Allyson Mitchell, Brain Child, 2008. Large crocheted brain (121.92 x 91.44 x 76.2) on 106.68cm plinth; ceramic busts, ceramic heads, and numerous ceramic figures measuring from 7.62 to 91.44cm tall.
Hand-crafted projects are often displayed in places of pride in living rooms, on mantel pieces or sideboards as testaments to the skilled, creative persuits of the homes’ inhabitants. Creating crafts through the use of patterns became popular in Europe and its colonies in the nineteenth century. Craft kits, an evolutionary product in amateur craft culture, resulted from the mid-century shift in thought regarding the ‘modern woman,’ who was able to create the same craft objects, only with less effort, in less time, and with less expenditure on special materials. In Victorian England, women’s handicrafts were regularly characterized as subordinate to fine or “high” art genres, such as painting and sculpture (generally men’s domain), because women’s domestic crafts were viewed as mere copies of patterns resulting in gaudy and frivolous kitsch. They were seen as being uncapable of displaying any creative originality or redeeming technical innovation. Arts and Crafts movement leaders often devalued domestic handicraft. For example, Lewis F. Day wrote disdainfully: “How many women there are who have perpetually in hand some piece of fancy needlework, and how few of them succeed in accomplishing anything that can justly lay claim to artistic excellence!” This patronizing tone carried over into the twentieth century, where Modernist attitudes toward women’s hobby craft were equally as demeaning. Pre-eminent art critics Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg vehemently disparaged the domestic craft aesthetic in their writing, arguing that women’s hobby crafts were the antithesis of Modern art because of its mediocre, middle class, and mundane associations.
Maximalist (as opposed to modern art’s minimalist) feminist artist Allyson Mitchell recasts the misogyny that belittles and overlooks the creativity and brilliance of girls and women. Marching along the top edge of the Living Room’s wall and furling out through the open doorway into the space beyond the Living Room’s boundary are two processional lines of ceramic girl figures who march toward a large looming crocheted brain suspended atop a pearlescent ceramic column. There are almost 100 girls in this processional arrangement. Many of them wear sweet dresses and big pillowy bonnets, and clasp baskets or bushels of flowers gingerly in front of their bodies. Each figure represents Holly Hobby, a popular character from the 1970s and 80s. Holly Hobby embodied the traditional white, middle-class femininity that was in line with conservative family values prominent at the time, which resulted from the pushback to leftist social movements (such as the Women’s Liberation movement and Gay Rights movement) that conservatives felt threatened the establishment of the American nuclear family. Allyson – whose crafty, DIY art practice prompts her to visit second hand stores, thrift shops, and garages sales – started noticing and collecting the reoccurring ceramic kit Holly Hobby girls, each individually painted according to the crafter’s taste. Allyson created a mold of some of the original figures she collected and cast more, the result being the army of girls you see in the Living Room. In this work, Allyson imagines a secret society of girl geniuses where their exaggerated bonnets disguise giant brains. Each arm of the processional spawns out of a nucleus-like cluster of giant bonneted heads (brains) without bodies, and as the girls march toward the massive crocheted brain that serves as the processional pinnacle, they increase in size. The burgundy, pink, and white ridged textile brain represents the collective creative brilliance of girls and women. The grand brain inspires and supports the ceramic girls, while the ceramic girls give it power through their devotional adulation. In front of the grand textile brain, ceramic figures of knitting grannies and large girl-sentries hold court, while a circle of ceramic brains establishes a tributary area at the base of the crocheted brain’s white-and-pink iridescent column. With Brain Child, Allyson recasts the paternalistic views of infantilized femininity and the amateur craft culture associated with it on its head.