Print the legend

By GREG COOK  |  September 28, 2006

Some who visited the Fort wish the RISD show had more of the lush encrustedness of Thunder at its height, but how can one re-create something that arose underground, accidentally and organically, from many people over many years, in the relatively short time and large institutional space involved here? “Wunderground” has also spawned the inevitable debates about who was left out. It’s been noted that most of the installation artists are girlfriend-boyfriend pairs. Although I can think of artists who might deserve more attention, my greater wish is that the show had included Fort Thunder comics, which along with music (presented here in listening stations) were the primary means by which news of the Fort first spread outside Providence.

Fort Thunder created its own venue, its own music, its own posters, its own sports and parades and films, its own books and even its own newspaper. With their permission and the inspiration of their example, others added to and expanded this underground world. In her sharp catalogue essay, Providence gallerist Sara Agniel (who will be exhibiting Chippendale’s work next month) notes the political aspect of the artists’ rejection of our capitalist, mass-produced Happy Meal world. “Wunderground” is about how we found thrills and hope when these artists turned society’s castoffs into “a better version of the disappointing world we live in today.”

SHANGRI-LA-LA-LAND: The “towering sculptural village” by nine artists aims to represent the best of the Providence scene now.

The “Wunderground” style didn’t arise out of a vacuum. A pre-eminent issue in avant-garde art today is how our society is dashing toward technological “progress” and how technology is being used to monitor and manipulate us. We live in an era of anxiety, both embracing the promise and fearing the threat of stem cells, the Internet, smart bombs, bio-engineered food. And so artists are rebelling via handcrafts, natural and recycled materials, jury-rigged machines. “Crafty,” at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston through October 14, provides a smart, succinct overview of this trend.

New Yorker Yuken Teruya’s trees snipped from shopping bags, Atlantan Imi Hwangbo’s piles of mylar cut into decorative sculptural patterns, and Cantabrigian Randal Thurston’s ornate pictures in black paper silhouettes fall into the “Wow, how did they do that?” category. Hawangbo and Thurston seem confined by spectacular craftsmanship; Teruya hints at thoughts of nature versus urban consumerism as you trace her art’s lineage from tree to paper to representation of tree.

Italy’s Paola Pivi follows the branch rethinking traditional crafts. Her dazzling cascades of plastic pearls transform the familiar materials and techniques (beaded necklaces) into something fresh and exciting.

Texan Elaine Bradford’s Endurance Series is a group of logs standing on end and buttoned into custom-knit striped sweaters. There’s lots of stuff out there like this these days, but her art still whispers about the love worked into grandma’s afghan or the hat auntie knit for the newborn. She makes the trees appear wounded and the sweaters to represent a warm, nursing embrace.

Chicagoan Nick Cave’s Soundsuit, a wild red-and-white sequined pointy hood with matching dress and striped socks, conjures both Aboriginal costumes and KKK garb. And the blank face haunts.

New Yorker Rob Conger makes hooked rugs based on his stark sunny photos of Disneyland rides. They could be souvenir kits you buy at the park, but Conger has a conceptual angle: he chose rides on which visitors have been killed in the past five years. He’s trying to say something about manufactured capitalist happiness, but it comes off as a smartypants one-liner.

“Wunderground” | Rhode Island School of Design Museum, 224 Benefit St, Providence | through January 7 | “Crafty” | Massachusetts College of Art, 621 Huntington Ave, Boston | through October 14

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