We got over the art vs. craft and art vs. design debate a long time ago didn’t we? Craft and design practices are certainly welcome guests in the art world melange. Yet when seen within the context of the art gallery, fine art traditions still hold the ascendency. Caught up in this vernacular framework we are prone to forget the rudimentary principles that define and distinguish design from art, and art from craft. ‘The Decorator and the Thief (...)’ instead offers an alternative framework in which to consider the possible intersections of these disciplines. Framed around a series of open questions, the exhibition posits: Can art be functional, or can ‘good’ design move beyond being functional?
Central to ‘The Decorator and the Thief (...)’ is a body of works loaned from the Arts Council Collection. Where historically art has been a privileged and privately collected commodity, design and craft have been more enlightened in their universal ambitions. Be it in William Morris’s ideals ingrained in the Arts and Crafts movement, or in the ‘democratic design’ agenda of Philippe Starck, the essence of ‘good’ design has become rooted in themes of accessibility and consumption. Though the premise of the Arts Council Collection is about broadening access and visibility of the collected works – promoting public consumption – individually the works cannot escape their status as singular high-value objets d’art. Though select works by Claire Barclay and Barry Flanagan may explicitly evoke craft or design sensibilities, given their status can they be anything but art? what value do we actually place on their skill, intuition and labour versus their conceptual economy of ideas? ‘The Decorator and the Thief (...)’ pushes us to reconsider our position: to question where skill becomes craft, design becomes decoration, and which differentiates form from function?
Provoking these questions, punctuated throughout the exhibition are a series of contemporary works which explicitly challenge these presumptions. Susie Green has recently been making artist-designed scarves. Here the scarves themselves are interlaced within a broader display of moments of inspiration – photocopies, drawings and paintings. Presented so, function gives over to form, just as design is unashamedly rendered decorative: the hierarchies are dissolved.
Throughout the exhibition, design agency CommonRoom were invited to install a series of their artist designed wallpapers. Commercially produced, these wallpapers similarly translate the artists’ craft into a readily available commodity. In the example of Kate Hawkins, her wallpaper, ‘Be Yourself or Something Else’ (2014) covers a wall onto which a single painting is also displayed. The recognisable signature of the work is there to see, but one is a painting – and therefore art – the other we are left to reconcile for ourselves.
In Yelena Popova’s video ‘Line Painting’ (2014) she records an anonymous worker ‘painting’ yellow road markings. Working free hand he skilfully manipulates the ‘Drawbox’ navigating both the physical terrain and oblivious bystanders. Juxtaposed next to one of Popova’s signature ‘invisible’ paintings – raw canvases imbued with barely visible stains of colour – we are left to consider the visibility of craft and labour in art, but moreover in everyday life; we are made to work to see it. Compare this to Peter Davies’ vast ‘Striped Painting’ (1997). Its scale is arresting as the tide of hand coloured lines shifts across the canvas. It is Op Art – decorative - and yet as much as it is the meticulous product of hand and brush, the sleight of hand is rendered near invisible, its craft is sublimated. It is a painting all about painting: painting as esteemed commodity and painting as fine art tradition.
With the inclusion of such works as ‘Giorgio (Sadotti’s) Balls’ (1994) – a series of meticulous quasi-anatomical drawing of the artist’s balls, and Leo Fitzmaurice’s Mondrain painted miniature souvenir clogs, ‘Holland’ (1995), the show proves it isn’t taking itself too seriously. Perhaps the most incisive of all the works, however, is Jacqui Poncelet’s ‘Carpet’ (1992). This abstract patchwork of tessellated carpet remnants is in itself arresting. A visual clash of pattern and palette, this floor-based work is in every sense a painting in the expanded field. The technique however, far from a fine art or craft tradition, has much humbler roots. Much like the idea of quilting, this work directly references a cobbled together solution for cheaply carpeting a floor using off cuts and cheap samples. It results in a work of intersection: an elegant design solution, expertly crafted in what is unequivocally an art object.