diagram: Hand Movement,” where painted porcelain letters are unwound, deconstructed and given three dimensions; the molded scribbles evoke a linear cursive from an ancient language. Sometimes the warping force of gravity takes over as it does in the leftward leaning “Curve Formed Under Load,” which looks like a house almost blown off its foundation. Especially intriguing is “LetterFrom,” a series of 3-D printed plastic sculptures with wafer-thin, layered folds that resemble the fragile architecture of fortune cookies or pastry shells.

Kenji Nakayama’s exploration of typography is part of a resurgence of hand-painted signage, which traditionally has been regarded as more of a trade than a legitimate art form and has nearly become obsolete with the advent of die-cut vinyl signage. Nakayama, who has painted text and images on unlikely objects from handsaws to gas tanks, is a fan of motorcycle culture and American muscle cars sporting showy paint jobs. Born in Japan, he studied mechanical engineering before taking a job at Toyota Motor Corporation, a career path he abandoned to pursue the art of sign painting at the Butera School of Art in Boston, one of the few institutions to offer the specialized program.

For this exhibition, he created a “mural” composed of 25 1-foot x 1-foot interchangeable panels that he uses for practicing his lettering techniques, and work benches/seats made of scrap wood whose surfaces have been collaged with his practice lettering sheets and coated with sealant. Painted in glossy, primary colors, his slick, eye-catching pieces are designed to discourage viewers’ natural inclination to decipher the words and their meaning and instead direct attention to the anatomy of the letters. The work, in part, is a reflection of the artist’s experience in the U.S. when he was first learning English and struggling to comprehend street signs and symbols.

“Kenji abstracts the Roman alphabet by taking away its context so we’re just focusing on the shapes,” notes Zaccheo. “These works showcase his rigorous process, and the immense thought that can go into something as quotidian as writing.”

“I always wanted to create things by hand, and now I want to keep the craft going,” Nakayama states in the exhibition Gallery Guide, noting that if people stop paying attention to craft culture, it will die out. Nakayama will hand-paint the exhibition title on a museum wall on April 8 before the show opens to the public. Visitors are invited to watch him in action.

Editor’s Note: The exhibition “Lines That Tie” runs concurrently with “Constructed Communication: Nakayama, Sinbondit, Venom.” “Lines That Tie” celebrates the work of Carole Beadle and Lia Cook, both of whom recently retired from their long-time tenure as faculty members in the Textiles Program at California College of the Arts.

April 9 -- August 7

Museum of Craft and Design

2569 Third Street, San Francisco

(415) 773-0303/