Sunday, October 26, 2008

thoughts on craft

Romanesco pendant, polyester resin, fiberclass, LEDs, 30 x 30 cm, made to commission. Ulrika Jarl (lights)

I've mentioned craft a few times now in unflattering terms. What's my problem with craft? And what does this have to do with the "change in a wider sense" I mention on the header of this blog?

I'll share my history. My first art qualification was a 3 year diploma in studio ceramics obtained in 1984. After that I had a designer/maker ceramics business that did very well. I immersed myself in this particular section of the craft industry, the intersections of craft and industry, and all the reasons why craft survived in the age of factory production - along with how craft becomes a version of factory production. I saw a lot of craft work in all kinds of guises and situations. I enjoyed it, I bought it, I thought it often beautiful and intriguing but at some point it ceased to have much to offer me. I wanted more - what, I didn't know.

Ultimately I closed down my business and went back to university to learn more about fine art, getting a BFA and an MFA in painting. I never wanted to see another piece of clay again... My interest in craft ran out. Though I was disillusioned in various ways that may color some of my comments, the main point is that I feel craft (in the strictest sense) to be limited by certain parameters, and to function mainly within arenas that I would rather question. So when I say William Pye's bronze wave deserves a booth at the local craft fair I mean that he is showing a lack of awareness of wider issues. He is not addressing concerns that I consider important.

"Craft" refers to a skill, and craftwork often centers around these skills. A well-crafted novel MAY be rather dull conceptually. The craft of painting refers to how the painting is made, whether the layers will adhere, or the brushstrokes are well made or the face on the portrait is ... what? Neat? Suitable? Skilled? Professional? This has nothing to do with what art can accomplish by altering assumptions, opening up visions and ideas of things we hadn't thought of before. The visionary, intangible aspects that live on beyond the layers of varnish and nicely turned handles. My previous interest in craft and industry has become more conceptual, involving a contemplation of the cultural contexts and implications.

My current manifesto is that technology (or "skill") is just a tool, and that re-defining the criteria used to direct technology (or skills) opens up the possibility of new outcomes. This process is the basis of human ingenuity and development, at the core of progress, responsible for all the technological innovations we currently enjoy, for better or for worse. And as such can be seen at the cutting edge of contemporary concerns, part of the way forward. This is where I see artists contributing to contemporary debate, imagining the unimagined - as opposed to providing palliative products, soothing and reassuring us... which is what the Kinkade cottages are all about, no? Pleasure and fun and reassurance are fine and worthy, but ART is one of the few cultural ...what, institutions?... that is able to deeply question the fabric of society and its assumptions, and propose incredible, fantastic, unimaginable alternatives. As such, my definition of art is that which engages that potential.

Above is pictured an object for sale on an artist/designer's website, falling between craft, art, design and industry perhaps. Open for debate? There are huge crossovers between these areas - its not clear-cut, and all objects can function in different ways. That's my point about Alice Ballard's ceramics. It is a question of definition more than it is a value judgment. What is called craft can function as art, there is no doubt, but for an artwork (whatever other qualities it may have) to fall into the craft category is to conclude, for me, that it has not reached its full potential.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

presentation and perception

Leaf with Small Magnolia Pod, Large Magnolia Pod, 2004 white earthenware, white terra sigillata. Alice Ballard (photo by Luis Quiles, 2007)

Comparison of two presentations of this artist's work illustrate (to me) the move from craft fair to museum. Craft to art (or craft that also functions as art). Why? Its not a style thing, but about attention to the qualities of the item and what it signifies. The black and white (color) photo focuses on intricate form and pregnant lushness contrasting with the smooth, luscious but lifeless material the items are made of. There is balance, contrast, rhythm and a variety of descriptions of form. Black and white, magnolia pod... color issues of the south. Tender white... vulva-like forms... supported by encompassing blackness... well, yeah, it weaves some interesting ideas back and forth! There's a tenderness, a brokenness, a mystery and darkness about the beauty we are shown despite the hard and permanent, pristine reality. The image offers the possibility of discovery, of different understandings.

This color photo is downloaded from the artist's website and may be her own.

Maybe this collection of work doesn't function as well together as the previous selection but its presentation also positions Ballard's work as craft. It does not encourage me to linger on philosophical concerns, it doesn't particularly highlight the qualities of the objects. They become decorative products with a focus on the homespun and rigid layout. Serried rows might suggest factory anonymity, military overtones, or even informal markets (that may be the rattan...) but industrial hardness and logic seems at odds with the objects' lush, full roundness and textured additions, their feminine nature. Lying on a mat at a country market might work but isn't quite coming off. It also suggests casual and affordable - objects "unremarkable" in the daily round that gain cultural significance largely through acknowledgment of cultural context or removal from the market setting.

However, they are obviously for sale, and offers a handy way to display your purchase(s) for those without any better ideas.... What else would you do with one if you bought it? It would be harder (but not impossible) to display it in a special situation laid out permanently like the items in the first image. Or have it in a simple stand near a window where you could pick it up, or just observe the change of light over its shape. Then again, it might be easier to buy a Luis Quiles photograph of Alice Ballard's work with the presentation all worked out.

What am I saying? Last post mentioned the benefits of professional documentation. These images of Ballard's reveal that making the item is only part of the process of making art (or craft with benefits), given that the definition of "art" relies on a consensus of opinion regarding cultural significance.

Top photo from, publicising Tradition/Innovation : American Masterpieces of Southern Craft and Traditional Art, which will be at Knoxville Museum of Art, TN October 4, 2008 to January 18, 2009.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Eliasson again...

Ok, its true, I really like Eliasson's work. His (visually) simple installations, at least. ArtDaily shows the new work in Vienna (lower image) and I found the above image by googling it.

Interestingly, Yellow Fog was first shown in NY in 1998, I think in a group show. I might have to search for a picture of that... Shows that sometimes developments take a while to reach their full potential, something that may get forgotten in the feverish demand for "new work".

Article mentions creating a new perception of urban space. I like it, a lot. Love the place you live!
We are not robots and respond to our environment. The press release also talks about the effect of the inside reaching towards the outside, and connecting the two spaces. Apparently the electricity company (Verbund) has an art collection inside the building. Hmm, electricity, mysterious fog and Vienna kind of...spark... some possibly misguided Mary Shelley Frankenstein associations. Not a bad thing.

Interesting thought about the effect of presentation and professional photography on the perception of an artist's work. I found an amateur clip on YouTube which is good to see but maybe made me think of this. It won't let me post the link but it is easily found. (I'll also post an example of another artist's work illustrating the contrast, next time). Eliasson can now afford the best photographers, the costliest help, advice and materials, which adds an exponential curve to success, when it comes.

Yellowfog, on the facade of an Austrian electricity company HQ, Vienna. (They paid 75,000 euro - good move! Cheap at the price for great publicity and warm fuzzies for them.)
(above) photo by Rupert Steiner
(below) photo by EFE/ Hans Klaus Techt.

Friday, October 10, 2008

photography, asako narahashi

I came across this photographer today and am blown away. She showed for the first time in Paris recently, having come to NY for the first time in the summer. (Must feel great!)

Its a situation that most of us are familiar with...being in the water, looking back at land... but I'm trying to think of other photographers who achieve what she does with this series.

She has gone further than anyone I've seen (I'm not encyclopaedic in my references, so tell me if I'm wrong) in removing the dislocation between viewer and image that photography is famous for. I seem to recall images of football fields with large blades of grass in the foreground, but the physicality of being in the water engages me on a bodily level beyond knowledge of proximity. I so strongly relate to the image can almost smell the water. At the same time as my senses absorb this setting and the freshness of the day, my mind considers the meanings along with the beauty of the graphic image itself.

She apparently holds the camera at chest level and just takes pictures by judging the waves and swells. Wonder how many she takes, and how exciting it is to open them up later! This could account for some of the different visuals - her own visual approach was overridden and it relates more to the body experience. I like to wonder about this stuff. Anyway

more at

I read a blog referring to these images with someone complaining about the lack of "fine craft" and "artistic merit" in photography nowadays... reminding me how valuable it is to examine one's assumptions and definitions occasionally.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

text.... message

One of the great things about the internet is that you can get to see contemporary work - by known AND emerging artists - around the country relatively quickly (if you are willing to spend the time looking...that's the catch). In the old days you'd have to wait for the catalogue or magazine article, or the book.

I like Holzer's large text pieces and this strikes me as a delicious image of one of her latest, created specially for the Guggenheim (wasn't it their re-opening?). It transforms the space, and we all know the shape of the building so well that it connects powerfully. To me. I found it at the ArtDaily newsletter. Bear in mind that (I think) you'd only be able to read this text so clearly from a vantage point close to the projector... the circular shape of the building means that the lettering would be displayed rather differently from an acute side view. I like that about it. Its not fixed, both in the medium, and in its accessibility. Interesting connection with speech, words, etc.

This is a quote from existing texts, quite apt for the current political situation, as we would expect. I have a yearning to see her project positive messages about hope rather than the gloomy words she prefers. Humans do survive incredible things, and it is usually because of hope and faith in the value of life. Positive is powerful.

IMAGE : For the Guggenheim, 2008. Light projection. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Text (pictured) : "Tortures", from View with a Grain of Sand, by Wislawa Szymborska, translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh. Copyright 1003 by Wislawa Szymborska. English translation copyright 1995 by Harcourt, Inc. Used/reprinted with permission of the author. copyright 2008 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY


This reminds me, I hear of a bill they have passed in the senate that will effectively change copyright law (if adopted as they are pressing for) - to the detriment of the artist. Check out to help prevent this from becoming the rule.