Handcrafted and monumental are not normally words that go together, but that's the combination that inescapably came to mind when I stepped into the main gallery of Labour and Wait, the new exhibit at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art that is a mind-boggling "must see" for anyone interested in craft, art, and contemporary ideas. (Actually, for anyone, whether they've got a DIY bone in their body or not.) For one thing there was the gigantic weaving called Mammoth and Poodle, by Daniel Dewar & Grégory Gicquel, a pair of collaborative artists who turned their Paris studio into an oversize loom to create the most wonderfully tactile rough-wool image of, yes, a mammoth and a poodle that covers most of a big, big wall.
In the center of the room was Allison Smith's towering Stockpile, in which colonial-style furniture, fabrics, and artifacts are layered and heaped onto crates till the assembled mountain of stuff approaches the ceiling.
Allison Smith, Stockpile, 2011-13. Unfinished wood and mixed media. Courtesy of the artist and Haines Gallery. Courtesy of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco and John White/Phocasso.©Allison Smith
Is this a hoard against disaster? Material for a Williamsburg-like re-creation of craftier times? The installation is open to interpretation, but the fact that most of these objects are now manufactured abroad suggests some kind of artistic comment on our consumerist quest for everything artisanal.
In the next room, Tim Hawkinson's Orrery is not a model of a solar system but a larger-than-life-size representation of a woman spinning.
In this case there's a lot of spinning going on. The whole sculpture is on a turntable, and the lady's head is rotating as well. And while the image clearly evokes a cherished crafter's activity, the fact that the spinning wheel is constructed of plastic bottles puts a different spin on things entirely.
In another gallery, Andrea Bowers has drawn her Lady Liberty-like figure promoting One Big Union with black marker on a colossal expanse of flattened cardboard evoking a historic call to action with Occupy overtones.
Not everything in this thought-provoking exhibit is on that scale, but the ideas behind these works of fine art are clearly huge, addressing the use of traditional materials and methods like ceramics, wood-carving, tapestry weaving, quilting, lace-making, and glass-blowing combined with contemporary points of view and issues, from political action, feminism, and consumerism to urban planning and the value of labor, among others.
The title, "Labour and Wait" comes from a psalm by poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, urging readers, as SBMA curator Julie Joyce points out, to "be hardworking and to do one's best." I was fascinated, therefore, by one of the show's final installations, by video artist Mika Rottenburg and Jon Kessler. Entitled SEVEN (Cecil), it apparently depicts a rather surreal experiment about capturing and transforming sweat. To me, that seemed almost like a metaphor for turning the best hard work into art.