Putting the Art in Crafts

Usable objects take on artistic value when rendered by today's craftspeople

ASK any artist or curator to draw the line between what is art and what is craft, and you'll probably get into a lengthy discussion filled with words like "illusive,messy," and "fuzzy." The struggle with terminology seems to follow the crafts field, but most professional craftspeople today would say their work is grounded in a commitment to artistry.Echoing that sentiment is Lloyd Herman, one of the country's top authorities on contemporary crafts. He concludes that in American crafts, "the 1980s can stand up against the best periods of any country in history." Mr. Herman attempts to prove his point in the large crafts show he curated at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln, Mass., which will be traveling to seven more cities through 1993. "Art That Works: Decorative Arts of the Eighties, Crafted in America" presents works by 112 artists, encompassing furniture and lighting, glassware and ceramic tableware, rugs, clocks, and containers. The term "decorative arts" in the title was scorned by craftsmakers in the past, because it connoted frivolous, unnecessary decoration on functional objects. But in the '80s, the phrase was revived as American crafts matured and gained expressive power. The term "crafts downplayed in the title - admittedly has had a bad reputation, but that, too, is slowly changing. "Unfortunately, 'craft' conjurs up images of potholders and things we see in Christmas bazaars," says Mr. Herman, who in 1971 helped found the Smithsonian Institution's Renwick Gallery, the national craft museum of the US. "When you say 'painting,' most people think of masterworks," he says. "They don't think of all the terrible amateur paintings that are done." Typical ways of distinguishing between "craft" and "art if one must do so - often have to do with "whether something is functional or nonfunctional, or made out of a particular medium like clay, glass, or wood," says Herman. But "what most defines art for me is the degree of creativity and originality backed up with craftsmanship. On one hand, I admire the craftsmanship of a reproduction of a Chippendale chair, but it doesn't succeed for me as art, because it lacks originality and freshness."

Market for crafts growing Wherever true definitions lie, a few things are certain: The last two decades have seen a greater number of crafts collectors, rising prices, growing (though not pervasive) interest from museums and galleries, and more public awareness of US talent in crafts. In 1965, the American Crafts Council (ACC), a leading service organization for crafts, held a crafts show in Vermont that attracted a few thousand visitors and sold $18,000 worth of items, says Carol Sedestrom Ross, ACC's long-time show organizer. This year, the council hosted six shows across the country, attracting more than 100,000 visitors (from Saks Fifth Avenue buyers to toy-store owners) and selling $45 million in goods, she says. Much of the appeal for the general public, perhaps, is due to a backlash against contemporary art, Ms. Ross says, which tends to intimidate and mystify. Crafts such as furniture, glassware, and jewelry, however, "are things people immediately understand."

Going beyond labels "Art That Works" attempts to get away from concerns with labeling, says Paul Master-Karnik, director of the DeCordova Museum. Instead, it's what the pieces say to each viewer that counts. Jonathan Bonner's seven-foot "Weathervane," made of copper and granite, moves like a real weathervane but evokes other interpretations that are just as legitimate. "We don't worry about whether you want to call it a weathervane or a kinetic sculpture," says Mr. Master-Karnik. "It exists as a beautifully technically refined piece. It has an elegance to it, and the movement is not extraneous or gimmicky to the actual composition." If questions over terminology and function can't be answered, at least this exhibition is able to make concrete sense out of the amazing diversity of works from the last decade. From Art Deco bottles to rustic rocking chairs, craftspeople in the US are covering a huge amount of stylistic territory, with not a little sophistication and technical facility. A few groupings include: * Classical ideals. John Dodd's "Cylindrical Compliment" is a 4-foot-high walnut pedestal that recalls that favorite of classic forms - the column. On top, five drawers slide out unexpectedly. * Material possibilities. The 1980s brought new mediums for artists to experiment with. Komelia Hongja Okim scores and folds titanium - a refractory metal borrowed from the space program - into an angular container. The metal is a dull gray until an electric current is applied to its surface. * Art Noveau. Craftspeople such as Albert Paley, internationally known for his forged gates, furniture, and sculpture, have picked up on the whiplash curves and sensuous surfaces of this style originating in late 19th-century France. Paley's steel "Plant Stand" is just over four feet tall. * Tribal art. Dogs, snakes, bones, and masks are a few elements of works in this catagory. The artists sometimes seem to be commenting on negative stereotypes of what was formerly called "primitive" art; other times they add high-tech touches to ancient forms, as when Keith Crowder puts light bulbs behind shaman masks and turns them into haunting wall lamps. These stylistic tendencies "are finally being used in a very secure way," says Master-Karnik. American craftspeople - who have never had their own single craft tradition - "don't have to apologize to anybody. We don't have to be insecure about our tastes or our technical capabilities," he says. "There's a sense of freedom, of power, and persuasiveness in finding one's own meaning."Acceptance of crafts as 'art' But how much of this talent is appreciated by the established art world? Museums have been slow in collecting contemporary crafts, "but that seems to be changing," says curator Herman. The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, and the Art Institute of Chicago - as well as a number of smaller city museums have really jumped on the bandwagon in last 10 or 15 years." But it should not be stated that crafts are universally accepted as art, he adds. Florence Duhl, a New York crafts curator, juror, and art-marketing consultant, says that pricing plays a significant role in keeping painting and sculpture at a higher level than crafts, which tend to cost less. Few items marked under $1,000 are taken seriously by gallery owners. "I think it's a political issue on pricing" and a Catch-22 situation, she says: If a piece isn't priced high enough, the art world won't notice it; but if the art world doesn't recognize its artistry, it won't get a high price. "I'm not saying everyone should be a fine artist," adds Ms. Duhl. "There will be people who will always be craftspeople. And [it's good that] people are doing things at reasonable prices."

At the DeCordova Museum through Feb. 2. The show travels to Dayton, Ohio; Little Rock, Ark.; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Portland, Maine; Coral Gables, Fla.; Columbus, Ga.; and Wilmington, Del.

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