Desert island sideboard
January 11, 2012
What’s the difference between contemporary art and craft? To me this feels a big question only because of the very different economic and critical worlds in which they have been produced, discussed and consumed over the past generation. But I’m not convinced that it’s a helpful distinction to make any more, and it certainly isn’t a clear cut one.
I’ve been set thinking about this by seeing remarkable work by both Grayson Perry and Dale Chihuly recently in London. Perry has an ambiguous rather teasing relationship with the art world and uses a range of traditional craft techniques, but with a very personal expressive intent and almost confessional communication. Chihuly is a master glassblower with an astonishing visual imagination who trained in Venice and works with a team to create work on an almost industrial scale. The Halcyon Gallery makes the rather uncomfortable claim that he “is credited with elevating the medium from the realm of craft to groundbreaking fine art”. They both make a mess of the distinction between art and craft.
What could it be? Uniqueness? Originality? Non-functionality? Conceptual content? Or simply an attitude, an intent? Expression and communication as opposed to technique and tradition? I can see that these were very important distinctions to make for much of the twentieth century, to allow art to be reborn and free itself. But now, in a world saturated with concept and individuality I suggest it’s no longer particularly helpful to raise these up as the dominant qualities conferring value.
Last year I attended the spectacular Collect exhibition organised by the Crafts Council, and I found it the most exciting range of work I’ve seen at the Saatchi Gallery at least since it moved from Boundary Road.
I was struck by the fact that, almost all the work being unaffordable to me (so I was not too distracted by acquisitive hunger), I was looking at in exactly the same way I would be looking at an art display. I couldn’t find a difference in what the work was doing to me: exciting me, moving me, horrifying me, astounding me – even though it mostly had some notional practical function.
The very fact of it being shown at that venue probably signals the breakdown of the art / craft distinction, or at least that a meeting point has been found. Actually I suspect it’s a relationship that comes and goes in long cycles over time.
But all this reflection is by way of preamble to a rather indulgent post I want to make about some of my favourite creators.
Living in London it’s become apparent to me how rich and thriving the crafts, in the sense of people individually making things out of a range of materials that at least nod at some kind of practical function, now are. I’m thinking of ceramics, glass, objects in wood and metal, jewellery, and also a variety of other work in less obvious materials such as paper, plastics, and textiles. Even in the realm of objects that are more affordable I see around me an extraordinary range of imaginative creativity. For so many of the things that we buy in the course of life, from knives and forks to engagement rings, there is a deeply considered, locally handmade alternative to the standard mass produced options.
I’ve been thinking about a kind of personal Desert Island Discs of contemporary craft … or perhaps a Desert Island Sideboard.
There are hundreds of people I could name, but here’s a selection of eight that include some of the most personally significant to me plus some that are simply favourites:
1. Peter Beard – ceramics
Peter’s work has long been a favourite of mine, and Vanessa and I acquired a piece as a wedding present to ourselves. He creates robust timeless forms decorated with complex rhythmic patterns reminiscent of rock, fire and water.
2. Jo Hayes Ward – jewellery
3. Janice Tchalenko – ceramics
I still love Janice’s work but she’s mainly included here because my very first purchase of an object that I consciously considered craft rather than simply shopping was a humble coffee cup in her Dartington Poppy range. I bought it at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery sometime in the earlyish 90s and it was probably the only piece I could afford. Lots of her work can be seen at the V&A.
4. Roger Tye – glass
As an aside I’d like to briefly turn to Japan, a culture with a wonderfully charged relationship between deference to tradition and radical modernity. Travelling there in 2007 I was delighted to learn about the concept of Living National Treasures (Ningen Kokuhō). This is a status conferred by the Japanese government to help preserve important cultural traditions, and comes with a grant of 2 million yen a year!.
It covers performing arts like Gagaku and Noh as well as crafts. There’s a big list of potters here. The focus on preservation is interesting, although to be fair the recipients are by no means all traditionalists. A couple of my favourites are Matsui Kosei, master of Neriage, and Ito Sekisui.
Similar awards have been introduced in other countries, and I’ve started to notice the term being used informally here – in recent years I’ve heard David Attenborough, Paul McCartney and Sean Connery all described as Living National Treasures. I would pay at least one of them 2 million yen a year to retire.
Back to the second group of celebrities on my sideboard:
5. Sasha Wardell – ceramics
Sasha creates extremely delicate translucent porcelain vessels. One of my bigger disappointments of recent years was breaking one of them at the Royal Opera House cloakroom!
6. Malcolm Morris – jewellery
I was originally drawn to a piece from Malcolm’s Apple Blossom series, and in time that led to commissioning an engagement ring and two wedding rings. Visits to his home-studio-workshop complex in Walthamstow to discuss designs and select stones made for a charming and very personalised experience.
7. Merete Rasmussen – ceramics
Gorgeously sensual intensely coloured sculptural forms, further from any practical function than anything else on my list. I love staring intensely at them in Contemporary Ceramics where they can often be seen. Mood-changing objects that evoke anything from dried leaves to ships’ propellers. Definitely high on my long-term wishlist (but, I fear, risky to own). And as a bonus, Merete at work looks rather like a Vermeer.
8. Amanda Simmons – glass
Amanda is my favourite glass artist and despite working far way in Scotland I’ve amassed a slightly excessive collection of 10 pieces. It’s lovely to meet her once or twice a year at events such as Collect. According to her website she is motivated by themes such as love, baking and hills. I can empathise.