Art

An Exhibition Ponders (and Perpetuates) the Hierarchy Between “Art” and “Craft”

'Losing the Compass,' installation view (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
‘Losing the Compass,’ installation view (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

LONDON — Losing the Compass, at White Cube in London’s Mason’s Yard, aspires to critique geographical, aesthetic, and other sorts of hierarchies. Ironically, it doesn’t entirely do so; if anything, within the gallery’s own stark “geography,” it often reinforces them instead.

The material purview, which guest curators Scott Cameron Weaver and Mathieu Paris address, is that of textiles. This makes sense: textiles are a primordial form of human production, they are associated with many cultures all around the globe, and they exist at all economic and political levels. They are also associated with both men and women, although traditionally they are mostly produced by women, as well as children.

Weaver and Paris come at textiles from the perspective of contemporary art. Again, this makes sense, as White Cube is a venue for contemporary art. But distortions inherent in this approach are evident from the get-go in a gallery presenting works by artists as diverse as Alighiero e Boetti and various quilters from Gee’s Bend, Alabama.

Alighiero e Boetti, "Oggi e il nono giorno dell'ottovo mese dell'anno millecentottotantotto" (1988)
Alighiero e Boetti, “Oggi e il nono giorno dell’ottovo mese dell’anno millecentottotantotto” (1988)

The Italian artist’s name alone reflects one person representing himself as a team of two artists. This allusion to collaboration is materialized, literally, by his work with groups of artisans from various locales — most notably, with Afghan women — who produce objects according to the briefs and materials he provides them. But, wonderfully poignant as these works are, they aren’t true collaborations. It’s Boetti’s name on the objects that commands the prices they fetch, and it’s their distinction as works by a contemporary (albeit no longer living) artist that dictates the manner of their display, which prominently isolates each one within broad expanses of open wall space.

View of gallery with various quilts and Boetti
Installation view with various quilts and Boetti (click to enlarge)

The numerous quilts shown in the same exhibition are treated very differently. Three hang on the wall from single fastening points, which causes them to drape in pleasingly sculptural folds. This makes for dramatic contrast to the crisp, flat rectilinearity of the two Boettis, but it is also anathema to textiles, bringing all weight to bear on that single point. The rest of the quilts are laid, overlapping, on stepped risers that span one side of the long, narrow room. This arrangement is less stressful to the objects, but it trivializes them by giving them the appearance of goods in a bazaar, rather than artworks in an elite gallery — a diminution starkly emphasized in relation to display of the Boetti works.

detail of Coxcomb Flower quilt by unknown artist (1859)
Detail of Coxcomb Flower quilt by unknown artist (1859)

That said, the Gee’s Bend quilts are, whenever possible, identified according to their makers: Geraldine Westbrook, Leola Pettway, Katie Mae Pettway and Deborah Pettway Young, and at least one unknown artist. The most recent, dated 1984, was by Leola Pettway. The quilts are placed in no particular order and, apart from those made in Alabama, the only one identified with a specific locale is an English “Log Cabin” quilt from the early 19th century. Many arrangements of colors and shapes are incredibly exciting and sophisticated, reflecting quilt-making as vastly exceeding the “acceptable form of creative outlet” described in the gallery’s press materials.

The other artists represented are Mona Hatoum, Sergej Jensen, Mike Kelley, William Morris, Sterling Ruby, Rudolf Stingel, Danh Vo, and Franz West. Morris’s output is displayed in a room papered with his 1876 Pimpernel pattern, printed in a colorway of beige, russet, and two shades of green. One of the members of the gallery staff told me this room was papered as a way of uniting the four Boettis in it with West’s chaise-shaped sculpture, “Nannerl.” The inclusion of Pimpernel reminded me that paper, as a product of felting, is a textile, too. Morris & Co.’s contemporary production of wallpapers and fabrics printed with the same patterns underscores this point.

boetti, "La Forza del Centro" (1990), on morris Pimpernel, undated
Alighiero e Boetti, “La Forza del Centro” (1990), on Morris Pimpernel, undated

The rest of the exhibition featured works, including several more by Boetti, that have been installed according to the artists’ intentions and contemporary commercial practice. The two floor pieces, by Hatoum and Vo, were especially provocative. Hatoum arranged for students at a carpet-weaving school in Cairo to create roughly woven brown mats featuring human skeletons, working from an articulated skeleton that was dropped on the floor in random “poses.” The resulting objects strongly evoke dirt graves. As such, I couldn’t help but remember something a Muslim artist once told me, when I lived in Texas: that her prayer mat was about the size her grave would be. In Vo’s work, a reconstructed Corona beer carton rests on a vivid red rug. The carton bears gold lettering by Vo’s father, Phung Vo, that spells out “Corona.” The rug itself is handmade of wool and dyed with cochineal, a traditional textile and food coloring derived from a Meso-American beetle. Vo’s work is a meditation on the Spanish colonization of Central America; interestingly, the cochineal beetle procreates by colonizing the pads of cacti.

Vo, detail of Untitled (2015)
Detail of Vo’s “Untitled” (2015)

I was also taken by Stingel’s exquisite oil-and-enamel paintings, which mimic damask wall-coverings, and by Kelley’s two framed expanses of what I assume is inexpensive white pile carpet: both were spray-painted with a hue not so far from the cochineal red of Vo’s carpet. The frames on Kelley’s works play an important role, by alluding to a banal form of American modern furniture. Jensen’s two knitted “paintings” also attracted me — at least initially. I was put off when I learned that the knitting had been “outsourced” to his unnamed mother.

Detail of Jensen "Untitled" (2003)
Detail of Jensen’s “Untitled” (2003)

Does delegating labor to other makers critique or perpetuate hierarchies between “art” and “craft”? When the artists are named and male and the laborers are unnamed and female, it perpetuates. When objects are not given adequate space or installation, such that they can be recognized individually and that their structural integrity is maintained, it perpetuates. When the curators are male and recognized as possessing a creative vision on par with or exceeding that of the makers, it perpetuates.

Does Losing the Compass achieve its stated goals? In part. But one must ignore its inconsistent critical pretentions to find it a wholly enjoyable exhibition.

Losing the Compass continues at White Cube (25–26 Mason’s Yard, London, UK) through January 9.

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