Neil Gall, ‘Unable to Separate their Identities’

Neil Gall, ‘Unable to Separate their Identities’, Cast and painted resin, 15 x 15 x 15 cm, Photo: Bernd Borchardt (Courtesy the artist and Aurel Scheibler/Scheiblermitte, Berlin).

Neil Gall, ‘Unable to Separate their Identities’, Cast and painted resin, 15 x 15 x 15 cm, Photo: Bernd Borchardt (Courtesy the artist and Aurel Scheibler/Scheiblermitte, Berlin).

I wanted to focus here on a work by Neil Gall, ‘Unable to Separate their Identities’ (2008), because it probes the dichotomy between different types of making. It appeared in an exhibition I co-curated with Stephen Feeke, ‘Undone: Making and Un-making in Contemporary Sculpture’ (Henry Moore Institute, 30th September 2010 – 2nd January 2011), which examined sculpture through the prism of making and materials. The show looked at works which were made by hand using everyday materials and ad-hoc craft techniques. The works retained an air of spontaneity and improvisation – an elusive, intoxicating freshness, contingent on provisionality – but, as a corollary, they were not predicated generally on specialist technical skill.

Amongst these objects, Neil Gall’s ‘Unable to Separate their Identities’ was something of an imposter. It appears as an assemblage of ping pong balls bound together with yellow duck tape. In fact, it is a detailed resin cast of such an assemblage, painted meticulously by the artist. Gall identifies himself primarily as a painter. He makes sculptural constructions from discarded rubbish at his kitchen table in a swift, experimental and spontaneous way. He then uses them as models for his paintings, photographing them, and recreating them with extraordinary accuracy over the course of several months. ‘Unable to separate….’ is a development of this process: it is a highly-detailed model, cast in resin and coloured in minute detail by the artist, which serves as a three-dimensional painting. It is almost indistinguishable from the original construction – unless you were able to pick it up when its substantial weight would come as a surprise.

Gall regards the original constructive process as highly creative – ‘the object being made in the everyday rather than the rarefied atmosphere of the studio somehow releases the unconscious, it frees me up, gives me the ability to make something nonsensical’ – but he has never, to this point, considered or shown his ad-hoc objects as finished works. The planning, the patience, the hard labour and not least the professional, technical skill required to translate them into paintings (whether in two or three dimensions) seem to be equally necessary to his practice. By these means, he transforms playful constructions into something heavier both physically and conceptually. Like an ambitious alchemist, a master of the dark arts, he attempts to capture and make permanent a provisional act. He embraces the sinister undertones of such petrification, creating an ‘unnatural’ object which is the exact opposite of what it seems.

Bodging Milano by Stephen Knott

A picture of the pole lathes (also made by Leitz and volunteers) in the context of the entire workshop

A picture of the pole lathes (also made by Leitz and volunteers) in the context of the entire workshop

Down a small in lane and up a mud track in deepest Herefordshire, a white canvas structure emerges from Clissett Wood: an unplugged greenwood furniture ‘bodging’ workshop that hosted ten prominent designers during the wet week of March 30th – April 5th 2010. The designers had cut themselves off from the infrastructure of their respective studios, with straight edges, electrical power and machinery swapped for hand-made tools, local wood and fingerless gloves, in imitation the of bodging techniques of countryside carpenters.

Rory Dodd on the pole lathe

Rory Dodd on the pole lathe

‘Bodging Milano’ resulted from a collaboration between artist and designer Chirs Eckersley; Rory Dodd of Designersblock, a London-based organisation that provides a platform for the exhibition of contemporary design through international design shows and festivals; and Gudrun Leitz, founder and chief instructor of a week-long greenwood chairmaking course in Clissett Wood. This connection was established in July 2009 when Chris Eckersley spent a week making a hand-made chair in Leitz’s outdoor workshop, an interest prompted by his experience designing the Arden range of contemporary greenwood Windsor chairs for the bespoke furniture company, Sitting Firm, whose manager David Green was also with the designers for the week.

This year Eckersley returned to Clissett Wood with nine designer friends, and, with the exhibition platform of the Spazio Revel in Milan secured by Dodd at Designersblock, engaged in a week of making greenwood chairs using traditional techniques under Leitz’s instruction. Her methods echo the processes adopted by Philip Clissett, the nineteenth century Hereford greenwood furniture maker who inspired figures of the Arts and Crafts movement, including Ernest Gimson. The same attraction that led Arts and Crafts figures to Clissett led to the fruition of this project: to get away from the machines and tools that define modern production and become familiar with the manually powered pole lathe (constructed from pieces of wood from the forest itself), shave-horse and an array of hand tools.

The influence of William Morris’s elevation of good workmanship was evident. Leitz straightforwardly admitted that the course was run according to a specific philosophy that stresses sustainability, quality craftsmanship from local raw materials, manual skill, and the retrospective reconstruction of folk traditions.

A shave-horse made by Gudrun Leitz and her volunteers with various hand tools

A shave-horse made by Gudrun Leitz and her volunteers with various hand tools

So how did the metropolitan designers mix with the bodging techniques? I arrived one day before the deadline to finish, and the workshop was a hive of activity, with the practitioners pushing tired limbs in an attempt to finish on time. All the processes – including cleaving, lathing, steaming, shaping, sawing and assembly – were powered by hand, a physical exertion that was taking its toll. The tools demanded a great deal from the human body. The pole lathe, which the designers learnt how to use on the first day, not only required repeated pedalling but also the need to cup the wood in the lathe with your hand to offer it up to the blade of the chisel. This offered greater manual control over the turning process and an intimate relationship between the body and the machine, but more muscles were involved in the making procedure than might be expected in a conventional machine powered workshop. This cohered with Leitz’s philosophy of making the body a craft machine, rid of all the technicalities the mind mulls over. But the consequences included aches and pains, too.

Chris Eckersly cutting off the bottom leg of his Windsor chair

Chris Eckersly cutting off the bottom leg of his Windsor chair

Designers were not only encouraged to be closer to the tools, but also to the material, selecting a piece of locally grown ash, cleaving it, and then shaping it into the integral elements of the chair. The Windsor chair is defined by the fact that legs and backrest are fixed into the seat. With greenwood this is done through mortise and tenon joints which, after being joined together, are dried. The mortise contracts around the tenon, locking it firmly in place. Steaming is done onsite too, with a kiln and steaming jig used to keep the bent wood in shape. Smoothing with sandpaper is forbidden because it obscures the grain.

Designers responded positively to the new experiences of using manually-driven machines and hand tools, and to the close connection between labour and the material. However, the lack of a straight edge in the haphazard workshop meant geometrical designs were hard to achieve, and uneven chairs resulted. For practitioners used to the accuracy of computer machinery this caused particular problems, relating to Pye’s hypothesis on the workmanship of risk: with hand tools there is greater likelihood of a misplaced intervention, which could ruin the desired outcome.

Carl Clerkin and Gudrun Leitz measuring up Clerkin's Windsor chair

Carl Clerkin and Gudrun Leitz measuring up Clerkin's Windsor chair

When asked how the designers were different from the normal clientele of furniture maker enthusiasts, Leitz replied that they approached the course with ‘an image in mind’. For her this made the week more demanding, as the participants, with specific knowledge of furniture making, wanted to achieve a particular result. This was obvious to me while I was there: I only managed to grab a few sentences from her during a rushed tea-break before she had to go back and consult the makers.

The products that resulted from the week’s endurance were whisked away to Milan a week after. Like Clissett’s handmade chairs that made it to Heal’s in London in the early twentieth century, the chairs of these designers may well ignite a romanticism attached to local production and craftsmanship amongst a metropolitan crowd. In addition to this direct output, the bodging course provides a lesson in the value of craftsmanship without power machinery. But however pleasurable, interesting or eye opening this experience in the woods may be, it does not constitute a viable modern day production strategy. As David Green from Sitting Firm mentioned, his £8,000 machine can cut the same seat bottom in 30 seconds as it takes his hands to make in a day. These realities of production seem to limit’s the experiment’s scope. But using a different set of tools, materials and skills does have the potential to renew or reinvigorate furniture practice.

Stephen Knott is a doctoral candidate at the Royal College of Art and Victoria and Albert Museum, writing on the theory and practice of amateur craft.

More images can be found here.

Introduction to Issue 2.1

Editorial Introduction

As the Journal of Modern Craft enters its second year of publication, it seems an appropriate time to go back to basics. And so, after a year of trying to push the boundaries, this time round we offer a series of writings that go right to the heart of “modern craft” and its interpretation.

In articles by Tom Crook, a historian and theorist of nineteenth-century modernity, and Nicolette Makovicky, an anthropologist and material culture specialist, we are treated to two such methodological inquiries. Crook’s subject, the Arts and Crafts Movement, could not be more familiar to readers of this journal. By reframing the Movement as an ‘alternative modernity,’ however, he breathes new life into that subject. Crook’s account gives us new tools for understanding well worn aspects of the Movement like the debate over machines, medievalism and other forms of historicism, and the growth of interest in indigenous craft traditions from around the world. Of particular interest is his use of Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of ‘dialogics,’ in which opposing positions and processes are seen as producing one another through continual interrelation, rather than resolving dialectically into new, stable syntheses.

Makovicky’s fieldwork among lace makers in contemporary Slovakia has led her to make a closely parallel argument. Just as Crook warns against seeing the Arts and Crafts Movement as either modern or anti-modern, Makovicky refuses the false choice between understanding ‘traditional’ craft either as a fictional construct, or as a fragmentary and threatened anachronism. Rather, she presents the choices made by individual lace makers as conscious responses to modernity, in which change and tradition are constantly reintegrated into one another. Especially when read together, these two essays exemplify this journal’s ambition to chart new methods in the study of modern craft, both by turning over old soil and ploughing new fields.

Much the same could be said about the prominent place given to British ceramics in this issue. Art historian Penelope Curtis outlines an unexpected comparison between the most famous name in English pottery—Bernard Leach—and the sculptor Barbara Hepworth. For many decades these two figures lived near one another in St. Ives, a small town in the west of England, but a notional art/craft divide prevented scholars from drawing connections between them. Interestingly, readers may feel that of the two, it is Hepworth who seems the more committed to the form-giving possibilities of handwork; but in any case, Curtis shows how the vessel form that forms the heart of studio ceramics can be seen afresh as it moves across disciplines.

Ceramics is also the focus of this issue’s Primary Text and Statement of Practice. In pairing David Queensberry and Alison Britton, we have intentionally taken a step back into the politics and possibilities of the 1970s. At that time Queensberry, a leading designer within the ceramic industry, was Britton’s tutor at the Royal College of Art. Despite his emphasis on functional design, she and many of his other students (including Carol McNicoll, Jacqueline Poncelet, and Elizabeth Fritsch) set off in a diametrically opposed direction. Britton turned to handbuilding, pattern and decoration, and fragmentary composition to forge a powerful new postmodern sculptural idiom. Now, thirty years later, it is Britton who teaches ceramics at the Royal College of Art. Her statement, written with the benefit of hindsight looking back at a long and successful career, describes her studies with Queensberry as the beginning of a journey of formal and conceptual experimentation.

Queensberry, too, has stuck to his guns. We have reprinted a talk he delivered back in ’75, in which he expresses alarm at the direction that young ceramists seem to be taking. In a new preface to this lecture, he reaffirms his convictions, arguing that the global transformations in production that have happened since make the teaching of design skills more important than ever. Queensberry’s and Britton’s positions reprise the old debate: should craft be oriented to design or fine art? But both write in full awareness that those two frameworks of reference are themselves fluid and unpredictable. 

The issue’s final article brings to our pages the work of Julia Bryan-Wilson, one of the most exciting new scholars working at the intersection of art and craft history. The lesbian identity politics that she locates in the work of Harmony Hammond might initially seem distant from modern craft’s fundamental concerns, as discussed elsewhere in this issue. But it is telling that Hammond, too, sought to break down false distinctions: “between painting and sculpture, between art and women’s work, and between art in craft and craft in art,” as she put it. In Bryan-Wilson’s analysis, Hammond looked to craft not as a reassuring source of identity, nor simply as a tool of Feminist critique, but rather as a means of queering seemingly stable oppositions and thus opening up new discursive possibilities.

Finally, we have the pleasure of announcing two new initiatives at the Journal of Modern Craft that are intended to embody this spirit of ongoing dialogue. This issue is our first to include a Response to a previously published article. We actively encourage such contributions, and hope to be able to feature other commentaries by our readers in future issues. Also, we are glad to be able to announce the launch of a new website at www.journalofmoderncraft.com. This new digital interface will carry selected content from the journal, and will also provide useful links, blog posts, and an open forum to which all our readers can contribute. Academic publishing is a slow and careful affair, and any scholarly journal—no matter how multiple and inventive—runs the risk of instituting a new orthodoxy. By actively promoting dialogue through printed and digital means, we hope to avoid this, and thus to do justice to the subject of modern craft, which is always on the move.