Beyond This Last
Alice Motard

The influential British designer and crafts theorist David Pye has famously written that craftsmanship is a word to start an argument with.[1] Though commonly used, the term ‘craft’ itself is a highly speculative one, indistinctively encompassing intimations of skill and know-how, but also gender or even class.

 

The heyday of craftsmanship coincides with the Enlightenment, when its virtues were extolled in Diderot’s and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie (1751–72), whose postulate of the ethical equivalence of manual work and what were considered the nobler occupations was a challenge to the privileges of the aristocracy as the class that shunned physical labour. As the sociologist Richard Sennett explains in The Craftsman, the encyclopaedic project effectively put ‘manual pursuits on an equal footing with mental labours’.[2] This idea would resonate a century later in John Ruskin’s claim of the equal worth of all labour, one of the central propositions in his economic manifesto Unto This Last (which would later be construed as the political philosophy of sarvodaya, or ‘the welfare of all’, sketched by Mahatma Gandhi in his adaptation of the book). [3]

 

While the present exhibition, which borrows its title from Ruskin’s pamphlet, is willing to start an argument, it is not strictly speaking about craft. Nor is it about Ruskin’s theories, whether artistic, economic or ethical. Rather, the idea for this exhibition arose from the observation that a growing number of contemporary artists draw on techniques, methods and imagery traditionally associated with craft in its widest sense. In trying to map the many-branched relationships between craft and art, Ruskin’s observations – formulated at a time when the detrimental effects of industrialisation were becoming obvious – seemed an interesting starting point in that they pre-empted the stubborn dichotomy between artisanship and mass production that would later become ingrained in the modernist axiom. The most visible manifestation of this dissociation was the Arts and Crafts movement which, under the influence of Ruskin’s writings, advocated a return to ‘true’ values in art and design – a claim that the modern project soon dismissed as reactionary and elitist. With the advent of the avant-garde figure of the autonomous artist, whose practice was now likened to that of a cultural producer catering to the masses, anything remotely related to craft was nothing short of embarrassing. The new world at the dawn of the twentieth century was fast-paced and machine-driven; it had no place for knitting needles and potter’s wheels.

 

In the introduction to his anthology The Craft Reader the writer and theorist Glenn Adamson (to whom this show is heavily indebted) demonstrates that this bipolar vision of art and craft deserves to be reconsidered. ‘Craft’, he writes, ‘is not simply antimodern, [but] rather a strain of activity that responds to and conditions the putatively normative experience of modernity, in many and unpredictable ways. […] It entails irregularity, tacit knowledge, inefficiency, handwork, vernacular buildings, functional objects and mysticism’,[4] and thus appears as antagonistic to everything modernity celebrates: ‘rationality, science, capitalism, mechanisation, International Style architecture, autonomous artworks and secularism […]’[5] And while it ‘would be a mistake to cast the matter in such starkly oppositional terms’,[6] it is easy to see why, throughout the twentieth century, artists might have been interested in craft – whether adopting some of its properties or specifically positioning themselves against them. Conceptual Art, most notably, was keen to eliminate the crafted aspect of production, although, according to Adamson, ‘that is not to say that craft is not a way of thinking through ideas.’[7] The assertion that materials associated with craft could be used unprejudicially in a contemporary context resonated particularly with feminist artists in the sixties, who took up the codes of craft to undermine those of gender. The topicality of craftsmanship in the context of art has since resurfaced at regular intervals, and recent exhibitions involving the notion of craft are evidence that artists are again rediscovering practices in which manual skills play an important and – in conjunction with conceptually-inflected approaches – often unsettling role.[8]

 

But can the resurgence of craft today, in the context of a global liberal economy that has recently again shown its limitations, be linked back to Ruskin’s indignation at the ethical shortcomings of capitalism, which he imputed to the maximisation of profit, a notion at the core of the industrial logic? The moral debate on the dysfunctions of the productivist-consumerist model seems to denote increasing wariness of the equivalence between industrialisation and progress. Also, the conservative values with which craft has been consistently identified – skill, honesty and commitment – now favourably distinguish it from the often-invoked cynicism of late capitalism. Unto This Last, then, suggests that if contemporary artists largely continue to abide by the codes of conceptual practice – autonomy, dematerialisation, abstraction and lack of skills, among others – the post-modern regime has provided them with the latitude to appropriate the ‘supplemental, material, skilled, pastoral and amateur’ (Adamson) character of craft to develop a hybrid, post-disciplinary practice that echoes the complexities of today’s world.

 

FLAWS

Among the artists in Unto This Last to have a proper background as a craftsman is Thomas Bayrle. In a recent interview, he reminisces about his practical training as a weaver and his first job in a weaving mill, explaining how this experience had repercussions for his work as an artist.[9]Thus, his so-called ‘superimages’, in which numerous small, identical motifs are interweaved to create a larger picture of the same motif, appear to transpose the ‘warp and weft’ of textile production into other media. Bayrle’s works are often suggestive of textile patterns, in which the relationship between unit and whole, or ornament and structure, becomes a metaphor for the rapport between the individual and the group. The artist is however keen to point out that since the end of the sixties, when he started laying the formal and conceptual foundations of his work, he has been relying on machines and technology whenever possible, remaining faithful to a process of rationalisation which he says has directly evolved from aesthetic considerations.

 

In 1985, the year Auto was completed, computers had not yet taken over the world, which explains why its production involved an amount of handiwork which, by modern standards, appears as mind-boggling as the piece itself, combining the use of a copy machine (itself still a scarce resource back then) and several pairs of hands over many months. Bayrle recycled two of his earlier works – Call me Jim (1976) and Stadt (1977) – by transferring some of their parts onto stereotyped printing plates, which were used to produce prints on transparent pieces of latex rubber that could be stretched, distorted, enlarged or scaled down at will with the help of a photocopier.[10] The result anticipates today’s digital imagery, but its allure to the contemporary viewer arguably derives from its irregularities, which as well as an acknowledgement of the flawed idea of perfection, suggests that the nostalgic wish for imprecision is intrinsic to our aesthetic sensibility.

 

Echoing Bayrle’s rational approach to the work process, Isabelle Cornaro, while describing her practice as drawing without the hand, dismisses the expressivity deriving from the artist’s gesture. Instead, she devolves any hint of affect onto the material, which becomes the sole recipient of the spectator’s ideological or sentimental projections. In her photographs, films, prints, or object-based sculptures and installations, Cornaro questions prevailing western cultural and historical systems of representation with the help of objects which she chooses for their emotional value.

 

Her series of ‘Moulages sur le vif (vide-poches)’ [Ad-hoc Casts (‘Tidy Trays’)], for instance, consists of prints made from life-size scans of objects placed on coloured backgrounds. Cornaro’s images are the photomechanical equivalents of sculptures based on live casts, an antique technique refined in sixteenth-century France, at a time when the dominant aesthetic regime of classicism, with its insistence on faithful representation of nature, was gradually discarded in favour of mechanical reproduction. The scanning process similarly implies the idea of reproduction through contact, the ‘live’ physical closeness to the real object aiming for greatest possible verisimilitude. As the part of the title in brackets suggests, the items chosen by the artist – domestic or decorative objects loosely clustered according to categories evoking notions of economy or prestige – were arranged under the scanner without any compositional scheme in mind, the vide-poches, a French term for the small bowl, often kept by the front door, used to collect the contents of one’s pockets. Scanning, much like discharging one’s personal belongings into a ‘tidy tray’, partly divests them of their economic, functional or sentimental value: recording the objects layer by layer results in an image that favours no particular viewpoint but a multiplicity of perspectives deriving from the collapse of the image space. While thwarting any notion of skill or virtuosity, Cornaro’s ‘live casts’ effectively undermine the ideal of an accurate representation of reality.

 

In a similar vein, the casting technique used in Cornaro’s ‘Homonymes’ is a nod to the Renaissance French ceramist Bernard Palissy, who most famously modelled his ‘live’ casts on freshly killed animals. In this instance, the artist asked a professional mouldmaker to fashion casts of mass-produced items similar to those she pictures in her prints. The results are arranged on tabletops according to a set of arbitrary categories: measuring tools, patterned or ornamented objects, figurative and tautological objects, and miscellaneous objects. Cornaro’s ‘Homonymes’ are a sculptural acknowledgment of Michel Foucault’s theory that the naming, ordering or simply staging of things is indicative of the relationships between power, discourse and knowledge.

 

EMBARRASSMENT

In a new series of prints commissioned by Raven Row, Andrea Büttner draws on The Little Flowers of St Francis, an anthology of stories on the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, presumably written in the fourteenth century by several Tuscan authors. The Italian term ‘fioretti’, or ‘little flowers’, denotes a florilegium of noteworthy things or events, and Büttner’s series is likewise a hybrid collection of motifs ranging from near-abstraction to figuration. Her prints were made from woodcuts, a technique which contributed substantially to the dissemination of religious imagery from the late Middle Ages onwards. The woodcut, as the art historian and curator Andrew Bonacina has indicated ‘is fetishised for the involvement of the artist’s hand […] but is also by its nature expedient and democratic’.[11] On the other hand, early xylographic production involved a system of division of labour between the artist who produced the design, the craftsman in charge of cutting the wood and the printer who transferred the image to paper.

 

Büttner’s fioretti, for which these complementary roles were conflated into one, continue her investigation into the practical and hermeneutical concerns shared by religion and art. When asked about her practice, which frequently uses supposedly antiquated techniques such as wood carving, glass painting or clay sculpture, Büttner often invokes the idea of shame as a concomitant feeling of the artist’s confrontation with the public, which she describes notably as an exposure. She thus opposes the hesitancy gnawing at the amateur practitioner, which manifests itself in both the imperfection and intensity of labour involved in the handcrafted work of art, to the assertive stance that the public has come to expect from the professional artist. Büttner’s prints seem to indicate that, contrary to the modernist rationale, art, like the stories of saints, is fundamentally a matter of belief – in oneself and in others.

Although a distinct liking for a hands-on approach also characterises the work of Daniel Dewar and Grégory Gicquel, their appropriation of craft is not a return to what Glenn Adamson, in his essay for the present publication, describes as ‘a life of craftsy self-sufficiency’. Dewar & Gicquel’s use of traditional artisanal techniques is first and foremost an excuse to recapture a sense of physical confrontation with the material aspects of art-making. Dealing with actual matter also allows them to create forms which simply could not have been achieved by any other means, and consequently acts as a catalyst for their imagination.

 

To the historian, Dewar & Gicquel’s ‘professional dabbling’ in clay sculpture might appear like a late echo of the renewed interest in traditional techniques cultivated by a number of artists in the fifties. Adamson cites a programme at the Los Angeles Otis Art Institute set up by Peter Voulkos, which initiated students in a ‘how-not-to’[12] approach to clay, describing how the teacher ‘and his students, nearly all men, stayed up late, drank a great deal, and made mostly roughly painted, often huge, pots’.[13] But while that generation of artists ‘assumed that pottery was a problem, something to be overcome’,[14] Dewar & Gicquel are unapologetic and inquisitive practitioners of a wide array of artisanal techniques ranging from pottery to carpet weaving and stone carving.

 

In Untitled, they embrace the full range of properties of clay – its malleability and capacity to be shaped when wet, but also its tendency to crack or collapse in the drying process. If their use of clay can be said to be subversive, it is because it stages a dramatic shift in scale, departing from the petite figurine or model to materialise outrageously bulky replicas of, say, hippopotami. Or because, in the course of the exhibition, the sketchily shaped hippos will dry up and eventually fold under their own weight, leaving only a ‘blind’ heap of largely indistinct (and hence unsellable) matter. All the same, their sculptures exploit the visual and textural similarity of clay with the objects they represent. Their equally whimsical Adobe Gang – the title referring simultaneously to the ancient construction material and the clandestine nature of the work – is a photograph of an in situ work produced in a clay quarry while the workers were away. It takes little imagination to picture the looks on the chaps’ faces when returning from their holiday break, only to discover their workplace invaded by a monumental sculpture depicting a bunch of naked dudes huddling around a sports car. The Adobe Gang is a double take on amateur practice, a nifty détournement that short-circuits popular imagery with neo-proletarian drudgery.

 

MARGINS

In ‘Common Knowledge’, a series of wall-mounted pressed flowers evolving from an ongoing practice, Sarah Browne similarly challenges two presumed characteristics of craft: the pastoral and the amateur. In doing so, she corroborates Adamson’s observation that ‘the pastoral and the amateur are conceptual structures in which craft’s marginalisation has been consciously put to use’.[15] The grid-like display of the series is an obvious hint at conceptualism. At the same time, the intellectual activity associated with the books in which the flowers were pressed – a compendium of works by male sociologists, philosophers and anthropologists – is clearly at odds with the feminine subtext of the practice.[16] In the artist’s own words, ‘these flowers meet at the interface of a traditional feminine craft and an intellectual enquiry into amateurism, economics and mass cultural production’.[17] Not unlike Büttner’s investigation of the artist’s embarrassment, ‘Common Knowledge’ can thus be likened to a self-reflexive questioning of the artist’s practice, while surreptitiously addressing issues of class and gender: flower crafts was a widely common pastime for upper class women in the Victorian age, an aestheticised, leisurely version of botanical studies.[18]

 

The gender issues emerging in Browne’s work must be seen in light of a broader discussion on marginality. This reflection is particularly well served by craft, as Adamson points out: ‘Because craft is figured as a sign of marginality, identities that are themselves marginalised can in turn employ it as an instrument of self-recognition and critique.’[19] Běla Kolářová’s work is a case in point here. In Prague during the late fifties, she began experimenting with various photographic techniques and developed her trademark ‘artificial negatives’, which enabled her to record the traces of organic or everyday objects by either projecting them directly on photographic paper, or imprinting them into a layer of paraffin applied to sheets of cellophane. The similarity with Isabelle Cornaro’s ‘Moulages sur le vif (vide-poches)’ is striking, resulting in a direct impression of reality that echoes early experiments of photography without a camera. In 1963/64 Kolářová produced a series of photographs of human hair (her own), which has been described as an effort ‘to render visible and important something utterly inconspicuous and personal, something we might discard with embarrassment’.[20] As the art historian Marie Klimešová recalls, Kolářová mainly worked with objects that were invested with an ‘archetypal, female and personal’[21] touch, while constructing conceptual relationships between image and text (as witness for instance an arrangement of hair evoking the shape of verses of poetry or alphabetical letters).

 

Negative-Positive (1965), which forms part of one of Kolářová’s early series of material assemblages, consists of countless snap fasteners arranged on sheets of cardboard. The male and female parts of the fasteners have been positioned so that if the paper were folded, they would snugly sit beside each other and form the ‘whole’ picture. Kolářová here plays on the principle of male-female complementarity to create what looks essentially like a conceptual work. Anticipating Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), Kolářová’s Dishes Cycle (1966) also uses domestic paraphernalia such as clips, snap fasteners, hairpins and strass jewellery. The tiny trivial objects have been glued onto sheets of glass to form decorative, kaleidoscopic compositions which are displayed on plastic draining racks – a setting simultaneously evocative of dissecting plates in a science laboratory and dishes on a kitchen sink. In the same spirit, drawings such as Day By Day, Each Different (1979) divert make-up and lipstick to create abstract, grid-based compositions of serial motifs, thus linking the personal (the everyday ritual of putting on make-up) to the political (male-dominated Conceptual Art).

Kolářová’s constructions of antagonistic reference systems can be compared both to Sarah Browne’s gender- and class-related preoccupations and to issues raised by Alice Channer: for instance in her work In Form, a paper sculpture that mimics seersucker. A cotton fabric mostly used for light summer clothing, seersucker had been in use for centuries in India, where, in the nineteenth century, it was readily adopted by Her Majesty’s subjects trying to come to grips with the punishing heat on colonial shores. Back home, it was worn mainly by the lower classes of society until, ‘in the twenties, stylish [US] undergraduates, in a spirit of reverse snobbery, took up the thin puckered fabric for summer wear.’[22] This reversal of fortune illustrates the contingency of clothing or fashion – a notion which implicitly unsettles the idea of autonomy cherished by modernity. While exposing art as an act of imitation, Channer reintroduces its functionality by staging In Form as a kind of room divider, a liminal investment of the gallery space (fittingly, a former shop front) which, through the fabric’s implicit association with clothing, is both physically and conceptually related to the spectator’s body. 

 

POWER

In How to make Muscha in Vaasa Sarah Browne describes her attempts at brewing moonshine during a residency in Finland. The work consists of a still, designed and assembled by the artist, the components of which are exhibited in the secretive back space of the gallery. The bespoke crate used to transport the work doubles as a plinth, its lid serving as a wall-mounted shelf holding a bottle containing the homemade spirit. The installation is accompanied by a text with instructions aping the straight-faced injunctions of Conceptual Art, as well as technical drawings of the still which, incidentally, are evocative of the plates illustrating the Encyclopédie. Browne’s showpiece of learning-by-doing alludes to the history of nineteenth-century Finnish immigrants to the United States, who took up clandestine distilling during the prohibition era. Moonshine is traditionally associated with the working classes, more particularly with men; an illegal activity, it threatens both the social and economical order – an issue to which Scandinavian governments are particularly sensitive if their restrictive policies on alcohol consumption are anything to go by. By brewing her own illicit beverage, Browne, who drew on a circle of people to help her with technical advice and construction, thus staged a collective act of autarkic resistance. How to make Muscha in Vaasa derives from the artist’s interest in primitive economic systems, in which the professional and the private were closely intertwined (such an idealised form of communal life served for instance as a model for the experimental arts and crafts community Charles Robert Ashbee set up in the Cotswolds in 1902).

 

Matter upon Matter, by Pernille Kapper Williams, consists of two porcelain soup cups placed on top of each other with rims facing. The cups were manufactured by Royal Copenhagen, the official purveyor of hand-painted porcelain to the court of Denmark. Traditionally reserved to the nobility, porcelain was ‘democraticised’ in the nineteenth century, when manufacturers, in want of aristocratic customers, made it available to the newly emerging bourgeois classes. The designs for the cheaper ware often reprised those created for the princely courts, and while the materials used in their production were of lesser quality, the nimbus of the ‘hand-painted’ motif was largely preserved as a token of noblesse. Kapper Williams, who studied both in Denmark and Germany, recounts how disconcerted she was when she realised that the so-called ‘Blue Fluted’ pattern, which she had believed to be archetypically Danish, had in fact been developed and produced by the renowned Meissen manufacture in Germany. By creating a reversible sculpture from two such cups, the artist subtly problematises issues of design, intellectual property and protectionism, while calling the spectator’s attention to the fact that cultural goods are objects of desire and power, but also identity.

 

Kapper Williams’s object Untitled (Duster) is both anthropomorphic (made from ostrich feathers and resembling an ostrich) and baroque, contravening the stereotypical image of the ready-made. When buying the duster, the artist found out that its sales pitch differed according to the country in which it was advertised: a highly efficient weapon against electrostatic dust in Germany, it became a delicate tool for cleaning valuable items in Great Britain (encapsulated by the advertisement blurb ‘Feather duster meets Ming vase’). This duplicity reflects the artist’s interest in the seductive strategies of economy, which manifest themselves chiefly in the realm of fashion, decoration and, more generally, the applied arts. By isolating, replicating or recontextualising found texts and objects, Kapper Williams reveals the gap between signifier and signified, thus undermining the authoritative context into which functional objects are generally embedded.

 

Isabelle Cornaro’s ‘Savannah Surrounding Bangui, and the River Utubangui’ (2003–7), a series of photographs of pieces of jewellery arranged on plain sheets of plywood and depicting African landscapes, also relies on found objects to problematise the effects of ‘trade’. As curator Keren Detton explains: ‘The use of plywood, which is considered a “poor” material, stands in contrast to the preciosity of the jewels, the colonists’ signs of wealth.’[23] While exposing the oppressive cycle leading from natural resources to colonialism and back, Cornaro’s series also strikes a personal note: the landscapes she represents are those that appear in family photographs showing the artist’s mother posing on the scenic backdrop of the Central African Savannah. In its combination of personal and geopolitical issues, of a crafted object and industrial material, it encapsulates the many strands in this exhibition, including its deliberately tautological use of the materials and techniques at hand: in Cornaro’s family snapshots from the seventies, her mother is seen wearing the very jewels that the artist now uses in her work.



[1] David Pye, The Nature and Art of Workmanship (Cambridge: University Press, 1968), excerpted in Glenn Adamson, The Craft Reader (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2010), pp. 341-353: 341.

 

[2] Richard Sennett, The Craftsman (London: Penguin Books, 2009), p. 91.

 

[3] Mohandas K. Gandhi, Unto This Last. A Paraphrase, transl. from Gujarati by Valji Govindji Desai (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House, 1956); a download is available from: http://www.cincinnatitemple.com/downloads/untothislast

 

[4] Glenn Adamson, The Craft Reader, op. cit., p. 5.

[5] Ibid.

 

[6] Ibid.

 

[7] Excerpt from ‘An interview with Glenn Adamson’ by Alex Rauch, 17 February 2009, available from: http://www.portlandart.net/archives/2009/02/glenn_adamson_t.html 

 

[8] OverCraft, Art Gallery at Haifa University, 2003; Work Ethic, Wexner Art Center, Columbus, 2004

Over and Over: Passion for Process, Krannert Art Museum, Illinois, 2005; Poetics of the Handmade, Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, 2007; Radical Lace and Subversive Knitting, Museum of Arts and Design (formerly the American Craft Museum), New York, 2007; My World, Design Museum, London, 2007; Out of the Ordinary: Spectacular Craft, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2007; Craftivism, Arnolfini, Bristol, 2009–10.

 

[9] ‘A Kind of Basic Manager’, interview with Thomas Bayrle, BE Magazin # 16 ‘Nanny’ (Berlin: Künstlerhaus Bethanien, 2009), pp. 98-105: 99.

 

[10] Simultaneously, Bayrle prepared hundreds of transparencies that helped him outline the different segments of the work, which were then gradually replaced by the copied images.

 

[11] http://www.ica.org.uk/17218/Artists/Andrea-Buumlttner.html

 

[12] Glenn Adamson, Thinking Through Craft (Oxford: Berg Publishers/V&A Publishing, 2007), p. 46.

 

[13] Ibid.: 43.

 

[14] Glenn Adamson, ‘Sloppy Seconds: The Strange Return of Clay’ in Dirt on Delight: Impulses That Form Clay, exh. cat. (Philadelphia, Minneapolis: Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, and Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2009), pp. 73-80: 78.

 

[15] Glenn Adamson, Thinking Through Craft, op. cit., p. 4.

 

[16] The books in which the flowers have been pressed include: The Rise of the Creative Class by Richard Florida; Making Things Public by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel; The Inoperative Community by Jean-Luc Nancy; Crowds and Power by Elias Canetti; Archaeologies of the Future by Frederic Jameson; The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki; On Populist Reason, by Ernesto Laclau, etc.

 

[17] http://www.sarahbrowne.info

 

[18] Sarah Browne also speaks of using craft as ‘pre-empting [her] own anxiety of not having the requisite qualities for being an artist’; conversely, being an artist gives her precisely the licence to learn presumably outmoded techniques (from a conversation with the artist on 10 November 2009).

 

[19] Excerpt from ‘An interview with Glenn Adamson’ by Alex Rauch, 17 February 2009, available from: http://www.portlandart.net/archives/2009/02/glenn_adamson_t.html 

 

[20] Jiří Valoch, Běla Kolářová, exh. cat. Národní Galerie v Praze [National Gallery of Prague], 2006, p. 23.

 

[21] Marie Klimešová, Experiment, řád, důvěrnost: ženské rastry Běly Kolářové [Experiment, Order, Intimacy: Běla Kolářová’s Feminine Patterns], exh. cat., transl. by Michaela Melechovská, Muzeum umění Olomouc [Museum of Art Olomouc], 2006, p. 11.

 

[22] David Colman, ‘Summer Cool of A Different Stripe’, The New York Times, 20 April 2006, available from: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/20/fashion/thursdaystyles/20CODES.html?_r=2 

 

[23] http://keren.detton.free.fr/isabelle_cornaro.html