The ‘return to craft’ refers to a resurgent interest in hands-on processes of making within contemporary art – a return that might be seen to draw influence from the British Arts and Crafts movement. Rather than resulting in refined, rarified and decorative objects, the pieces gathered here seem on the whole quite proud to show off their rough edges, pleased with their stodginess and lumpiness, and are happy to sit somewhat awkwardly before us.
‘Looking at People Looking at Art’ is the second show at Division of Labour, gallerist Nathaniel Pitt’s new space on London’s Herald Street. His gallery of the same name has been running in Worcester since 2012.
Guest curator Mark Essen has constructed a conceptual framework that playfully foregrounds the social and physical mechanics of the artspace. Essen has quite literally staged a group show - building a bright yellow platform that skirts the gallery space with some 21 objects arranged atop. The ‘People’ of the title can access the space through a narrow pathway, determining specific vantage points from which we see the works. The viewer is almost excluded from the assembled exhibition, disbarred from wandering around and between the objects.
The assembled works share an interest in processes and types of making that we also find in Essen’s own work as an artist. Ceramics loom large, with painting, textiles and casting also present. Set against a bright yellow base and laden with humour, the show has cartoonish moments: Charlie Duck’s slapstick ‘Yellowman’ (2015) presenting a stoneware banana skin ready to cause a slip, Bedwyr Williams’ ‘Clocsiwr’ (2012) a pair of Adidas Stan Smiths re-soled into a pair of clogs and Katrin Hanusch’s ‘Spillover’ (2016) whose bright pink form crowns the space.
Hanusch’s sculpture embodies many of the show’s themes: a pink-coloured, over-sized chain, handcrafted link-by-link is hoisted up to the gallery ceiling and supported by a bright pink beam of oak. The work is impressive in its skill and meticulous construction, while self-defeating and self-deprecating in its lack of function. The piece is brash in its self-confidence and monumentality while it amuses and undermines itself in its humour. Niamh Riordan’s ‘Milk Spoons’ (2016), floppy casts of spoons made from milk and dye, and Robert Rush’s up-turned, glazed sink ‘Portal to an unseen world’ (2016) underscore this subjugation of function to form.
Some works in the show enjoy revelling in crudeness and lewdness. Andrew Gillespie’s ‘Fun in Functional’ (2016), a partially concealed poster print ruminating on the many uses of the word ‘shit,’ is a case in point, as is Josephine Flynn’s ‘Untitled - Turd’ (2013), a giant silver-foil turd, propped carefully against the wall, nestled in a blanket. The rough and ready forms of Laurence Owen’s ‘Channel 4’ (2016) and Matthew Peers’ discrete ‘Untitled (bunher i)’ (2016) sit in dialogue with these: material crudeness against linguistic crudeness.
These works are offset by quieter moments. Leah Carless’ jesmonite castings of hands and the soles of feet adds a touch of delicacy in ‘Fillers’ (2016), while Kate Owens’ intriguing textile collage, ‘Trying to cut out a heart’ (2016) suggests a note of sentimentality. The cut-out strips and pieces of found fabrics arrayed on a long, grey background incite curiosity about the artist’s processes of selection and arrangement. Phil Root’s ‘Merchant on Pilgrim’s Way’ (2016), a handmade t-shirt adorned with a selection of Tarot cards, provides a hook for a narrative line of flight.
The show’s title refers to a meta-structure placed above this assemblage; by climbing a few steps we access a vantage point elevated above the objects and view the room anew through a window, watching the exhibition and its audience as if from the outside. If the exhibition until now has foregrounded the objectness of the objects, then this turn draws attention to the interrelationships of these objects and their viewers.
For all the crudeness and humour found in these works the artists seem to share a sense of seriousness in their approach to practice. Essen describes the artists gathered here as ‘a collection of makers, doers, plants, connectors, generators, dynamos, emitters and conductors’. Manual labour, work, the importance of studio practice, making and materiality run through the objects he has collected together. This is paired with an interest in the modes of sociality and interaction that might occur around the works.
The accompanying text invites us to think about the political ramifications of the aesthetic decisions and processes made by the artists. Essen values ‘auto-didacticism, artists who are prolific in pursuit and vision, [who] never stop working or thinking’. Like the formal quality of the work this political dimension feels like one of resolved experimentation, a pursuit of singular visions and collectivity around personally-defined value systems. This is a politics to be pursued with sustained seriousness but not without humour or accident.