On Tuesday 19th September an audience that assembled in the central London gallery Blain Southern, witnessed an passionate defence of high-end craftsmanship. Jereon Verhoeven, and his brother – of Cinderella table (see below) fame were in conversation with Glenn Adamson, soon to be director of the Museum of Art and Design.
If the furniture of Verhoeven does not speak loudly enough – of bespoke craft, ingenious design, simplicity, of skills of making pushed to the limit – then they will do so themselves in person. This is what Verhoeven considered himself to be: a communicator of narratives.
And what narratives. Adamson elicited many tales from the duo all about the extremely difficult processes that they employ: how they convince their collaborators – the welders, CAD technicians, woodworkers, and indeed clients – to push the limits of their skill and go into the unknown.
This is certainly a return to the rococo elegance of Louis XIV, or the exuberance and folly of the 1851 Great Exhibition. Craft skill is pushed to the limit to stun and amaze an audience. The makers are directed by the Verhoevens who have the all encompassing vision. But don’t worry, this is not an instance of Damian Hirst or Anish Kapoor. The Verhoevens make a point of accrediting each maker and beamed with Dutch smiles when recalling how proud their collaborators were in contributing to their projects once finished.
The Verhoevens seemed to want to set the clock back. To revive a time when the rich of the world bought its most incredibly crafted objects. Verhoeven bemoaned the Roman Abramovich-esque selection technique for buying luxury yachts where the undiscerning buyer just picks the most expensive model. Better, Verhoeven claimed, for this wealth to go towards projects that test the limits of every craft involved in making something. A return to the glory days of the hand-crafted intricate royal carts, outsized technically impossible ceramics and uber-skilled diamond setting.
Two key words: limitations and tolerance. For the Verhoevens it is all about testing how far they can stretch the first, and how narrow they can make the second. Pushing the boundaries so that nothing can be even 0.1mm off.
This is the realm of the super-object, the superlative, “the most beautiful”. They loved the idea of craftsmanship in and of itself (with no regard of finance and time, and a combative relationship with materials that they want to push to the limits). So much so that they would go to a fine bar and see an incredibly skilled cocktail maker produce a drink, only to leave the drink aside once its served and pay for another one, so they can see the magic wielded once more.
By comparison the everyday seems very glum. In fact, in the course of the talk the chairs the audience were sitting on were referred to as “sad chairs”, not made with care and chugged off the production line. Usually a defender of things as humble as a foldable chair, I had to submit. The Verhoevens with their incredible swoosh of polished metal behind them were definitely the loudest thing in the room, the gallery, and, heck, the whole world of craft and design.
Last Friday, there was a conference held at the imposing Wren house of Compton Verney in Warwickshire organised by a new research network established in Manchester School of Art – folkartdesign.org.
The sell-out crowd found their way to the depths of the Warwickshire countryside in the heavy rain to witness a fantastic range of papers all about the coterie of mid-century women designers, who had a fascination, in one way or other, with English popular arts/folk art/vernacular art/outsider art/amateur art: the kinds of things at English fairgrounds, fetes, craft fairs, and horticultural shows.
The sting of backslashes in the last sentence is justified, as defining what kind of art that was the subject of these papers constituted one of the main talking points throughout the day.
Lou Taylor, in the first talk of the day gave an impassioned snap biography of her mother, Pearl Binder, who documented her life through an endless stream of illustrations, cartoons, sketches and book designs. Taylor quickly distanced herself from the term ‘folk art’ seeing unhelpful connotations with inter-war German national socialist connotations of the word ‘volk’ – i.e. a people united by race – and the preference in the USA to categorise certain non-official art as ‘folk’ in order to command high prices. No, for Taylor, her mother’s ‘drawing as anthropology’ was an appropriation of the ‘popular’ arts, a use of bold, colourful and expressive lines in her compositions of everyday life, and a lifetime of collecting items from junk stores and fairs, wherever she went. She claimed that the circle of women designers themselves described their interest as in the ‘popular’ arts, not folk, or anything else – from Enid Marx (English Popular Art), Barbara Jones (The Unsophisticated Arts) to William Addison (English Fairs and Markets).
The conference quickly succeeded in provoking debate, avoiding the danger that often befalls conferences – that of becoming anodyne.
But what actually is ‘popular’ art. And who is calling it popular? Is this another incidence, as famously was the case for outsider art in the first half of the twentieth, of highly trained art specialists and dealers flying into an area or a community of artists and decreeing certain things as paragons of expression (and other things not!) The women designers covered in this conference certainly found a way, through their interest in popular arts to obviate the hierarchies of art and art history in order to make a mark and find a channel for their creativity. Their work, that both appropriated and drew attention to the vernacular certainly can be framed as avant-garde expression against an establishment that was still wedded to painting and sculpture.
There was a fair amount of discussion on domestic modernism: not the modernism of Le Corbusier, European abstraction and clean lines, but the modernism associated with the English domestic interior: a Mondrian next to a solidly built fireplace as was the case with the Ben and Winifred Nicholson. Good observations, no doubt, but this ‘alternative modernism’ of the English domestic has been a corrective to standard narratives of modernism for some time (Tanya Harrod, The Crafts in Twentieth Century Britain, Holt et al. Geographies of Englishness, Nancy Troy, Modernism and the Decorative Arts in France). Le Corbusier loved decorative carpets, alright! More enlightening was that these scholars of the popular arts probably derived some of their inspiration from the 1920s surrealists.
I think the most successful checklist of what constitutes folk art, and gets to the crux of what these designers were interested in was Jane Webb‘s seven point checklist. I’m not going to run through all of the points here, but it is worth saying that she introduced the term ‘fear’ to the conversation. For something to truly qualify as folk/popular art it needs to instill a sense of fear. I think, here, we were getting somewhere – towards the idea that the folk is not merely pleasing but jolts you out of a sense of yourself, and this is not just dependent on the work of art that you are looking at, but the context in which you look at it. It needs to be affective, stir you up, just as you would be if you were sitting on one of those Mary Rose ship rides at a fairground. A configuration that is unexpected, at least when you first look at it.
I contributed a chapter to the publication Collaborations Through Craft edited by Amanda Ravatz, Alice Kettle and Helen Felcey all about Department 21, an experimental, educational project I was involved in during the second year of my PhD at the Royal College of Art.
I am involved in a couple of talks this September in relation to my various research projects.
On Saturday 14th September, at 2pm, I will be talking at the Surrey History Centre in Woking on technical education in the late nineteenth century, and opportunities this provision enabled for women. The event is free, please see the following link for details:
Later on in the month, on Tuesday 24th September, I will be talking at an event ran by the Participation and Engagement in the Arts Exchange Network in Spalding, Lincolnshire. The talk will be about the long shadow cast by William Morris on contemporary participatory art projects that incite handmade interaction. The event is also free, see following link for details.
To walk through a gallery show of Outsider Art is to feel implicated. The normal relationships and actions that determine usual behaviour in the gallery are suspended as you ponder over someone’s therapy, a private world that was never intended to meet the public’s gaze.
In Souzou: Outsider Art From Japan the curators have not done much to reverse or recognise this discomfort. They emphasise the fantastical, the extreme – both in the selection of the work and their arrangement. Shota Katsube’s action figures made from twist-ties have an ocean of space between them and Kobei Bekki’s small clay figures are treated like the neolithic objects of the British Museum (yes with certain visual resemblances, but you are not going to find me making atemporal formal connections between their work and that of our early ancestors).
There is an essential miscontextualisation in Outsider Art, the work of ‘discovered’ artists put on show for the contemplation of an gallery audience who celebrate (sometimes naively) the expressive, emotional content of the work, while under-stressing the contexts of this discovery and the sometimes blatant artistic-colonial ‘othering’ going on (the sane clearly distinguished from the insane.)
Other critics have made these points – Colin Rhodes and Julian Stallabrass come to mind – so it is surprising that not more is done in this Wellcome show to rectify or explode this problematic. The history and work of the Social Welfare Organisations of Japan from which the work is drawn is not explained, nor is the founding (in 2004) of the Borderless Art Museum NOMA which has exhibited the work. Instead the curator in the pamphlet talks about how the artists’ rights are being protected through a not-for-profit charity, Haretari Kumottari, which raises the question: is the curator and this organisation regulating the boundary between outsider art and non outsider art for the purposes of the works publicity/dissemination. It makes sense for the purposes of clarity (or marketing) to use the tag ‘outsider’ to describe these artworks, but considering that mental illness is close to so many people’s lives, how outside are these artists’ conditions anyway.
The features of the outsider on show here – such as intensive doodling, huge scale, repetition of imagery, the sexual content and obsessiveness – are not that far away in the world of art practice, found in teenage diaries, expression at the early stages of art education, and in many of the works on show in graduate shows. Formally, there are resemblances between the outsiders and the throngs of students graduating from colleges across the country. The processes adopted by the Outsider Artists are not massively different. Talk to any student and you can see the assiduous obsessiveness that attends the creation of their show pieces. Walk through fine art departments and flat perspectives and cartoon figures abound.
All of this contributes to the extraordinary sense of unoriginality in the curating of Souzou, that works against the sense of the creative brilliance of some of the pieces. Audiences are au fait with the Outsider Art category – the Museum of Everything (in its various guises) confirmed this. Another level of reading is required. How different are these artists, how ‘outside’ are they in an art world where anything goes? Is Outsider Art simply defined by not regulating one (or more) parts of the artistic process: a refusal to believe in the one off, the creation of endless series of similar motifs (with tiny differences), and pure personal indulgence (i.e. not making ‘for’ an audience). To sum up – a refusal to conform to the conditions of the art market.
The equivalence between works at Souzou and works in graduate shows is clearly not straightforward. The context of each set of works’ production is entirely different. However, by categorising the outsiders on account of their placement within a welfare institute is the artworld simply backing up outdated, Enlightenment-borrowed structures that seek to rationalise aberrant behaviour?
More can be gained by bringing the outside in, or at least allowing all art to stand on the same plateau, where disciples of Duchamp sit alongside ‘discovered’ artworks from the outside, applicants to the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, and the populous crowd of graduating art students. Art’s demand to challenge must surely still form part of its rationale. Despite the unbelievable work in Souzou one feels that all the challenging content, explosive messages and deep meaning is diluted by unoriginal curators.
I have just written a blog for the Fixperts website. It is a project led by Daniel Charney, of the V&A’s ‘Power of Making’ fame, and James Carrigan, co-founder of the fixing agent company Sugru, that gets people enthused about repairing things.
See the blog here.
Additional extra from the drafting of the above blog: the ‘repair’ of editing.
On April 10th I will be involved in a School of Life event about the promise of the ‘democracy of making’ promoted by increasingly available and advanced tools: 3-D printers, online DIY tutorials, kits available in the out-of-town shopping centres, and abundant supply of different sorts of material.
See this link for more information:
Is the consumer in a more powerful position because manufacture has been added to their toolbox, or does the recent mass individualisation merely flatter the productive capabilities of an increasingly skill-less population?