Crocheted Creatures: Joana Vasconcelos

In celebration of NMWA’s 30th anniversary, and inspired by the museum’s focus on contemporary women artists as catalysts for change, Revival illuminates how women working in sculpture, photography, and video use spectacle and scale for expressive effect.

Joana Vasconcelos, Tsarina, 2015; Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro faience, ceramic glaze, and Azores crocheted lace, 55 1/8 x 27 1/2 x 39 3/8 in.; Collection of the artist; © Joana Vasconcelos

Joana Vasconcelos (b. 1971, Paris, France)

Joana Vasconcelos grew up traveling to museums across the globe with her family and her work expresses sensibilities cultivated during that time. Vasconcelos is interested in expressing universal themes through techniques and materials that are traditionally identified as Portuguese. “My creative process is based upon the appropriation, de-contextualization and subversion of pre-existent objects and everyday realities,” says the artist. Vasconcelos combines the exaggerated scale of her sculptures with the delicacy of traditionally feminine handcraft. Her explorations of the paradoxical dichotomies between power and vulnerability captivate audiences, prompting them to engage with her work.

Left to right: A museum visitor with Joana Vasconcelos’s Viriato (2005), Senator (2017), and Tsarina  (2015) next to a hanging work by Sonia Gomes in Revival

The Artist’s Voice:

“The use of crochet and the compartmentalization of forms restates the idea that we often act and live divorced from our conscience, that we don’t question our perceptions enough. Lace is paradoxical in that it was used by Portuguese women to fill the emptiness of their lives; it was the only means of expression available, the sole response to an absolutely passive social situation.”

“Lace decorates and protects, but protection is another manifestation of imprisonment. It’s for the spectator to decide what the crochet means for him, whether it’s showpiece or dungeon.”—Joana Vasconcelos, in an interview published in Joana Vasconcelos: Versailles (LeYa, 2012)

Joana Vasconcelos, Senator, 2017; Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro faience, ceramic glaze, and Azores crocheted lace, 34 5/8 x 21 1/4 x 23 5/8 in.; Collection of the artist; © Joana Vasconcelos; Photo © Unidade Infinita Projectos

Revival Highlight:

Vasconcelos’s works in Revival question viewers’ assumptions about nature. She presents large, mass-produced forms of a German shepherd, an enlarged snail, and a larger-than-life wasp—their forms covered in patterned lace. Rather than simply delight viewers, the over-sized representations of these creatures unsettle, startle, and even frighten the viewer. The intricate crochet encasing them raises more questions. Does the lace protect or imprison these animals? Does lace adorn the creatures or hide something treacherous about them?

Vasconcelos combines mass-produced lawn ornaments made in Portugal with Azores lace. Although lawn decorations and crocheted works are often associated with domesticity, Vasconcelos transforms them into high art, challenging the art establishment’s traditional conceptions of artistic value. Within the ambiguity of her combined symbols, she reveals the face of domesticity, its double-binding nature of simultaneous entrapment and protection.

Visit the museum and explore Revival, on view through September 10, 2017.

—Xiaoxiao Meng is the summer 2017 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Patterned Pathmakers

Dynamic women designers and artists from the mid-20th century and today create innovative designs, maintain craft traditions, and incorporate new aesthetics into fine art in Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft, and Design, Midcentury and Today, now on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Each week, compare and draw parallels between works on view in Pathmakers and NMWA collection favorites.

On view in Pathmakers

Dorothy Liebes, Prototype Theatre Curtain for DuPont Pavilion

Liebes’s work in Pathmakers represents her skill in fusing natural and synthetic materials into colorful, cutting-edge textiles. Her innovative, custom-designed modern fabrics appealed to prominent architects and her mass-produced designs modernized the textile industry.

8-Liebes-Prototype-Theatre-Curtain-for-DuPont-Pavilion

Dorothy Liebes, Prototype theater curtain for DuPont Pavilion, New York World’s Fair, 1964; DuPont Orlon and Fairtex metallic yarn, 99 1/2 x 46 3/4 in.; Museum of Arts and Design; Gift of Dorothy Liebes Design, through the American Craft Council, 1973; Photo by Eva Heyd

Who made it?

Hailed as the “mother of modern weaving,” Dorothy Liebes (1897–1972) taught herself to weave on a small handloom while in college. She began designing textiles in the 1930s and became one of the first American artists to adapt her weaving techniques into mass production. After opening a studio in San Francisco in 1930, Liebes designed custom textiles for leading architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright.

Paving the way for women designers like Hella Jongerius, Liebes was commissioned to design textiles for the United Nations headquarters. The Museum of Modern Art regularly exhibited her work and she received the 1970 American Craft Council Gold Medal.

How was it made?

In the late 1940s and early ’50s, Liebes’s focus shifted from custom weaving to working with industry. She became known for her revolutionary combinations of natural and synthetic materials. Prototype Theatre Curtain for DuPont Pavilion was commissioned during her 20-year relationship with the DuPont chemical company. Liebes helped DuPont promote the image of manufactured fiber by making it look like a familiar natural material. The curtain in Pathmakers is exemplary of Liebes’s trademark combinations of color and industrial materials. A single panel of fabric, the work contains repeating vertical stripes in luminous shades of green and blue and shimmering strands of metallic thread. Through integrating unusual materials, such as sequins and nylon fibers, Liebes created bold, vibrant textiles.

Collection connection

Joana Vasconcelos, Viriato, 2005; Faience dog, handmade cotton crochet, 29 1/2 x 17 3/4 x 15 3/4 in.; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC

Joana Vasconcelos, Viriato, 2005; Faience dog, handmade cotton crochet, 29 1/2 x 17 3/4 x 15 3/4 in.; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC

In NMWA’s collection, Viriato by Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos (b. 1971) also melds consumer culture with craft forms. Named after a first-century leader of Portugal, Viriato consists of a ceramic dog covered in an intricate crocheted cotton yarn—in shades similar to those found in Liebes’s curtain. Eye-catching and unconventional, the needlework obstructs the dog sculpture beneath.

Vasconcelos examines consumer culture through works that cross the boundary between “high” and “low” art. She often envelops everyday items in crocheted or knitted materials. Through integrating a mass-produced, decorative sculpture with traditional crochet, Vasconcelos reveals the conflict between handcrafted and manufactured.

Visit the museum and explore Pathmakers, on view through February 28, 2016.

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.