"Genre Bending" in Modern Craft

 

 

Exhibition review: Maya Muchawsky Parnas: “By the Wall“, The 2013 Andy Prize for Contemporary Crafts, Israel. Curator: Meira Yagid Haimovici

Written by: Orly Nezer

I do not know what museum visitors expect when entering the space of “The Gallery for Architecture and Design” at “Tel Aviv Museum of Art”, to an exhibition of a winner of “Andy Award” for Contemporary Crafts… so many genres under one gallery roof!

Based on some evidence I can assume that after entering, many of them felt confused, or just “didn’t get it”. I would like to review the exhibition by implementing the “Genre bending” approach I will introduce below. This approach engages knowledge and training that enables recognizing of themes and nuances. I find the approach helpful for better apprehension and enjoyment of exhibitions of artists invested in the crafts. By implementing the approach on the “By the Wall” exhibition, I hope to show how the artist’s engagement in ceramics leads to complex and layered with meanings works.

 

General View

Gallery 2 has a large space (170 square meters) and the serial objects of Maya Muchawsky-Parnas do not take up space, rather running-meter: They are attached to the walls on shelves, leaned on the wall or laid next to it. Though I wrote “serial” – a concept related to industrial design or pottery workshops – this exhibition draws away from both these practices, rather, “the serial” defines space, marks the horizon and as we will see, makes time present.

Indeed, M-P begins with marking her territory, “claiming her space”. But the bright objects by the walls, with their pastel hue, expand the space while blurring its boundaries. All objects have a quiet presence, and their installation stimulate a reaction similar to the awe feeling in front of a spectacle view, a kind of sublime. These pale lines positioned to define an area, do not function as an unambiguous divider between interior and exterior, rather a dim, penetrable one.

So Far

 

Maya Muchawsky Parnas 'So Far', 2013, stoneware dipped in limewash, 77 units, various dimensions, installation length 18 m; photo by Orly Nezer

Maya Muchawsky Parnas 'So Far', 2013, stoneware dipped in limewash, 77 units, various dimensions, installation length 18 m; photo by Orly Nezer

Maya Muchawsky Parnas 'So Far' (detail), 2013, stoneware dipped in limewash, 77 units, various dimensions, installation length 18 m; photo by Orly Nezer

Maya Muchawsky Parnas 'So Far' (detail), 2013, stoneware dipped in limewash, 77 units, various dimensions, installation length 18 m; photo by Orly Nezer

M-P lays out in front of us an artificial landscape. She has placed, on top of 18 meters of a whitewashed shelf, seventy-seven objects, lump forms that can be seen as rocks, each one dipped up to 17 cm in same whitewash. 17 cm above the shelf, a grey strip is painted on the wall, so that the naked tips of the objects, with their off-white tint, outstand in front of the gray background, resonating mountain peaks. For the viewer standing at the entrance of the gallery the experience might be similar to one in front of a “post – minimalist” installation: the work appears at first-sight quiet, with minimal joints.

But when viewer walks towards it, the work turns out to be an offer of at least two polar visions. If the long-view offered a clean, uniformed view of latitude, thus presenting a unified narrative, the short-view, the “close-up”, offers a variety of details, thus, multiple non-chronological narratives.

An intentional look at the objects reveals a shoe trail, fingerprints and pulling marks. There is no theme or chronological relation between the appearances of these marks, and they do not add up to a complete, structured story. The artist offers us a broken, contingent story, based on the affected views, and on the spatial relationship between the visible components.

 

Self Reflexivity

The closer look reveals the craft, the making. The slapping of the material in different directions to achieve form, and thereby the creation of wrinkles, sags and folds. The objects become a documentation of a process. The artist uses the familiar property of non-glazed ceramics, that, more than any other material commemorates soil and landscape.

The principle of “self reflexivity” is important to understand the “Genre Bending” approach I am demonstrating in thus review. It means that the actions of the artist “bends back on” and expose the means and effects of the artwork. In other words, it exposes the artificial nature of the artwork. M-P’s place of departure is the Ceramics with the commitment to material, process and techniques that the medium enforces, while thinking in concepts of contemporary art. By exposing the pressing, the fingerprints, the bulky lumps of clay which were just pulled out of industrial packaging, she is performing a self reflexive practice, exposing the artificiality of the objects, and thus reminds us that the medium is clay. Indeed in ceramics this reflexive practice is used repeatedly, as such it is so easy to fall into a cliché. However this is not the case here, for the cliché is shattered by borrowing a context of multiple visions from contemporary art. So, the artist is not telling a story about ceramics or a biography, but a story left open for composition.

 

Craft Theory and “Genre Bending”

From the Craft-theory perspective, many theoreticians might agree that using craft methods while ignoring function or decoration is not considered Craft but (whether good, or bad) art. For instance, Howard Risatti in “a theory of craft”[1] warns his readers:

“…Such sophisticated handling of material and surface reflects traditional craft practices and encourages one to see such works as craft rather than sculpture, even though their forms are obviously more sculptural than craft-like. One must resist this temptation, for these works clearly belong to the realm of sculpture and not craft”.

Many other theoreticians are interested, as Risatti, in objects that can be identified as coming from a particular practice. There is Louise Mazanti’s “Super-Object”[2], Anna Fariello’s “Socially Integrated Object”[3] and others.

On the contrary, Glenn Adamson in his book “Thinking through Craft”[4] puts aside “traditional” craftspeople, while thoroughly examine artists that use, what he considers as, the “inferiorities” of the crafts, as a starting point for their artistic expression:

“…each in his or her own way, take their strength as artists from some aspect of craft’s intrinsic weakness. Each occupies what seems on one level to be traditional studio environment, operating within the tightly defined parameters of certain activities in order to make discrete objects. Yet they also undercut the stability of these fixed points in the artistic equation. For them craft is not only a way of thinking: it is also a foil”.

Adamson believes that

Craft is not a defined practice but a way of thinking through practices of all kinds, and there is no reason that any one medium or genre of production should be more conductive to this way of thinking than another[5]. A few years earlier Paul Greenhalgh in his book “The persistence of Craft” wrote in somewhat a similar perspective:

Craft is presented in this book as a fluid set of practices, propositions and positions that shift and develop, sometimes rapidly[6]

The “Genre-Bending” approach fits all perspectives, and I believe helps understand different approaches to craft, while putting no practice or genre higher in hierarchy than the other. In any event, it takes literate spectators to recognize and appreciate the bending of genres.

With regard to artistic practice, M-P joins other Israeli women artists (Talia Tokatly, Hadas Rosenberg Nir etc.) as they share a starting point of a deep commitment to material, from there, they “bend” genres, that is, harness to their favor properties of other genres of visual culture, especially the arts. This practice causes sometimes unease or confusion to viewers who find it hard to decide how to approach and understand the work.

The term “Genre bending” is adapted from the term “Gender Bending”[7] (drag, Fem, Butch), which applies to the borrowing of expected gender roles, or external effects from other genders, thus undermining the reductive, dichotomous approach “man / woman”. The term “Genre bending” reflects the use of external or internal features of other genres, when no genre is placed over the other. The “Genre bending” perspective illuminates and expands the meanings of the artworks as I will further exemplify. I need to remark though, that the “Contemporary Art field” is wide enough to accommodate these artists, and we could set them free to fly in these provinces without pinning them with the “weight” of the Crafts, thus, while in the art-world their reception may be with suspicion, for spectators engaged in the crafts, their great competencies and loyalty to ceramics, gives their art extra layers of meaning. (Let’s now return to the exhibition)

“1985-2013”, 2013

Maya Muchawsky Parnas '1985-2012', 2013, slip-cast earthenware, 18 units, various dimensions, installation length 540 cm; photo by Orly Nezer

Maya Muchawsky Parnas '1985-2012', 2013, slip-cast earthenware, 18 units, various dimensions, installation length 540 cm; photo by Orly Nezer

Maya Muchawsky Parnas '1985-2012' (detail), 2013, slip-cast earthenware, 18 units, various dimensions, installation length 540 cm; photo by Orly Nezer

Maya Muchawsky Parnas '1985-2012' (detail), 2013, slip-cast earthenware, 18 units, various dimensions, installation length 540 cm; photo by Orly Nezer

A white shelf, 5.4 meters in length, is installed on another wall, and on top of it a peach-colored strip, narrows and whitens gradually from left to right. This is the long-view, in which, once more, the “post minimalist” practice is implemented, creating direct spatial relationships: spectator-space-work. When approaching the work, the peach colored stripe becomes clear, and appears populated with duplications of an old radio-tape.

Well, for centuries Ceramics replicated vases, figurines, tiles, but what has Ceramics to do with a radio-tape associated with the electronics and plastic industry? In addition, the choice to cast an entire object, shell and push-buttons in one piece, and, adding to that, the selection of faded silky/ floury color, foreign to plastic, all together and separately, cause a dissonance. The objects are unresolved, parted from the “large picture”, of the long-view. But by applying the “Genre-Bending” approach, much more information can be drawn out of the work, and thus add layers of context and meaning to it.

The artist makes use in this work of an essential attribute of Ceramics – the shrinkage of clay. She makes a new plaster mold for the shrunk object, repeats that process and creates a series of similar objects, each one smaller than the one before in fixed ratio. Eighteen radio-tape clones growing smaller, fading and blurring respectively. Each object has its particular nuances and hue. M-P bends the genres “Craft” and “Art”, borrows characteristics, and by doing that, performs four shifts: One, the color-drippings on the objects are promoted with courtesy of the art world from “defects” in craft terms, to “particular expressions and nuances”. Two, by applying the art “installation” concept, the common serial production of the workshop becomes a meaningful multiplicity. Three, the intrinsic shrinkage factor of clay transforms a set of “growing smaller objects”, in any other material, to a self-reflexive statement, and therefore makes the work witty, while visualizes time through intrinsic change of material. The objects literally evolve one from the one before it. Four, making a mold and using stained casting clay for the reproductions of a plastic, industrial radio-tape, by the hands of the artist-craftswoman, may resonate the original one and prominence themes such as surface aesthetics and the implications of material projections.

“40 hula hoops”, 2012

Maya Muchawsky Parnas '40 Hula Hoops', 2012, slip-cast earthenware, 40 units, d. approx. 60 cm each; photo by Orly Nezer

Maya Muchawsky Parnas '40 Hula Hoops', 2012, slip-cast earthenware, 40 units, d. approx. 60 cm each; photo by Orly Nezer

Four clusters of hoops, each 60 cm in diameter, leaned on the wall as if marking territory. From the distance the installation looks like four scribbled circles, drawn again and again while “getting out of the lines”. Approaching the work reveals clusters of soft-pink, yellow and baby-blue hoops, with silky texture of casting-clay. Well, these hoops could be “ready-mades”, plastic strong-colored kindergarten accessories, but the artist M-P chose a material out of her personal preference and mastery, to create forty silky, bright, and most important, fragile hoops, distancing them from original function. Riding on the fragility of ceramics, without fixing or supporting the leaning objects, she generates suspension, and, once more, visualizes time (to the potential shattering). In addition, important themes intrinsic to craft are added to the artistic installation and add meaning to it: “Function” and “Decorative”. The malfunction hoops become decorative elements in the gallery space.

A suffix with “Pola and Lazer”, 2012

Maya Muchawsky Parnas 'Pola and Leizer', 2012, plaster cast, 4x244x160 cm; photo by Orly Nezer

Maya Muchawsky Parnas 'Pola and Leizer', 2012, plaster cast, 4x244x160 cm; photo by Orly Nezer

So far I have implemented the “Genre-Bending” approach on the spatial, multi-view-pointed installations. However, in a smaller defined space of the gallery lay a floor-piece which brings us indoors, to the domestic. It is a flat textured plaster object, few strings stuck to plaster and some parts are dyed with absorbed pigments. A careful observation, maybe some knowledge is needed, brings an understanding that this object is a mold, a textured “negative” of a home-made hairy carpet. With this information the object becomes more interesting, for the touching artistic object is revealed as the common technical instrument, the byproduct object of the crafty process. And it goes also the other way around: the byproduct of the crafty process, with the help of some borrowed additions from contemporary art, such as the context of the gallery, the placing on the gallery floor (versus the workshop table), the demand for attention from the gallery spectator, is converted, to a fine and full of sensitivities artistic object. It resonates time, wear and tear and much more.

As I have written previously, I find the “Genre bending” approach helpful for better apprehension and enjoyment of exhibitions of artists invested in the crafts. Hopefully I was able to demonstrate it.


This is an extended version of ‘Claiming Space – About genre bending and technique as meaning’, 1280ºC Magazine for material culture, vol 27, summer 2013 p. 11-15

 

[1] Risatti, H. (2007). a theory of craft – function and aesthetic expression. The University of North Carolina press, p. 290

[2] Mazanti, L. (2011). “Super-Objects: Craft as an Aesthetic Position”, in: Extra/Ordinary. Buzek, Maria E. (ed). London: Duke University Press, p. 62

[3] Fariello, A. M. (2005). “Redeaning” the Language of Objects” in: Object & Meaning. Fariello, Anna. M and Paula Owen (eds), Plymouth: SCARECROW PRESS, INC., p. 149

[4] Adamson, G. (2007), Thinking Through Craft, Berg Oxford UK, p. 168

[5] Adamson, 2007, p. 7.

[6] GreenHalgh, P., (2003). “Craft in a Changing World”, in: The Persistence of Craft. GreenHalgh, Paul (ed) NJ: Rutgers University Press, p. 1

[7] Gudith Butler mentions “gender bending” in her book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity (1990).