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The New Art

Contemporary craft is more than macaroni place mats

When it comes to arts and crafts, the latter half of the duo gets a bad rap. Art is lofty, we seem to think, while craft is lowly. Anyone can knit a macramé doily, but it takes a skilled artist to paint the beginning of humankind on the roof of the Sistine Chapel. Fair enough. Michelangelo deserves a little more credit for his work than my grandmother does, but Michelangelo lived in a different age than we do now.

Michelangelo is regarded as such a genius because, among other things, he was one of the most skilled artists of all time. "Skill" is the operative word here. As art becomes more conceptual and abstract in its creative meandering, skill is being washed away in the wake of innovation and self-reflection. Art has no more rules, no more measuring sticks to determine how skillful a work is.

For those who dig conceptual art, this trend is fascinating as hell. It's opened up the world of art to realms of limitless possibility. But for those who still want a Michelangelo, an artist whose skill they can admire, most works of contemporary art summon disturbed cries of "I could do that." Those who feel this way about the current state of art need to give craft a second look.

The traditional craft forms -- weaving, sewing, glassblowing, woodworking, pottery, etc. -- are the last bastions of skill when it comes to creating something with your hands. Anyone can fling a bucket of paint at a canvas or submerge a statue of Christ in a vat of urine, but it takes a skilled craftsperson to sew a complex garment or blow some serious glass. If you think art should be something the average person can't do, then contemporary craft is the new art and contemporary art is the new crap.

The latest exhibition at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, "Home/ land: Artists, Immigration, and Identity," features several artists with hard-core skills. It showcases the work of 14 individuals who have shaped a new identity through the transition to a new country (hence the title). For these artists, moving was about far more than the heave-ho of old knickknacks or loading up the back of a truck à la The Beverly Hillbillies. Immigration is a change of place, a change of culture, a change of self.

Vesna Todorovic Miksic knows a thing or two about change of place. Born in Serbia, she now resides in Philadelphia. Her works on display are "dedicated to those for whom the clothes on their backs are the closest it gets to having a home." With garments made from money, financial documents and foodstuffs, Miksic has designed a line of clothing for the girl on the go.

And a girl could go just about anywhere she pleases in VESTED INTEREST: tailored. Crafted from $1 bills, thread, matchsticks and wire, VESTED INTEREST is a testament to the immigrant experience. As disturbing an image as it might be, one can even imagine a runway model clopping along in this form-fitting number at some dingy immigration checkpoint. And once she finally arrives at her destination, our model should have no trouble having the vest cleaned. Money, after all, can always be laundered.

Across the gallery space, three more of Miksic's trousseaux are set up on hangers on the wall. Dangling in the air, they beg to be touched. Foolish me, I gave in to the urge and poked Haute Couture: WATER: size 30 days with my pinkie, an impulse that left me staring in distress as the dress rocked back and forth on its hanger. Luckily, no one else was looking…

Haute Couture is a formal dress made from Ziploc bags, water, Evian labels and thread. It's designed to provide an immigrant with the necessary nourishment for the long road ahead. The piece stands in stark contrast to the other two works on the wall, a Jackie O-style dress made from Yugoslav currency and a puffy jacket filled with financial documents. These two garments are part of Miksic's "None of this money can keep me warm this winter" series.

All three of the moneyed garments on display are made from currency, thread and matchsticks. This last ingredient is crucial to Miksic's latent symbolism. Money can't keep you warm…unless you set it on fire. The seemingly unnecessary inclusion of matchsticks in the currency-based works hints at the ephemeral nature of moola -- it could go up in smoke at any second. Water, one would hope, has more permanence in this world.

On the subject of permanence, the work of Dinh Q. Lê deals directly with the permanent effects of the Vietnam War on the collective consciousness of his homeland. Two of his large-scale photo-tapestries are on display as part of the exhibition. "And just what is a photo-tapestry?" you might ask. Lê takes two images, slices them into slits and weaves the pieces together using traditional Vietnamese grass-mat techniques.

The resulting combination of images boggles the mind.

The more impressive of the two is an untitled work that features a montage photograph of images from Vietnam -- mothers, nurses, soldiers and celebrities -- woven together with a whitened image of a woman's dead-on gaze. Like a mosaic, the image appears to change relative to the viewer's position. From up close, the many different faces of Vietnam pop out of the tapestry. As the viewer backs away from the piece, the woman's frightfully white face becomes all that is apparent. The collective memory responsible for her stare cannot be seen from a distance.

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