BY Amy Sherlock in Opinion | 03 JUL 19

Is Craft Back in Fashion?

From the Loewe Craft Prize to the Object & Thing fair, why traditional techniques are the future

BY Amy Sherlock in Opinion | 03 JUL 19

Genta Ishizuka’s Surface Tactility #11 (2018) looks like it has landed from another planet. With its spherical bulges contained by a glassy, polished surface, the work is both voluptuously seductive and amorphously unsettling – amoeba-like, or tumorous. The piece, for which Ishizuka was last week awarded the 2019 Loewe Foundation Craft Prize, was produced using the ancient urushi (lacquerware) technique. Sap from the urushi tree, native to China, Japan and Korea, is applied to a surface in thin, even layers to produce a shiny, highly durable finish. Long-prized in east Asia for its resilience as well as its appearance, lacquerware has been excavated from ruins in Japan dating to the 7th century BCE. Surface Tactility #11 is one in a series that Ishizuka began in 2015, and is based on the form of oranges in a net bag. Recreating the shape from Styrofoam balls covered in linen, Ishizuka applied 17 layers of basement and lacquer, allowing each to dry before meticulously applying the next over a total of three months. Surface becomes form. ‘The material has a sort of will,’ he explains. ‘I have to find out what the material wants to be […] It’s a case of half, I made; half, the material made.’

Genta Ishizuka, Surface Tactility #11, 2018, lacquer and mixed media. Courtesy: LOEWE 

This is the third edition of the Loewe prize, which was conceived by creative director, Jonathan Anderson, as a way to honour the Spanish house’s artisanal beginnings as a leather workshop and celebrate innovation within craft traditions. With a purse of €50,000 (with €5,000 each for two special mentions), the award is uniquely generous on an international scale. Amongst this year’s 29 shortlisted works – exhibited in the Isamu Noguchi-designed stone garden at the Sogetsu Foundation, Tokyo, until late July – there are many that push materials to their extremes: to the point, almost, of becoming something else. Master goldsmith Giovanni Corvaja’s Mandala Bowl (2017) is spun from hair-fine gold fibres that are compressed using a highly sophisticated vacuum chamber to resemble a woven fabric. A column from Harry Morgan’s ‘Dichotomy Series’ (2008), which received a special mention, improbably balances cast concrete atop a forest of matchstick-thin glass filaments. 

Magdalene Odundo, ‘The Journey of Things’, 2019, installation view, The Hepworth Wakefield. Courtesy: the artist and The Hepworth Wakefield 

With the notable exception of British duo Jim Partridge and Liz Walmsley’s Curved Block Seat (2018), a hunk of scorched English oak with a curved indent of seat, there is very little that is functional in the exhibition. This is craft for craft’s sake. Writing for this magazine a few years ago about the rise of ceramics as an artistic medium, I discussed its vexed association with craft. That is partly a question of function: when the British artist Aaron Angell set up Troy Town Art Pottery, in 2012, he operated a no vessel policy. (His stance has since softened.) But it is also one of virtuosity: ‘fine’ art’s suspicion that masterful technique is a poor substitute for conceptual sophistication. I will never forget the exasperated look on the face of the late Betty Woodman – whose credentials as a great artist are no longer in doubt, though it took a long time for her to be recognized as such – when I asked her about a young generation of artists who were using clay ‘badly’ (her word), because they hadn’t bothered to learn what to do with it: ‘Clay has certainly become an acceptable material to make art with, but it seems as though it’s important for people – for artists – to say: “I don’t know anything about this, but I am doing it.” And, it’s a little frustrating, you know, because why don’t you know anything about it? You could do something about that.’

Increasingly, however, ceramics are entering the art gallery on their own terms. Last year, the Hepworth Wakefield (where Anderson himself had a show in 2017) staged a major retrospective of Kenyan-British ceramicist Magdalene Odundo, whose voluptuous burnished vessels were installed alongside work by influences from Michael Cardew to El Anatsui. And later this week, Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge will open an exhibition by Jennifer Lee, last year’s Loewe Craft Prize winner – one of a second generation of British studio ceramicists, emerging in London in the 1970s, whose work probed clay’s seemingly inevitable relationship with function.

Giovanni Corvaja, Mandala Bowl, 2017, 18ct gold wire. Courtesy: LOEWE 

At the same time, there seems to be a movement in the opposite direction within the art world – from the quasi-functional sculptures of artists such as Jessi Reaves and Zak Kitnick to the cerebral fashion line of Atelier E.B (artist Lucy McKenzie and designer Beca Lipscombe), whose exhibition at London’s Serpentine Galleries last year included elegant for-sale garments (from their ‘Jasperware’ collection) alongside work by more than 30 artists, designers and makers. A new fair called Object & Thing, selling design objects as well as artist-designed functional and decorative wares, launched in New York in May, tapping into this trend. 

This feels like a productive confusion. When the Loewe prize was launched, Anderson noted: ‘Craft is the essence of Loewe […] That is where our modernity lies, and it will always be relevant.’ In the Bauhaus’s centenary year, it seems we are still learning from its non-hierarchical, interdisciplinary approach.

Main images: Loewe Foundation Craft Prize, 2019, installation view. Courtesy: LOEWE; photograph: Lewis Ronald 

Amy Sherlock is a writer and editor based in London, UK.