Coming Ravelled: The Crochet Coral Reef as Outsider Art

This is a modified version of the essay written for the catalog for the Wert Und Wandel Der Korallen exhibit that filled the Museum Frieder Burda in Baden-Baden earlier this year. The catalog has been published in English as Christine and Margaret Wertheim: Value and Transformation of Corals and is available from DAP and at sophisticated booksellers everywhere. Get it if you want to know THE TRUTH ABOUT WORMS!

Australian twins Margaret and Christine Wertheim founded  the Institute For Figuring in Los Angeles in 2003 “to contribute to the public understanding of scientific and mathematical themes through innovative programming that includes exhibitions, lectures, workshops, and participatory, community based projects.”

In their dedicated exhibition space (destroyed by fire in 2013) as well as in collaboration with institutions ranging from LA’s Museum of Jurassic Technology to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, the IFF has presented such remarkable bodies of visual/conceptual work as the “outsider physics” of James Carter, the Logic Alphabet of Dr. Shea Zellweger and original artifacts from Friedrich Froebel’s revolutionary pedagogical experiment known as Kindergarten.

CW: Froebel; Zellweger; Carter

But by far their most successful and widely-seen project has been the Crochet Coral Reef, a constantly evolving collaborative sculptural installation inspired by the fiber craft medium’s capacity to represent hyperbolic mathematical forms, the need to increase public awareness of global warming in general and its effect on the Great Barrier Reef in particular, and the desire to create a collaborative artwork that embraces participants from the widest possible demographic. 

Utilizing commercial and hand-spun yarns, VHS tape and military-grade electroluminescent wire, oceanic flotsam and domestic jetsam, the Wertheims and a core group of collaborators have assembled an ever-growing phantasmagorical display that has appeared in over 30 exhibitions around the world (including the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute and the 2019 Venice Biennale), almost always with a locally generated “Satellite Reef” — a form of creative social engagement that has to date incorporated over 20,000 artistic collaborators from all walks of life.

To consider the Crochet Coral Reef as a work of Outsider Art, we have to untangle the complex relationship between the history of erasure of “women’s work” from the (art) historical record, the discovery and promotion of the art of various excluded populations huddled under the “Outsider” tent, and the sometimes incompatible strategies employed to attempt to rectify these occlusions.

CW: Detzel; Godie; Aloïse; Gill

In spite of the fact that Outsider Art and Feminist Art both began to gain popular and historical traction during the same period – the early 1970s – the breakdown of noteworthy Outsider artists along gender lines has mysteriously mirrored that of the conventional art world. Although there are notable exceptions – visionary English spiritualist Madge Gill; first draft Art Brutista Aloïse Corbaz (who had an imaginary romance with Kaiser Wilhelm II); former seamstress, abortionist and railway saboteur turned Prinzhorn Collection dummy-maker Katharina Detzel; Chicago DIY gutter-glam icon Lee Godie. There are a handful of others, but the demographics are pretty much in line with Jean Dubuffet’s statement announcing the formation of the (all-male) Compagnie de l’Art Brut, “We are seeking works that exhibit the abilities of invention and of creation in a very direct fashion, without masks or constraints. We believe these abilities exist (at least at times) in every man.” (1)

Although concerted efforts have been made to address this imbalance in recent years, the auction record speaks for itself. A tip sheet from Christie’s auction house for their 2016 Outsider and Vernacular Art sale includes only one woman — the late developmentally disabled fibre artist Judith Scott, whose star has only been ascendent over the last decade.

Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses, The Quilting Bee, 1950, oil on pressed board

One self-taught female painter did recently break the $1 million glass ceiling. Perhaps the most famous Outsider artist in America prior to the popularization of the term was a woman — Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses (September 7, 1860 – December 13, 1961), whose orthogonally-challenged pastorals were revered (equally to the works of her friend and neighbor Norman Rockwell) as a chronicles of a lost Arcadian America. 

Tellingly, Ms. Moses’ fame only arrived when arthritis forced her to give up embroidery and other sewing-based activities at the age of 78. We’ll broach the implications of this when we dissect “Craft as Art” in short order. But first we should consider whether Moses’ works — and by analogous legerdemain, the Crochet Coral Reef — may be legitimately classified as “Outsider.” 

To those outside the world of Outsider Art, the main theme of its theoretical discourse appears to consist of internecine arguments about what exactly does or does not constitute Outsider Art — at least whenever the debate over the use of that particular umbrella term (versus Self-taught, Intuitive, Visionary, Art Brut, Folk, Naive, and Primitive) dies down. 

Some purists adhere to a strict Prinzhorn-derived lineage, requiring proof of institutionalization and a notarized DSM diagnosis — in spite of the radical reorganization such criteria have undergone in the last fifty years. Others emphasize a lack of formal training, though most contemporary graduate programs hinge on idiosyncrasy and plausible de-skilling. Still others focus on aesthetic, structural, or conceptual markers — horror vacui, for example, or obsessive cataloging, or invented languages. 

Moses’ postwar paintings fell on the Folk, Naive, Primitive end of the spectrum, and their enormous popularity and institutional support during the ascent of Abstract Expressionism prefigured the fetishization of “authenticity” that typified the populist skepticism towards Modern Art — and has, in another incarnation, characterized the Outsider milieu ever since. But she was never in the loony bin, was not (as far as we know) channeling a Mesopotamian scribe, and in fact seems to have suffered from no remarkable psychological abnormalities. 

During her lifetime (and, in fact, for the following decades up to the present time) many Art World insiders considered Moses to be little more than a reactionary shill, a folksy cartoon hillbilly tilting at the windmills of Modernism at the behest of her crypto-fascist ruling-class masters. In retrospect, however, Moses can be seen to be undermining a number of problematic aspects inherent to the Modernist agenda: she was rural as opposed to urban, from the servant class rather than the middle or upper, she was old, and she was a woman. Perhaps most subversive was her casual, unheroic, transactional attitude towards her work.

In her 2001 essay The White-haired Girl: A Feminist Reading Judith E. Stein recounts how “an Art Digest reporter gave a charming, if simplified, account of the genesis of Moses’ turn to paint­ing, recounting her desire to give the postman ‘a nice little Christmas gift.’ Not only would the dear fellow appreciate a painting, concluded Grandma, but ‘it was easier to make than to bake a cake over a hot stove.’” (2)

Moses’ easy conflation of Fine Art praxis with domestic chores (and her aforementioned unremarked-upon decades of creative needlework) brings to the surface the perennial divide between Art and Craft and the regular attempts to blur or erase this border — particularly those rooted in late 20th century and contemporary feminism.

CW: Anni Albers; Chicago, Morris, Gee’s Bend(?)

After the swiftly neutralized socialist efforts of William Morris and the Bauhaus, Feminist Art’s redesignation of quilting, weaving, embroidery, etc. as media that had been excluded from the purview of serious art was predicated on a slightly different political ambition: to bring gender parity to the the existing sphere of art history. The laudable mainstream rehabilitation of female art stars like Artemisia Gentileschi, Camille Claudel, and Frida Kahlo was a modification of the procession of Great Geniuses that made up the Western Canon. Socially-oriented Feminist art strategies that deemphasized individual egos in favor of anonymous collaboration received far less attention, as the culture grew increasingly celebrity-centric.

In contrast, the Outsider agenda, informed by the anarchistic sentiments of Jean Dubuffet, saw exclusion from the mainstream as the source of its legitimacy, while adhering to the archetype of the solo-artist-as-heroic-genius. These diverging attitudes towards assimilation by the establishment were a major factor in the persistent alienation of the feminist and outsider ideologies. Central to this divide is the idea of art as the result of solitary (or solitary confinement) exploration where many are called but few are chosen, as opposed to the possibility of art as a game-like social activity where anyone can play.

Signal craft-based Feminist works like Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party were emphatically built on a paradigm of communal conviviality (albeit funneled through Ms. Chicago’s celebrity persona.) In the late 20th and early 21st century, the Gee’s Bend quilting community (and other groups of marginalized crafty women) emerged from the shadows to reweave the narrative of Modernist abstract design innovation. But there’s evidence to suggest that the idea of rectifying the quilting bee’s role within the histories of art and civilization is putting the cart before the horse.

Attributed to the Amasis Painter, detail from terracotta lekythos (oil flask) depicting a group of women making woolen cloth, ca. 550–530 BC (detail)

In Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, Elizabeth Wayland Barber demonstrates how the explicitly social nature of large-scale weaving (and other textile traditions) can be deduced from archaeological evidence (Finnish bog-corpse wrappings dating to 1300 BCE; archaic Greek vase paintings depicting cloth-making collectives). There’s no reason this social model can’t be projected back into a prehistoric context. In a passage worth quoting at length, Barber proposes a radical reassessment of the relationship between women’s work and civilization:

We don’t know how early to date this great discovery—of making string as long and as strong as needed by twisting short filaments together. But whenever it happened, it opened the door to an enormous array of new ways to save labor and improve the odds of survival, much as the harnessing of steam did for the Industrial Revolution. Soft, flexible thread of this sort is a necessary prerequisite to making woven cloth. On a far more basic level, string can be used simply to tie things up—to catch, to hold, to carry. From these notions come snares and fishlines, tethers and leashes, carrying nets, handles, and packages, not to mention a way of binding objects together to form more complex tools… So powerful, in fact, is simple string in taming the world to human will and ingenuity that I suspect it to be the unseen weapon that allowed the human race to conquer the earth, that enabled us to move out into every econiche on the globe during the Upper Palaeolithic. We could call it the String Revolution. (3)

Impression of woven fabric in fired clay found at Dolní Věstonice archeological site in Czech Republic, ca 25,000 BCE

The contexts broached thus far constitute a lengthy preamble to this proposition: That the Crochet Coral Reef is indeed “Outside” — not in the sense of being pushed to the far margins of the dominant culture and deserving a position closer to the spotlight, but in the sense that it is part of a larger, longer-lasting continuum that contains its alleged host. 

The Crochet Coral Reef is a dispersed, postmodern network that organizes individual practitioners of contemplative handcrafts into real-world and virtual communities, embracing the potential of the global digital neural rhizome, but looping back to replicate the prehistoric communal artmaking rituals of our distant ancestors. 

The default Outsider genius trope arises in direct correlation to the artist’s divergence from normative consensus reality, a “coming unravelled” from the imaginational bindings of the lowest common social denominator, designating them as disassociated.

But the true object of human art-making is human consciousness, and the basic unit of creativity is self awareness: awareness doubled back on itself to create a knot in the undifferentiated sentience of Gaia, generating a figure-ground event. The accumulation of these knots in the collective awareness of our species is our true culture; we are homo macrame.

Loops and folds, knots and weaves, render line into something more convoluted —  and stronger. The linear models for history, of language, of thought – so conducive to authoritarian supervision, to the narratives of Kings and Priests and CEOs – are curdled in the process. If we can get outside of that we may yet have a chance to survive.

 (1) Jean Dubuffet, A Word About the Company of Raw Art (1948), translated by Carol Volk, from Asphyxiating Culture and Other Writings, Four Walls Eight Windows, New York, 1988, pg 110

(2) in Grandma Moses in the Twenty-First Century. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001, quoting from “Grandma Moses,” Art Digest, October 15, 1940, online at https://judithestein.com/2017/12/28/the-white-haired-girl-a-feminist-reading/

(3) Elizabeth Wayland Barber Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years W. W. Norton & Company New York London 1994 Pg 70

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