Craft is the “C” word that used to be shunned when sleekness and conceptualism in art and design were at their most persuasive and pervasive. That was a time when discourse and theorizing was at the forefront and the skill that was most worthy of the artist was not that of the hand, but that of the mind; a distinction perpetuating the separation of the verbal and the manual, even insinuating the lack, if not, absence of one in the other. The skill aspects in the production of the artwork were to be delegated to an artisan or assistant possessing the so-called humbler knowhow. Only because when one thinks of craft, one thinks in terms of manual skill as it is applied repetitively by route to create useful objects such as vessels, embroidery or carpentry. Its close association with the functional and the applied arts endangers the primacy of the aesthetic in and autonomy of art - a conceptualist vestige of modernism. To think in this way today is, of course, to be outdated and narrow.
Since the turn of the 21st century, a growing number of art practices have emerged across the globe that are craft-based and idiosyncratic, celebrating the handmade process whilst harnessing the capabilities that computer-aided technology offers. In 2004, the Crafts Council of the United Kingdom produced a show in its London gallery that this writer has personally seen. Entitled Boys Who Sew, the exhibit featured seven male artists who used sewing as a primary process in their art, a couple of whom used photo and vector-based software applications to support their production. Craft-based work has indeed come of age despite a generation that has grown up since the 90’s surfing the Internet and languishing in the mass media culture that it generates.
The use of craft in contemporary art means a dedication to materials and processes, though not entirely as a path to perfection and polish. On the contrary, the craft approach shuns aesthetic perfection as a reaction to the omnipresence of technology in everyday life, including art production. In many examples, craftwork is the celebration of individuality amidst the spirit of globalism. Art that comes out of craftwork persists if only because it provides a concreteness and tactility that cyberspace can only offer virtually. It serves as a foil to tendencies in globalism that promote a sense of cultural homogeneity.
In this exhibition, Steph Palallos, Carmel Lim-Torres, and Josephine Turalba create diverse art foregrounding the handmade. They express personal experience rather than a collective social message. Consider leatherwork as a means to re-imagine views from place memory, or sewing to construct garments that expose the ailing body, or cutwork applied to paper, ceramics and wood to express hope amidst ecological peril.
Constant communion with nature generates an awareness of the threat posed by relentless, irresponsible logging and mining. This same communion, thankfully, also generates knowledge of nature’s resiliency and capacity for regeneration. As an artist-mountaineer-educator, Lim-Torres applies cutwork to paper, wood and ceramic - forest and earth as it were, to set up a symbolic grove. Comprising of an assembly of tree stumps and carefully cut-out pieces to serve as surrogates for vegetation long gone but not entirely lost, her installation is dotted with seed-like ceramic forms connoting renewal.
Palallos expresses the vulnerability of the human body by sewing vestments that may be very difficult if not impossible to wear. Made of transparent fabric, her garments avoid the idea of clothing as an object to cloak nakedness, as a means to define form, or a medium to express desire. Her construction overturn aspects of functionality and fashion in favor of revealing a real but invisible illness that is part of her quotidian identity. The symbolic clothes, all thirty-one of them, one for each day of the month, uncover afflictions that many of us do not want to know let alone see in bodies, including our own.
Turalba uses the techniques and materials of leatherwork: studs, rivets, grommets, eyelets, stitchery and colored skins or hides, to lock objects to place and time. Her primary material - multi-colored leather, is metonymic and celebratory of racial difference. The ideas of looking in fragments and capturing transient spaces conceptually frame her work, which is appropriately comprised of nine panels that may be grouped as one or as individual pieces, variable to its site. Sourced and inspired from her travels to the non-West, she materializes episodic memory formation into a cornucopia of conjoined images that interlock the landscape, tapestry and collage formats all at once.
The hand is one of the most sophisticated fine-tuned tools, which no robotic or bionic technology has ever equaled. To frame it with craftwork transforms it into a signifier of embodiment equal to artistic expression. In this mode, the artist becomes more accessible, her choice echoes her story, and the craft medium becomes (part of) the message - subversively echoing Marshall McLuhan’s aphorism[*]. If technology historically has always informed the art production of its time, craft’s resurgence might as well be a recasting of the McLuhan idea to indict mediatized culture.
Collectively, the collaged landscape, the assembled sculptural pieces and the re-imagined vestments emphasize the role of the hand as an instrument to cut through idea and material in order to create unique specificities. With the exhibition site in the lobby of a theater, the works, together represent not only a setting in time and place, but also a view of life - a handscape by all means.
Shu Hung and Joseph Magliaro (2007). By Hand: The Use of Craft in Contemporary Art. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.
Marshall McLuhan (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.
[*] The medium is the message” was coined in 1964 by Canadian philosopher of communication theory Herbert Marshall McLuhan. It means that the form of a medium embeds itself in the message, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived.