Breaking the Mold of Tradition

Break the Mold: New Takes on Traditional Art Making showcases contemporary artists who are using traditional modes of artmaking and crafting to tackle timely subject matter. Innovative takes on embroidery, ceramics, quilting, furniture, interior design, and fashion accessories serve to explore diverse topics such as gender assumptions and inequalities, prison reform, racial justice, memory, and loss, as well as how objects encapsulate, transmit, and transform social and cultural history.


Featured in Break the Mold: Devorah Sperber, After van Gogh (Self-Portrait), 2008, 408 spools of thread, stainless-steel ball chain and hanging apparatus, clear acrylic viewing sphere, and metal stand, H. 28 × W. 21 (thread only) × 60 in. (viewing sphere), variable height up to 130 in. (with ball chain and hanging apparatus), Courtesy of the artist; Photograph: Courtesy of the artist

Tradition plays an uncomfortable role in contemporary art. Artists working today strive to make something new, to revolutionize the subject matter or materials, or (at the very least) contribute something unexpected—but the art that came before also provides an important context and, sometimes, much-needed contrast. The historic and the contemporary, then, feed each other in meaningful ways: contemporary art extends the lineage of these craft and artistic traditions, while the historical work expands the context for the contemporary.

Lucas Samaras, Chair, 1985, mixed media, dimensions variable, Collection of Hedy Fischer and Randy Shull

One of my favorite updates in this exhibition is this “chair” by Lucas Samaras. In many of his sculptures, Lucas Samaras blurs the line between functional objects and works of art. How can one be transformed into another? Beginning in the 1960s, the American artist began a series of chairs created out of unexpected materials (like wire, pipe cleaners, plaster, and even repurposed kitchen utensils), most of which cannot bear weight. Chair resembles a seat but does not allow for a chair’s intended use. It is a playful work of art that permits viewers to consider a familiar object, like the 17th-century chair it’s paired with, in a completely unfamiliar way and humorously connects to the artist’s surname: as he wrote in 1970, “Samaras in Greek means ‘saddle maker.’”

Like the NCMA’s recent Interchanges project, which “remixed” the Museum’s collection to display similarities between items typically separated by time period or geography, Break the Mold provides fascinating juxtapositions, allowing us to consider how contemporary artists layer meaning, tradition, and artistic history into even the most modern artworks. Engaging contemporary works in conversation with their legacies allows us to extend and expand expectations and understandings for them all.

Jennifer Dasal
Jennifer Dasal is a former curator of modern and contemporary art at the NCMA.

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