The natural order

Crafts Magazine, March/April 2010, Cover feature

In the week before Dead or Alive opens at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design, visitors will be welcomed in to watch while the show is installed. But they won’t see the usual art handlers hanging work, or teams of assistants assembling pieces. Instead, as they wander through MAD’s galleries, they’ll find the artists engaged in the act of making.

Dead or Alive brings together 30 artists using once-living objects in their work, such as bones, feathers, seeds, horsehair, beetle wings and fish. Used en masse and transformed into something altogether different, these unusual materials will result in work that promises to be simultaneously beautiful, disturbing or monstrous.

Damien Hirst will be showing a mandala of iridescent blue butterflies; Alastair Mackie is working with 8,000 mouse skeletons reclaimed from the pellets of barn owls; Jennifer Angus’s installation, which at a distance resembles a grand Victorian interior, will on closer inspection reveal itself to be composed of nothing but dried insects; and Chinese artist Xu Bing’s seven-metre reproduction of a Song Dynasty masterpiece is made from garden rubbish set behind a frosted glass plate. Recalling Freud’s idea of the uncanny, the dead take on new life and the familiar morphs into the unfamiliar.

Dead or Alive is MAD’s attempt to demonstrate that craft can play a vital role in the fine arts. It’s a position some have always taken and its now being advocated by the museum’s chief curator, David Revere McFadden.

“Artists are discovering a new thrill from taking the overlooked, unloved and ignored and investing them with meaning,” McFadden says.  There’s been a noticeable surge in interest in the ‘magic of making things’, with a new generation of artists paying increasing attention to process and materials, he says.

McFadden isn’t arguing that objects crafted for functional purpose be accepted as fine art, but for a recognition that artists are embracing craftsmanship – the materials and techniques traditionally associated with craft – to convey meaning and narrative in their work, to provide significance and content, express points of view and address political and social issues. Some of this is a reaction against the cerebral, conceptualism that has dominated contemporary art for so long.

“There’s nothing worse for a museum-goer than to enter an exhibition of contemporary art and walk away feeling they must be stupid because they didn’t get it.” McFadden says. “Doing things that are completely impenetrable leaves people cold. For years we weren’t allowed to use the term beauty, but people are able to think about that now without being intimidated.”

With three pieces in Dead or Alive, Dutch artist Levi van Veluw is typical of this new breed of artist: “You see lots of artists who are prototyping and getting everything made by assistants, and there’s an ambition among young artists to do that. But I didn’t like that other people were making my art so I’m doing the making myself again.”

Van Veluw uses his own head as object, painstakingly covering himself for one piece in plants and moss to recreate an old landscape painting (see cover). The craftsmanship is key to works like this, he says, but it’s not enough on its own: to be art it must be combined with a concept, a complex idea. For materials, he uses anything he can get his hands on, like wood or even spices, but they must be natural: “I like real things, not artificial ones,” he says.

Since rebranding in 2008 under McFadden’s curatorship, MAD has championed the shift towards the crafts embracing art, somtimes controversially: the collector and historian Garth Clark launched a blistering attack on it in the pages of this magazine for instance (see Crafts No.216, January/February 2009).

But while the art world may still be resisting MAD’s message, the roots of its mission lie in the feminist movement of the 1970s, and such figures as Linda Nochlin, Rozsika Parker and Judy Chicago. Few of the artist showing in Dead or Alive would describe their work as overtly political, let alone feminist – but the new freedoms available to them can be traced directly back to battles fought by three decades ago.

Best known for The Dinner Party, Chicago in particular pioneered the use of needlework and beadwork in fine art, challenging the belief that the distinction between art and craft lay in materials. Here was an entrenched hierarchy, based on a gender divide, in which “feminine” materials were denigrated. Art, she declared, could be made out of anything.

Inevitably, Chicago is delighted to see this latest shift in the arts/crafts spectrum. But she notes that a major obstacle to any fundamental shift remains the critics: “There’s an obvious lag between what artists have been doing for the last 40 years and the critical apparatus to properly evaluate it. The trend has been moving since the 70s but the critics have not caught up with it.”

Also agravating is the apparent inability of younger artists to reference the feminst art movement. Certainly, the adoption of traditionally female materials by male artists helps shift their use towards the mainstream, but the men concerned rarely acknowledge this inheritance: “It’s is if they’ve invented needlework,” says Chicago.

Other factors are also driving this revived interest in craftsmanship. Elissa Auther, whose book String, Felt, Thread charts the rise of crafts materials in art, firstly pinpoints globalisation which has exposed the West to other artists using materials from their home cultures, such as Yinka Shonibare who grew up in Nigeria and works in African textiles or Do-Ho Su, a Korean artist using silk.

Second, a broader craft revival has been gaining ground since the mid-90s. Growing out of the indie music scene and DIY culture, and linked to the environmental movement, anti-corporatism and ideas about self-sufficiency, has been a desire to make things by hand, to craft them from found, gathered, and recycled materials.

Andrea Dezsö, a New York-based artist with 30 pieces in MAD’s current show Slash, began making in the late 90s, when more conceptual art was in favour. Then, she resigned herself to being ignored. Now, she sees a new attitude in the students she teaches at Parsons New School University. In addition, a familiarity with computers is displacing the techno-excitement that swept through art schools then. “Students want to get back to something closer to nature and the human touch,” Dezsö says. Even video artists using animation are returning to old-fashioned stop-motion.

But is this all just a passing fad? Establishment art critics continue to dismiss MAD. In its review of the museum’s inaugural 2008 show Second Lives, the New York Times sniffily clained that everyone these days was trying to muscle in on the contemporary art tip.

McFadden will have none of this. “That craft-masquerading-as-art argument just doesn’t hold up any more,” he insists. “We go from the electronic bus card reader to the ATM to get our money, to ordering groceries on line, to conducting all our social intercourse primarily through the internet. I think people need to feel the other parts of themselves.

“Each generation finds its own way to express these things and the young people are as passionate as anybody. The next generation is going to accept making thing as part and parcel of what it means to be human.