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Detail of 'Cameo Egg' by Kirsten Hassenfeld at 'Crafty.'
Detail of "Cameo Egg" by Kirsten Hassenfeld at "Crafty." (The Boston Globe)
VISUAL ARTS

From carved creatures to Disneyland rugs

Crafty
At: the Sandra and David Bakalar Gallery, Massachusetts College of Art, through Oct. 14. 617-879-7333.

The contemporary scene abounds in work that blurs the line between art and craft. In any given gallery, you are as likely to find ceramics, woodwork, and fabric art as paintings and sculpture. But there remains a certain ambivalence about craft. For many younger, intellectually ambitious artists, craft is not an end in itself but a cultural signifier to be exploited for its usually kitschy associations.

That divided attitude is nicely captured by a smart and engaging exhibition at the Massachusetts College of Art's Sandra and David Bakalar Gallery. Organized by gallery curator Lisa Tung , the show is pointedly called ``Crafty," a word that refers not to manual skill but to intellectual cunning. It presents works by 21 artists, most of whom have had significant national exposure and most of whom use craft for conceptual purposes.

Among the show's most obviously crafty works are Rob Conger's translations of photographs taken at Disneyland into colorful hooked rugs. A wall label explains that Conger's fuzzy pictures of the Matterhorn, Big Thunder Mountain, and the Monorail actually depict places where accidental deaths have occurred in years past. Thus high concept trumps homespun craft.

A more subtle case is the work of Yuken Teruya , who creates miniature leafy trees by cutting into the sides of paper bags from fancy or not-so-fancy stores. The trees fold down into the interior of the bags so you can view them from the open end. Unlike Conger's rugs, which look mechanically made, Teruya's works are truly compelling for their inventive craftsmanship. But, as a gallery wall label points out, paper bags are made from trees, so Teruya's sculptures are also commentaries on wasteful consumerism.

Some artists toy with the genteel associations of certain crafts. Kent Henricksen embroiders cartoon hoods over the heads of swains and shepherdesses in Rococo-style printed fabrics, adding hints of sadomasochistic sex and Ku Klux Klan-type intrigue to otherwise sugary pastoral fantasies. Kirsten Hassenfeld's wonderfully intricate, three-dimensional ``Cameo Egg" is like a Faberge egg much enlarged and magically transformed into a white paper ghost of itself. And in a punkish, hard-to-watch video, Christina Mancuso uses a needle and purple embroidery thread to stitch a floral design into the palm of her hand.

Modernism, too, comes in for playful manipulation. John Newman uses the Surrealist vocabulary of abstract organic forms but realizes his sculptures through old-world materials and techniques. With its thick braid of fine brass wire snaking through a tubular wicker basket that opens at both ends, ``brass and wicker rapunzel" orchestrates a poetic wedding of fairy-tale content and futuristic form.

Implicitly feminist attitudes animate several works in which craft's domestic associations undermine the ethos of male-dominated Modernism. Laura Schnit-ger's ``Almita," an airy configuration of skewed wooden dowels and string, refers to the Constructivist abstractions of such sculptor-engineers as Naum Gabo and Kenneth Snelson , while crocheted patches resembling doilies and potholders around the outside add a deflating, subtly satiric note. And Ruth Marshall's set of finely knitted simulations of 66 coral snake skins slyly domesticates zoological science.

Beverly Semmes's funny and strange sculptures in the form of oddly shaped and sized dresses also make fun of the usual male-female hierarchy. ``Golden Arm," a minidress with one absurdly elongated arm, alludes to Nelson Algren's novel ``The Man With the Golden Arm." And ``Green Target," an extra-wide green dress with a white organza circle built into its center, parodies the famous painting of the same name by the celebrated male artist Jasper Johns.

Male artists can play the anti-macho card, too. Nick Cave (not the well-known singer) offers a fantastically gaudy, beaded dress with an outsized hood, a mysterious costume that he uses in music and dance performances.

Another aspect of craft has to do with how hypnotically absorbing it can be to practice. You feel that in the approximately 2,000 tiny, fanciful creatures carved from wood by the former dentist and self-taught sculptor Ruvim Mogendovich . His diminutive sculptures are technically rudimentary, but they are lively and endearing, and seeing them in such extraordinary quantity is hair-raising.

For Mogendovich, craft is not part of a conceptual gambit. Nor is it for John O'Reilly , whose fine workmanship enhances the dreamy atmospheres of his photographic montages. And in Imi Hwangbo's gridded, low-relief abstractions the painstaking, impressively skillful process of cutting and layering sheets of Mylar serves the creation of optically captivating two- and three-dimensional patterns. These three artists make a good case for craft without irony, but that's a topic for another show.

This exhibition's most unexpected work is a piece by the Minimalist sculptor Fred Sandback . The artist, who died in 2003, was known for using colored yarn very sparely to outline planes in space. But it seems rather a stretch to include him in a show about craft just because his chosen material can be used to knit sweaters. His works are about the outer limits of perception: Study the simple triangle in this exhibition and you start to experience the illusion of a transparent membrane outlined by the fine, peach-colored line. Nevertheless, it is useful to consider such a work in a context like this because it opens up yet another angle on the question: Just what is craft, after all, and what -- essentially or otherwise -- does it have to do with art? At a time when art itself appears impossible to define to everyone's satisfaction, it's a hard question to an s wer.

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