The craft comeback

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ALTHOUGH not necessarily related, art and craftsmanship have usually joined forces to produce Western culture's best paintings, prints and sculpture. The works of Van Eyck, Vermeer, Durer and Brancusi, for instance, depend to a large extent on exquisite craftsmanship for their beauty and effectiveness. And the same is true of many works in other media and categories.

Art and craftsmanship, however, must work in tandem, or the result will be more raw material or craft than art. Every period, of course, has its own ideas of what constitutes the ideal balance, with Victorian England's passionate pursuit of technical virtuosity representing one extreme, and a current belief that a sophisticated technique hinders rather than helps true creativity representing the other.

While its insistence on ''expression'' over workmanship has enabled this century's art to achieve extraordinary results, it has also blinded it in certain areas. We place such a premium on directness, on improvisational techniques, that we often give our highest praise to artists largely because they work ''spontaneously,'' and downgrade those for whom fine craftsmanship is an essential ingredient of their art. Thus, such banal painters as Larry Rivers and Francesco Clemente stand high in our current judgment, while such exceptional talents as Andrew Wyeth and Lucian Freud are fortunate if they are not dismissed as ''mere'' illustrators.

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Interestingly enough, we are suspicious of technical excellence only in work produced during the past century and a half. We feel very different about anything going further back in time, and become quite ecstatic when confronted by the exquisitely crafted pictures of Raphael, Holbein, Rubens, and Poussin. The argument presented is that rigidly controlled craftsmanlike technique became obsolete with the Impressionists, irrelevant with the Cubists, and proof of reactionary fervor with the Abstract Expressionists.

An increasing number of today's younger artists, however, refuse to pay attention to that argument and are, in one way or another, bringing pride of craftsmanship and a respect for technique back into their creative vocabularies. Proof is found in the many superb landscapes and figure studies that are on view in more and more galleries and smaller museums; in the items previously labeled crafts that must now be accepted as art; in the carefully structured three-dimensional pieces by many of our newer sculptors; and in the care that is going into the making of ''traditional'' etchings and engravings as well as prints in a more modern vein.

Even so, it is still an uphill battle. The majority of critics and curators are not prepared as yet to acknowledge that the profusely detailed pastel landscapes of William Beckman, the sumptuous pebble paintings of Alan Magee, the passionately conceived and sensitively executed oils of Jerome Witkin, the brilliantly composed rural scenes of Peter Poskas, or the remarkably accomplished drawings of Gregory Paquette could possibly be the equal of - or even superior to - the more informally produced pictures that dominate so many of today's major exhibitions.

If that is true of painting, sculpture, and drawing, it is even more true of items executed in media that have traditionally been reserved for the crafts. An oil, a bronze, or a lithograph at least has a chance to be included in a major museum exhibition. Works made of silver, wool, leather, or batik, though, will almost automatically be excluded. It doesn't matter if the piece transcends the ''craft'' designation. If it was made out of these or other ''craftsmanlike'' materials, it will have the greatest difficulty being accepted as art.

The bird sculptures of Grainger McKoy are a good case in point. Although woodcarving is a legitimate artistic pursuit, the carving of realistic wooden birds - especially geese, ducks, and quail - is not. If anything, it is considered a lowbrow form of whittling undertaken by craftsmen with little sense of art for hunters whose only concern is that such carvings exactly resemble the creatures they shoot.

McKoy, however, has completely demolished that assumption - as far as his own work is concerned. His exquisitely crafted and miraculously detailed woodcarvings of birds undoubtedly please the most exacting outdoorsman - but they also cannot be deprived of their right to be called art. They are both lifelike and full of life, and pulsate with the inner energy of Audubon's better watercolors and prints.

McKoy's ideas are first worked out in foam, and are then translated into basswood, which is soft and fine-grained and not likely to check or split. Next, each feather is individually carved and burned to create the exact texture he wants, and is then inserted into the main structure of the body. Some of his recent studies have incorporated the natural surfaces of wood to denote different elements, and in one, a simplified, darkened piece of wood is positioned to represent the bird's shadow in the water.

The end result is a dynamic depiction of form, detail, color, and motion that is impossible to describe and that argues forcefully against all preconceptions regarding the kinds of techniques and the levels of craftsmanship that are appropriate to the creation of a work of art.

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