Tracey Clement
An exhibition of craft as art reveals wonderful idiosyncracies
Object Gallery, Sydney. Until September 2, 2007

Gina Matchitt Anga 2005 Vinyl and sheepskin shopping tote; Vinyl, sheepskin, plastic beading, nubuck; 63 x 52cm; photo: Courtesy of Auckland Museum

Homeopathic medicine works (or doesn't, depending on who you believe) by dosing up the patient with minuscule amounts of whatever toxic substance is causing the problem, the malady and medicine are one and the same. But some things can only be fixed by prolonged exposure to their opposite. For example, the cure for an overdose of art is a long session on the couch with trashy DVDs, preferably bad action movies. Anything based on a Marvel comic or something with vintage Bruce Willis and lots of explosions works best. Every year in August, Sydney Design floods the city with all things sleek, sexy and super cool, and in truth, Sydney is pretty much design obsessed all the time, so it's good to be able to get inoculated now and then with a big shot in the arm of craft.

Making + Meaning: Craft in the 21 st Century features nine craftspeople from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom and is a good opportunity to stock up on design antidote. This strategy only works of course, because, despite the efforts of many institutions to conflate the two, craft and design are not the same. In fact, if you ask me, they are not even roughly approximate.

The title Making + Meaning hints at an awareness of craft's unique nature. Call me old fashioned, but craft derives much of its power from the act of being made by hand; divorce craft from the tactile and the personal and you are left with design (not that there is anything wrong with that).

But leaving aside my own personal definitions, in the crazy mixed up world of post-post modernism, the boundaries of genre are becoming more and more fluid. Nobody wants to stay in their boxes, and while it is clear that several of the craftspeople in Making + Meaning are keen to claw their way up the unspoken hierarchy of creativity towards the heady heights of art, they don't all seem to have realised that the way to do it was staring them in the face the whole time: the fertile intersection of making and meaning.

Michael Doolan's (Aus) shiny, metallic (platinum lustre glazed) ceramics resemble soft toys and invite the inevitable comparison to Jeff Koon's 1986 stainless steel Rabbit. They have the same kitschy cuddly nature, without the shock of originality.

Tom Moore's (Aus) almost sickly sweet anthropomorphic blown glass characters star in their own digitally animated flick, but nothing is gained by their attempt to make it in the world of contemporary art video. They started off a bit too cute, and they end up that way too.

Ruth Dupré (UK) also falls prey to the siren call of video. In Son's Time , she films a glass or ceramic bust of a boy through flickering leafy shadows, while a reedy male voice sings plaintively. Video art is tricky. It looks kinda easy (just point and shoot) but it is deceptively hard to do really well. In this work, Dupré succeeds in making a piece of video that is as tedious and unsatisfying as anything you may hope to see in an art gallery. It may indeed be art, but certainly not art (or craft) at its best, and you have to ask, why bother?

Elsewhere, back in the realm of three dimensions, Dupré's ambiguous glass objects, which defy expectations with their deliberate uselessness and off kilter (almost ugly) forms, are far more interesting. Her Lemony Split contrasts shiny clear yellow glass with a flaky, ochre coating. It conjures up something vaguely obscene, primal and deeply intriguing. Here Dupré seems to at once both master her process and relinquish control, a truly seductive combo.

Beth Hatton …As for man, his days are as grass (1910 Shotgun) 2006; Silvertop wallaby grass, cordyline, linen thread, wood, wire, emu feathers, stitching technique; h 65 cm X w 157 cm X d  20 cm Photo: Ian Hobbs

Beth Hatton (Aus) Hatton quotes the Bible and makes the most of her technique in, As For Man His Days Are as Grass…(1910 Rifle) . Woven from native grasses, it is shaped like a gun, but useless as a weapon. Hatton's use of basketry immediately brings to mind ‘women's work'. In this way, she seems to deliberately draw on gender stereotypes: women as nature, man as culture. In her woven grass gun, the hard masculine urge to conquer by force has been defused by soft feminine nurturing. What it lacks in subtlety it makes up for in clarity. And on a broader level, spanning both sexes, Hatton's work is a clever comment on the destructive futility of humanity's arrogance in the face of nature's patient omnipotence.

Polynesian tourist kitsch meets big business in Gina Matchitt's (NZ) brightly ,coloured fluffy vinyl tote bags. Matchett uses the Maori language to subvert the logos of major international players like Shell, and claim them for her own. Her work can clearly be read as the triumph of tenacious indigenous culture over corporate raiders and their easily digestible, global McWorld. And so it is, yet her use of the handmade also points to a complicity in the homogenisation of culture that we must all come to terms with. Much of the recent process is of our own making; we consume voraciously and willingly. There are alternatives, we do have choices.

Jeweller Warwick Freeman (NZ) is a master craftsman, and once again he doesn't disappoint. His Sentence , made from twenty seven perfectly crafted brooches, is more like a complex, layered metaphor than a straight forward statement. A sliced horse's tooth becomes a cheeky version of a Maori Tiki with a lopsided grin. A brightly coloured blob of orange plastic mimics volcanic stone, while the real thing does a good impression of an ancient tribal artefact; nothing is quite what it seems. This incongruity subtly draws attention to the hand of the maker and from there to the myriad implications of man's manipulative nature. Using the multilingual power of the language of craft, Freeman's Sentence starts a conversation.

As with all group shows, Making + Meaning has its highs and lows, but even at its most pedestrian, it is still a timely reminder of craft's wonderful idiosyncrasies; the things it can and cannot do. When it is firing on all cylinders and running at full speed, as in the works of Freeman, Matchett, Hatton and Dupré, the techniques used in its creation are hijacked to service meaning; process is used to convey ideas that transcend the utilitarian genesis of an object. At its very best, craft treads on the toes of art.


Last modified 29-Aug-2007

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the official policy of Craft Victoria.