Shades of White

Honor Freeman, Dust Collects II, 2015, slip cast porcelain, image courtesy of Craft Victoria

Honor Freeman, Dust Collects II, 2015, slip cast porcelain, image courtesy of Craft Victoria

Art and craft have historically been positioned as two distinct sides of the same coin – one that is aligned to conceptualism and artistic autonomy, the other to craftsmanship and materiality. This dualistic model of aesthetic definition is, however, losing currency in the present ‘post-disciplinary’ era, where boundaries and hierarchies between artistic mediums are increasingly challenged.[1]

As much as medium may seem now to no longer matter, the dematerialisation of art has arguably paved the way for a critical return to craft-based practice and curatorial frameworks as a conceptual strategy.[2] It is perhaps not surprising that in the current digital era, where images are rapidly disseminated through screen culture, craft media and handmade processes resonate strongly with audiences as a romantic idealisation of creativity.

Craft Victoria’s most recent exhibition White Goods is a show that straddles these boundaries and definitions. Featuring the works of eight Australian artists working with ceramics, marble, glass, textiles and metals, the show comes at the heel of increased visibility and interest in craft media. The exhibition celebrates excellence in Australian contemporary craft by directing attention to materials, techniques, and tactility, while also divorcing the objects from their functional capacity by placing them in an artistic context.

This context is most obviously created by the display of white objects within the white space. One is reminded of the ‘white cube’, applied here to not just exhibition design, but also the works themselves. The goal of a white cube model is create a neutral viewing platform, which in turn emphasises the autonomous status of art objects worthy of aesthetic contemplation.

This neutrality is however, an illusion, because the context of the white cube also becomes its content.[3] In an exhibition of craft objects, this neutrality draws a viewer’s attention back to the formalist properties of each work. In this manner, it reinforces one of the most enduring qualities at the heart of craft interpretation – an emphasis on materiality and traditional technique. Katie Jayne Britchford’s hand-carved marble ‘spears’, displayed as both sculptural and jewellery pieces, recall ancient tools used by the first humans. In Britchford’s hands, this ancient tradition of stone-carving is translated into a contemporary rumination on the convenience of modern day life, and our detachment from this past. The materiality of marble renders these spears useless as weapons, and instead highlights the object’s decorative potential.

By highlighting visual similarities, White Goods also draws attention to keen differences in the texture and tactility. In this way, the show also questions the use of ‘craft’ as an umbrella term. Marble and glass are very different materials for instance, and this distinction is keenly explored in Ebony Addinsall’s minimalist glass sculptures that ponder on the relationship between lightness, breathing, and meditation. Her glass-blown vessels are delicate in their appearance, while her kiln-formed wall pieces seem to defy gravity in their apparent weightlessness. Fragility and strength work alongside each other in Addinsal’s practice, whose precise handling of glass push boundaries of the medium.

White as a base material also allows for artists to explore qualities of luminosity and translucency. Kris Coad’s The Honoured Guest #3, inspired by Buddhist tradition and symbolism of the ‘seven vessels’, is a softly glowing installation of bone-china ceramics. The process of illumination emphasises the unique hand-formed nature of the works, and also elucidates the notion of a ‘shrine’. Manon van Kouswijk’s glow-in-the-dark jewellery, arranged inside a box and activated by a light switch, similarly highlight the power of light to alter appearances. The ‘blandness’ of the white jewellery is countered with the glow of light contained in the materials themselves.

Viewed in this manner, van Kouswijk’s work reminds us what White Goods makes clear; that to see these works as ‘plain’ is to miss the expressive and conceptual potential contained within the property of white itself. Its use as a curatorial framing device offers the viewer both a material and intellectual framework through which to consider the limits of contemporary craft-practice. It simultaneously gives each work unity and definition, yet also strips away assumptions and cohesion. In an exhibition that defies boundaries, White Goods reminds us to look beyond a dualistic model of art, and appreciate each encounter with a work on its own terms.

Updated April 3, 2015. 

[1] Glenn Adamson (ed), The Craft Reader (Oxford; New York: Berg, 2010), 586.

[2] For art critic Roberta Smith, the ‘rematerialisation’ of contemporary art is both a result as well as response to Conceptualism. After all, an emphasis of ideas over physical forms also opened the door to materials and mediums previously considered ‘non-artistic.’ See Roberta Smith’s important essay, ‘Conceptual Art: Over, And Yet Everywhere,’ New York Times, April 25, 1999. Accessed April 1, 2015.http://www.nytimes.com/1999/04/25/arts/art-architecture-conceptual-art-over-and-yet-everywhere.html.

[3] See Simon Sheikh, ‘Positively White Cube Revisited’, e-flux journal 3 (2009). Accessed March 29 http://www.e-flux.com/journal/positively-white-cube-revisited/

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