Take heart

For those dismayed, when doing the annual round of arts graduate shows in the various institutions, at all that post-post modernism, minimalism, conceptualism and other isms while wondering if that pile of screwed-up paper, broken pastels and half-empty paint tubes was something that missed the trash bin or should be seriously viewed as the product of someone’s three-four years of undergraduate study – take heart. The new interest in  processes and skills around off-shore seems to have fully arrived on our shores. For instance last year there was Lauren Winstone showing all ceramics at her MFA display in Elam –  a thoughtful, intelligent exploration of aspects of vessels that she is continuing. This year no less than six graduates from Elam showed ceramics – one even with a very successful reduced chun and copper red glaze, but unfortunately part of the form beneath had sheared away because of a steam blow and large, heavily textured ‘leaves’ or ‘wings’ had collapsed due to no built in support system – something that could have been easily avoided with some testing. It was ambitious in scale and surface and it was frustrating to see how it missed total success when the problem was readily preventable. Most disappointing was the artist statement  claiming to ‘love cracks and imperfections’… well a little testing would have demonstrated that they will be inevitable until a bit more skill is acquired and indeed the surface, heavily fingered as it was, evidenced that beginner’s enjoyment of the plasticity of the medium amply embellished with many surface cracks and splits under the spectacular glaze. These were acceptable and did not detract, but the work as a whole suffered because of the collapsed, split apart leaves and the fissured-off steam blow.  The glaze was gorgeous and almost saved it despite such glazes coming loaded with history for this viewer – I can get over that OK; even enjoy a fresh take.  It’s justification for lack of testing where I have trouble. Nearly there -just not close enough.

Other exhibits were less ambitious and a challenge to get around for someone who understands process and wonders at the presentation of work that is at a very fledgeling stage. I do understand that often there is a job to be attended, essays to be written and art theory and history lectures to hear along with tutors discussion periods and waiting for kiln space. Art School can be a busy place. One hopes they will continue working at their ceramics while realising this is more difficult after leaving the institution due to the space and equipment requirements. Clay is, without doubt, difficult and few can get around making and re-making so as to learn – usually it’s only that – gradual increments. Other craft media can offer an easier pathway to successful outcomes because what you see is what you get and there is no kiln to place some final stamp on the work – that takes time to accept and learn to work with. It’s only that – time.
But this new emphasis on process is being hotly pursued off-shore. Here is an article from the NYT on just that. The wheel is turning.
“Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons; there is nothing more depressing for a young artist,” said Bianca Argimon, a student at the École des Beaux-Arts de Paris who favors traditional techniques when working with ceramics, engravings and pyrography over what she views as ultraconceptual, increasingly dematerialized art. “Most of us can’t afford — nor approve of — having an entire factory of workers.”

“As a student, I was always told to pare it down to bare bones,” said Laura Keeble, an artist based in London who graduated from South Essex College two years ago. “Craft was a definite no, it was just so twee,” or excessively sweet. “But things are changing; people are using it to convey another message.

Ms. Keeble’s work, which she exhibits in art fairs and as outdoor “street art” installations, often comments on modern-day consumerism, using traditional techniques including bronze making and mold making. For a recent series, she recreated Nike tennis shoes and McDonald’s menu items out of stained glass reclaimed from churches, which she assembled according to the classical Tiffany’s technique of crimping with copper foil.

“Mass production gives an unnatural perfection to things, ” she said, “and people are longing for a maker’s mark on an object.”

The artists Naïs Calmettes and Rémi Dupeyrat opened a minimalist gallery and store in the Marais district of Paris in May with such techniques in mind. The venue, called Artisan Social Designer, showcases works by artists who use classical skills — like blowing glass, metal work, macramé, embroidery or carpentry — to create sleek, contemporary objects.

“Our generation has been trained to appreciate sharp industrial lines,” Ms. Calmettes said. “Now we’re trying to merge this with a more respectful production.”

She said that highlighting craft was about expressing certain values, like sustainability and local production, rather than factory practices.

“And it’s cheaper, too!” she said with a smile.

Marco Querin, an Italian artist, has developed a personal tapestry technique that consists of hammering nails onto the frame of a canvas and pulling threads across to create tongue-in-cheek, sometimes politicized designs. Recent works feature a woman in a burqa and a young boy firing a gun. “These are ancient gestures through which you reconnect with the roots of humanity,” he said.

Galleries are increasingly interested in manual techniques, said Bruno Hadjadj, a carpenter-turned-artist and the founder of Cutlog, a Paris art fair that promotes emerging artists and runs in late October at the same time as the Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain, the city’s main contemporary art fair.

“This year, there is a definite rise in young, cool artists introducing old-school skills into their work,” Mr. Hadjadj said. He cited as an example Koichiro Tagaki, a Japanese artist specializing in embroidery and influenced by children’s cartoons and pop art. Mr. Tagaki, who exhibits at Galerie Agathe Hélion in Paris, was featured at Cutlog this year and nominated for the fair’s grand prize. (The award went to the Romanian artist duo Cristian Bors and Marius Ritiu, whose work, “No Borders Equals Tolerance,” consisted of a classical gypsy caravan parked outside the fair, decorated with traditional embellishments, like handcrafted carved metal pieces on the roof).

Jeanne Briand, whose works can be seen at Lebenson Gallery in Paris and who was also featured at Cutlog, is a glass blower who creates fetuslike shapes to draw attention to questions about test-tube babies. “Jeanne’s practice questions birth in a very literal way: her breath brings life into the glass,” said Stéphane Lebenson, her gallerist. “The very human aspect of craft gives a more profound meaning to her work. ”

Until recently, when the art world appeared elitist to some, craft offered more democratic and approachable forms of creativity. But the lines are no longer so clear cut. “When I first entered the world of art, I felt like a nonartist, a cheat,” said Mr. Hadjadj, the creator of Cutlog. “But this snobbery is fading, as artists are in fact hijacking these techniques to denounce contemporary problems.”

At the same time, there is a real effort to promote the novel use of traditional techniques, which in France are viewed as part of the national patrimony. The Fondation du Patrimoine, a national organization dedicated to protecting the French patrimony, announced in September the creation of Ateliers d’Art de France to promote and preserve French craft. It will finance a number of projects, including a prize worth up to €60,000, or about $80,000, to reward a particularly modern use of craft.

Separately, the French “Prix Liliane Bettencourt pour l’Intelligence de la Main” is awarded each year to two contemporary artisans with exceptional manual skills. The winners this year, announced on Oct. 11, were Jean-Noël Buatois, for artistic cutlery, and the designer Guillaume Bardet, who worked on a collection of 365 ceramic pieces by Jean Dufour, Séverine Dufust, Raelyn Larson, Quentin Marais, Dominique Pouchain and Zélie Rouby.

There is also a definite professional advantage to learning a craft, said Isabelle Guédon, a professor and coordinator of textile design at the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.

“Such studies support a philosophy of economic and ecological consciousness, but also hold the promise of a job, a tangible skill with an eternal value,” she said.

Some of Ms. Guédon’s former students went on to exhibit at the Louvre, while others are at the traditional embroidery studio Maison Lesage in Paris, which works with couture houses and other institutions.

“There is a new sense of open-mindedness and fluidity from both fields,” she said. “Galleries are welcoming craftsmen and textile designers, but artisans are also open to young graduates with an artistic vision.”

Ms. Guédon is also a leather artisan who designs pieces for the home that are inspired from the boot-making tradition; while these are commercial objects, they have frequently been shown in galleries.

“Working with one’s hands is a slow, painstaking process that requires a patience unseen in today’s society — but is more vital now than ever before.”


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