'A Labor of Love' Focuses on the Artist's Heart as Well as Hand Time- and Labor-Intensive Works Reveal Imaginative Impulses

Article excerpt

'A LABOR of Love" at The New Museum of Contemporary Art here is an exhibition with an agenda. A common element of the more than 100 works in various mediums by 50 contemporary American artists is the labor-intensive handicraft required to produce them.

Labor alone does not make fine art. Otherwise, ships-in-a-bottle would be museum staples. But curator Marcia Tucker makes the point that these artists - some considered "outsider" or untrained folk artists - deserve respect rather than condescension. Artisans may also be artists.

Gaudy and sparkly are not adjectives usually attributed to fine art. Should pleasurable, appealing works be deemed inferior to avant-garde "real" art, which often alienates viewers? Regardless of the answer, and although detailed surface ornamentation may not suit every taste, there are visual delights galore and plenty to think about in this show.

Chuck Genco's "Influence Generator/Transmuter" (1987-92) serves as the show's metaphor. It took five years to construct this replica of a turn-of-the-century static-electricity generator. The wood-and-glass cabinet contains Leyden jars with copper beads and a spinning barrel that gradually reassembles the shards of a shattered porcelain cup. The fact that the cup has an acquisition number on its bottom and that the cabinet's design echoes the architecture of the Metropolitan Museum of Art are tip-offs to a deeper meaning.

The artist critiques the power of cultural institutions, whose imprimatur canonizes ordinary objects like a Grecian urn as high art. Genco's machine rumbles as the wheel picks up speed, like a juggernaut crushing dissent on what constitutes value.

The show's installation departs from museum practice in thought-provoking ways. Objects are displayed in a homelike setting, with folk music playing and comfy sofas and coffee tables scattered about, to overcome the elitist aura of museums.

Wall labels do not distinguish between recognized artists validated by museum shows - like Faith Ringgold or outsider artist Bessie Harvey - and hobbyists like Michael Harms, a prison inmate who carves elaborate miniature chairs out of soap. Without the context of such information, viewers must independently evaluate each work as either art or curio.

A recent trend among artists is to reclaim devalued handicraft skills like needlework. Embroidery, for example, has been labeled mindless women's work or craft rather than sanctified as fine art like, for example, Gobelin tapestries. Several "Labor of Love" works revive traditional needlecraft while injecting innovation through idiosyncratic materials or a modern message.

Nole Giulini sews banana peels together to make Persian slippers, while Raymond Materson embroiders tiny scenes out of threads he unravels from Orlon socks. …