By Hand: The Use of Craft in Contemporary Art (Princeton Architectural Press)

By Hand: The Use of Craft in Contemporary Art
Shu Hung and Joseph Magliaro, Editors
Princeton Architectural Press, New York

Somewhere along the line, “time consuming” and “dedication to materials” have become synonymous. It isn’t a particularly helpful association for the crafts, but the exchange has taken a tenacious hold on contemporary craft vocabulary. By Hand is a handsome text that initially masquerades as what would have been a welcomed publication on the role of craft within a broader contemporary visual context, with particular emphasis on textiles. Close inspection disappoints.

Editors Shu Hung and Joseph Magilaro, introduced as Beijing-based photographers and writers, note in their introduction that the thirty-two artists included all “share a dedication to materials and processes.” Ironically, I found evidence of this dedication to be in far less apparent than engagement with conceptual intent. The editors cleverly protect both sides of the fence by explaining, “We are not attempting to tackle the distinctions between art and design, art and craft, and craft and design.” Instead they “seek to present a lively and diverse roster of contemporary creative artists who employ methods of hand production in their work.” While they do – to a certain extent – succeed in this goal, it seems a shame that this text did not aspire to do more.

The introduction gets off on the right foot with an excellent discussion of handwork and its current popularity not only within Fine Art, but also across disciplines. Frustratingly, this strong beginning is let down by the editorial decision to publish light, first person narratives riddled with New York art-speak to accompany each of the international group of artists included. These informal statements fail to address the identity of handwork in a meaningful or rigorous way. Instead a too-cool-to-care-about-craft attitude lurks just below the surface of many. The results serve to show that many artists working with hand-based processes today are unaware of the context of the materials and processes they use. Somewhat irritatingly, some makers seem to go a step further, announcing their pride of this point by claiming an active disinterest in the tradition of hand made production. While such sentiments contribute little to the development of critical theory about craft and its role in contemporary society, they do represent a very real and thriving appropriation of hand making today.

Grumbling aside, there are real highlights to be found amongst the artists surveyed. Dave Cole does not allow for material or conceptual sloppiness, in spite of the challenging materials he knits: Kevlar thread, lead ribbon, fibreglass insulation. Anna Von Mertens and Rowena Dring also create work that balances conceptual intent with technically sophisticated, beautiful work. But overall the selection of work included could have been more discerning, as would more substantial discussion of some of the issues raised, such as collaboration, skill or the legacy of craft. Overall there is a sense that contemporary work weak on basic skill can be justified with conceptual ambition. This fundamental misunderstanding of contemporary craft has a taken tenuous hold in the arts. Regrettably this publication lacks the intellectual rigour to make a significant contribution to our understanding of craft, art, design or any of the bits in between.

Surface Design Journal (winter 2008: 65)