Connecting the dots: writing for makers

In the past few years I’ve spent a lot of time writing for makers. I’ve written artist statements, funding applications, exhibition catalogues, website content and magazine articles. I’ve had to look at their work with a critical eye and perhaps reveal something that even the maker had not considered. This process is one of collaboration and connection between writer, object and maker.

As a maker myself I can also be confronted by the task of articulating work. Recently I made an exhibition application to recreate a Tennyson poem by making a garden of hand dyed and beaded cotton flowers. ‘Into the Garden Maude’ would be recreated on the gallery floor, with over 700 blooms. I had to make connections between Victorian mourning tradition, women’s handiwork and the parallels between poetry and textiles. Really I wanted to say ‘this exists in my head, fully formed and I want the opportunity to create it’. Often when connecting theory to practice the maker can feel fraudulent. As if attaching a more complex idea to a single object makes you somehow complicit in prescribing more meaning than it actually has.

Craft in a fine art environment does pose a challenge for makers but I think it’s a healthy one. Concerns over functionality, production, marketing can be put aside momentarily. Ideas, tenuous and as they often are, can be teased out and explored. I recently wrote a press release of a jeweller having a major solo show. This was a task the gallery had put to her several months before. She had been so challenged by the idea of distilling her body of work to 150 words that she crumbled under the pressure. She believed somehow the work to be at fault, as if it should come with its own text panel to support its existence. Within 30 minutes of talking to her, gently and slowly about the work, I was able to build a simple paragraph that was cohesive and engaging. There were plenty of ideas there, it was a matter of connecting the dots.

Is writing a skill that makers can or should acquire? From a purely self serving position I  say not necessarily. Inviting someone into your process who can  help navigate through this element of work can be a rewarding and enlightening experience that may have you going in different directions. But writing is just like any craft, with practice, technique and patience it is a skill that can be honed over time and can serve the maker well.

Feeling their way through

Looking again at opposite and complementary approaches to making incorporated within a single practice, I am focusing here on works by Nayland Blake and Franziska Furter, which, like Neil Gall’s, were represented in our exhibition, Undone.

Franziska Furter ‘Chlumpä’ (2006)

Franziska Furter ‘Chlumpä’ (2006)

Furter’s ‘Chlumpä’ (2006) appears as a tight crystalline ball, c. 5 cm in diameter, positioned above eye level on the gallery wall and so small that it might not be observed by a casual visitor to the gallery. It was made by the artist knotting nylon thread over and over on itself, at the end of a long day in the studio and over the course of several months, as a means of relaxing away from the intense process of drawing, which is another aspect of her practice. Furter’s pencil drawings are often on a large scale and worked up from photographs. They record fleeting effects, but require a great deal of planning in their execution. ‘Chlumpä’ meanwhile was started and finished ‘on the side’, without the artist knowing exactly how it would develop, when it would end or whether it would become an art work. It gained ‘density’ – as opposed to mass or scale – through time and repetition.

Nayland Blake’s ‘Untitled’ (2003) is a slender and delicate assemblage made from wire, chain, thread, beads, buttons, tags and sequins, collected by the artist in suburban ‘hobby shops’. Blake is better known for his large mixed media installations, which are camp, funny and provocative and for his explorations of the gay scene in New York, so that this work, in terms of its appearance (and indeed the origin of its components), may seem anomalous in terms of his practice. But his installations and assemblages represent two sides of the same coin. The former often use explicitly sexual imagery, whilst the latter enact sensuality and desire. Blake describes making his assemblages in a ‘touching-the-thing-and-fiddling-with-it, additive way’. For him, this is an entirely physical experience, as he makes spontaneous decisions in response to the opposing qualities of materials – hard and soft, smooth and textured, round and angular – and feels his way through.

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.