Review: Craftivism. Dissident Objects and Subversive Forms  at Shepparton Art Museum

Installation View: Kate Just. Feminist Fan #16 (Guerrilla Girls in New York City by George Lang, 1995), 2015. hand knitted wool and acrylic yarns 60 x 40 cm A#: 14584 Artbank Collection, purchased 2016. Courtesy Artbank and © the artist. Photo: Christian Capurro.

Craftivism: Dissident Objects and Subversive Forms is an exhibition that features 18 contemporary artists and groups whose works stand together as a unified visual revolt against the status quo. Curated by Rebecca Coates and Anna Briers at Shepparton Art Museum, the exhibition utilises the principles of craft for political intent. The artworks in Craftivism address current issues that include but are not limited to gender representation, environmental change, warfare, migration, and colonisation. These objects are often aesthetically abject, crude in form or iconographical representation; however, their value cannot be overlooked due to this. For each work references a multilayered history of art and craft through playful material exploration.

In the accompanying exhibition catalogue Craftivism is systematically located in an exclusive dialogue between art, with a capital ‘A’, and craft. The title itself draws upon a term championed by author Betsy Greer which succinctly means craft + activism.[1] In the Western canon of art history, “Art” once prevailed as high and therefore forcibly positioned craft as low in cultural value. The disestablishment of this outdated hierarchy can be traced through considered efforts found during the Arts and Crafts movement in the later 19th century and Bauhaus in the early 20th century. Today, craft is no longer a gendered past time for those women of tender disposition, an avenue for self-improvement or an idealistic symbol of a ‘happy home’. Alternatively, craft-based techniques are a potent currency, a way by which contemporary artists engage the viewer through connotations of domesticity.

Ruminating on my experience of the exhibition, I have returned again and again to a niggling apprehension – a complex series of theoretical difficulties that developed from looking and thinking and reading, then re-reading the accompanying exhibition catalogue. I certainly agree with Coates and Briers’ curatorial statement that many ‘contemporary artists are increasingly using craft-based techniques and material in their work’;[2] however a point of tension arose in this singular contextualisation of the exhibition. The overall driving concept and vantage point for debate is directed from the narrow perspective of “Art” practice. Craft is merely used here as a hybridised term applied to reflect a particular material quality and process of making by hand.

Installation View: Paul Yore What a Horrid Fucking Mess, 2016. textile wall hanging; mixed media 210 x 342 cm (irreg.) purchased with Ararat Rural City Council acquisition allocation, 2016. Collection of Ararat Gallery TAMA. © the artist. Photo Christian Capurro.

Paul Yore’s textile based wall piece What a Fucking Horrid Mess, 2016 is a compelling example of this predicament. Yore combines a range of textile materials and techniques to create a pictorial field. By strategically incorporating text, Western iconography, pop culture references and abject forms the textile piece conveys ‘a queer male sexuality, national identity and the hyper-mediated overload of the internet age’.[3] Although the work itself is constructed from elements predominantly associated with quilting or patchwork it reaches a point of resolution akin to painting. Hung outstretched on the gallery wall the viewer approaches the textile piece through the historical narrative of painting. Despite its craft-based material properties the utility of the object is pacified through the context of the gallery display. Straightaway What a Fucking Horrid Mess is exposed as a material extension of traditional painting or what has recently been coined ‘expanded painting’. As a result, audiences are unable to engage with the notion that this work is a hypothetical object from the domestic realm subverted.

The second matter for deliberation is the notion that ‘the art/craft debate of old is now firmly dead’.[4] Again, I question whether or not this is persuasive. Craft methodologies in contemporary art practice are interrogated throughout Craftvism as a mechanism to highlight their validity: an alternative approach to the traditional material processes applied to painting and sculpture. We come to understand that the ingenuity and inherent value of the “Art” object is not destabilised purely because it is made from or includes materials such as; textiles, clay or glass. The issue I take with this delineation is that craft is never addressed as a thriving form of practice in relation to design. We are not provided with just cause to understand and appreciate the deceptive subtly of the crafted object through aesthetics, form and function.

Catherine Bell, ‘Crematorium vessels’ (detail), 2012–13, floral foam vessels installation: 19 x 93 x 17 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Sutton Gallery, Melbourne. Photo: Andrew Curtis

The closest moment of persuasion that the art/craft debate is ‘firmly dead’ is located in Catherine Bell’s Crematorium vessels (2012-13). Petite in stature the funeral vessels are an easily overlooked yet poignant inclusion in Craftivism. Carved from reclaimed florist foam during a residency at Caritas Christi Hospice, the miniscule objects reflect Bell’s preoccupation with ‘the cheap synthetic armatures that held the (flower) arrangements in shape and kept stems moist’[5]. Crematorium vessels, is a provocative suggestion that the work can indeed operate as a functional form in the everyday. It convincingly teeters toward contemporary research interests of craft and design such as waste, material culture, consumption and production and reuse and repair. Unfortunately these successes notable in Crematorium vessels are not affirmed through the curatorial intent, and despite its suggestion of functionality, the work quickly dissolves back into a sculpture engaging with the ‘social spaces of craft’[6].

The complexity of craft, or what is not craft, is no easy task to unravel. Craft is a word that is broadly defined as an ‘activity or skill in making things by hand’.[7] On this explanation alone one could easily assume that all activities involving the hand are ultimately craft, including ‘Art’. The risk in this principle (which I strongly object) is the suggestion that a crafted object is indistinguishable from an art object. For a clearer historical example, Martha Rosler’s collage series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home (c.1967-72) and Judy Chicago’s installation The Dinner Party (1974-79) are two prominent works that involve a laborious process of making by hand. Located in the Feminist Art movement in America during the 1970s both works rely heavily on figuration of the everyday to drive their political intent. Meanwhile, in England Vivienne Westwood and Michael McLaren established the ‘outsider’ clothing store, Seditionaries: Clothes for Heroes (1976). The collection of rebellious garments for sale here, merged Punk iconography, military combat gear and fetish wear as a ‘means of subverting the establishment’.[8] The notable differentiation here is that McLaren and Westwood’s wearable garments operate as an insurgent object in the everyday not a pictorial depiction of the everyday (Rosler and Chicago). This is a key distinction to be raised in any conversation between ‘Art’ and craft. If indeed the hierarchical debate between art/craft is truly over then I desire a forceful reflection and celebration of these fundamentals. I want to be shown how to extend my visual vocabulary and broaden my perspective as to how a functional form can be disrupted and then utilised for the purposes of political intent.

Craftivism: Dissident Objects and Subversive Forms engaged with a myriad of politicised agendas and above all else it is a timely reminder of the semiotics of display. It provides an opportune moment to proactively reconsider our habitual thinking toward craft. The disciplines’ role is not subservient to “Art” and rather, craft is a method of practice that functions in a uniquely different way and in an equal relationship to it.

 

BY ANJA LOUGHHEAD

Anja Loughhead’s cross-disciplinary art practice incorporates photography, text, drawing, video, performance and archival processes. Loughhead investigates how photography has historically been used to represent culture and the subsequent implications this poses upon personal identity. Using her body as a method for communication Loughhead engages with theoretical frameworks related to photography and the archive to reveal alternative narratives. The grandchild of Finnish migrants, these diverse approaches to material research enable Loughhead to question the visual construction of national identity, by reflecting upon the self and her ensuing feelings of cultural diaspora as a second-generation Australian.

In addition to this Anja Loughhead is an emerging curator and writer working in Queanbeyan, NSW. Loughhead’s curatorial practice examines the political, cultural and environmental landscape of contemporary Australian society through interdisciplinary artists working in the region. Loughhead engages with a diverse range of practitioners who work with material, conceptual or performance based methods that utilise personal narratives and social histories to subvert national agendas.

Craftivism. Dissident Objects and Subversive Forms is a touring exhibition.

Shepparton Art Museum
24 November 2018 – 17 February 2019

Touring to:
Warnambool Art Gallery
Warnambool, Victoria
2 March – 5 May 2019

Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery
Mornington, VIC
18 May – 21 July 2019

Museum of Australian Democracy
Canberra, ACT
6 September – 2 February 2020

Bega Valley Regional Gallery
Bega, NSW
30 April – 21 June 2020

Warwick Art Gallery
Warwick, QLD
3 July – 15 August 2020

University of the Sunshine Coast Art Gallery
Sunshine Coast, QLD
12 September – 31 October 2020

 

[1] Anna Briers and Rebecca Coates, Craftivism: Dissident Objects + Subversive Forms (Gunn & Taylor: Melbourne, 2018), 8

[2] Anna Briers and Rebecca Coates, Craftivism: Dissident Objects + Subversive Forms (Gunn & Taylor: Melbourne, 2018), 10

[3] Anna Briers and Rebecca Coates, Craftivism: Dissident Objects + Subversive Forms (Gunn & Taylor: Melbourne, 2018), 12

[4] Anna Briers and Rebecca Coates, Craftivism: Dissident Objects + Subversive Forms (Gunn & Taylor: Melbourne, 2018), 10

[5] Anna Briers and Rebecca Coates, Craftivism: Dissident Objects + Subversive Forms (Gunn & Taylor: Melbourne, 2018), 27

[6] Anna Briers and Rebecca Coates, Craftivism: Dissident Objects + Subversive Forms (Gunn & Taylor: Melbourne, 2018), 24

[7] Oxford English Dictionary, ‘Craft’ accessed 22 February 2019 https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/craft

[8] V&A, ‘Vivienne Westwood: punk, new romantic and beyond’ accessed 22 February 2019 https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/vivienne-westwood-punk-new-romantic-and-beyond

 

Queer Vessels: Luke O’Connor’s HUNKS

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